What Is a Base Cabinet?

modern grey and white wooden kitchen interior
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The term base cabinet refers to storage cabinets that rest on the floor, as opposed to the wall cabinets that are hung from the wall or suspended from the ceiling. Base cabinets are normally associated with kitchens and bathrooms, but they are often also found in laundries and sometimes in craft rooms, recreation rooms, or home offices.

Base cabinets should be styled to match the upper wall cabinets, and arranged so the kitchen or bathroom layout flows effortlessly. In kitchens, the lower cabinets are interspersed with the stove, oven, refrigerator, or dishwasher and support extensive countertop work surfaces. In bathrooms, the base cabinet, typically called a vanity, supports a countertop and sink.

Base Cabinet Basics

In many rooms, base cabinets are what define the space as they provide important storage. In the kitchen, the arrangement of the base cabinets defines the room's floor plan, forming the foundation of perimeter workspaces, peninsulas, and islands. These cabinets have sturdy, heavy-duty construction necessary to support bathroom vanity tops or heavy kitchen countertops and sinks. While it is possible for base cabinets to have carcasses constructed of solid wood, it is much more common for today's cabinets to use MDF or plywood box construction, with solid hardwood used for the face frames, doors, and drawer fronts. In Eurostyle cabinets, the faces, doors, and drawer faces are often made of laminate-covered MDF, with no face frames at all.

Base cabinets are typically about 34 1/2 inches high for kitchens, which puts the total height at 36 inches when a countertop is added. Stock widths are 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 30, 33, 36, 39, and 42 inches. When various cabinet sizes are linked together in a row, these stock measurements make it possible to accommodate almost any kitchen size. Base cabinets for kitchens are typically about 24 inches deep to provide a spacious countertop. Base cabinets either have exposed legs or legs that are covered by a long strip of wood called a toe-kick.

Bathroom vanity cabinets are typically shallower than kitchen cabinets, at about 21 inches deep, though these can vary from 18 to 24 inches for special circumstances.

Pricewise, base cabinets will be most affordable if you choose cabinets in these popular stock sizes. Unusual size may force you into the semi-custom or custom cabinet realm, which can be much more expensive.

Types of Base Cabinets

  • Vanity cabinet: This is a base cabinet intended to hold a countertop with one or two bathroom sinks. These are sometimes configured as all-in-one cabinets with both an open area hidden behind doors where the sink and plumbing fittings are located, as well as a section with shelves or drawers for storage.
  • Sink base cabinet: This is generally a double-door wide base cabinet for kitchens. It usually has no inner storage features, to ensure plenty of room for plumbing connections beneath the sink.
  • Door-and-shelf cabinet: This is a rudimentary cabinet with one or more shelves hidden behind doors. The shelves are generally used to store pots, pans, and small portable appliances. This is one of the most affordable types of base cabinets.
  • Door-and-drawer cabinet: These cabinets have inner drawers for storage, but they are concealed behind doors to give the kitchen a pleasing overall facade.
  • Drawer cabinet: These are cabinets with exposed storage drawers stacked one over the other.
  • Corner base cabinet: These cabinets are large units designed to fit into kitchen corners, with an angled design that fits against additional base cabinets extending on each side. These cabinets often have special storage features, like lazy Susan shelves or pull-out pantry shelves, to make storage more efficient.
  • Pantry cabinet: This is a tall cabinet that rests on the floor but extends upward to match the height of the room's upper wall cabinets. It is often a door-and-drawer design, with doors concealing a stack of pull-out shelves.
  • Oven cabinet: This tall cabinet features a large cutout to hold one or two slide-in wall ovens and sometimes drawers or shelves for storage.

Stock vs. RTA vs. Semi-Custom vs. Custom

You have several options when it comes to buying base cabinets.

Stock cabinets: These are prebuilt to match the most popular needs, and can be purchased in a variety of styles and finishes. Big box home centers may even have these cabinets present in the store, often unfinished. More often, though, you will order them for delivery within a few days or weeks. It is entirely possible to build an entire kitchen using stock cabinets since there are so many sizes and styles available.

RTA (Ready to assemble) cabinets represent a cost-saving version of stock cabinets, in which the cabinets are delivered to you in kits containing easy-to-assemble pieces. These are generally ordered online for home delivery. A vast array of sizes and styles are available, and costs are generally at least 20 percent lower than for prebuilt stock cabinets.

Semi-custom cabinets are essentially stock cabinets where a manufacturer has performed certain minor alterations to meet a customer's specifications. For example, the selection of styles might be set, but the manufacturer will alter widths in 1-inch increments to match your needs. The amount of customization is fairly limited, however.

Custom cabinets are those built and installed by specialty cabinetry companies to precisely match your needs. There is an almost unlimited variety of styles, finishes, and sizes available if you go this route, though you will pay dearly for this luxury. These are by far the most expensive option when it comes to cabinetry.

Installation of Base Cabinets

In major remodeling or new construction, base cabinets are generally installed just after wall and floor surfaces are finished but before countertops and appliances are brought it. Base cabinets rest solidly on the floor (they are shimmed, if necessary, to ensure levelness), but are also attached to wall studs with screws or nails driven through a nailing strip in the back of the cabinet. In island configurations, the base cabinets are usually anchored at the bottom to nailing cleats attached to the floor.

The base cabinets are joined together side-to-side by hidden nails or screws. Then, appliances are positioned and the countertops are installed over the tops of the base cabinets. This leaves a sleek, uniform appearance that makes the cabinetry look like it has been built in.

Kitchen Island Installation

While kitchen islands are often built from scratch by custom remodelers or home builders, most often they are built with stock kitchen base cabinets designed for this purpose, with finished sides. (Ordinary stock cabinets with unfinished sides can also be used, but in this case, the exposed ends will need to be covered with finish plywood or a veneer.)

Two or three base cabinets are joined (on the inside, invisibly) and a large countertop spans the cabinets, sometimes with a sufficient overhang to allow the island to provide a seating area for stools. The bottoms of the cabinets are anchored to cleats or a frame preattached to the floor inside the cabinet footprint.  Seams between the base cabinets might be covered by molding, but this is often unnecessary.