Which comes first – the cabinets or the hardwood flooring?
When it comes to kitchen remodels, many homeowners wonder if it’s better to install the cabinets or the hardwood floors first. Generally, it is much better to install the hardwood floors BEFORE the kitchen cabinets. There is one exception to this rule (see below).
Please note that this assumes that you are doing a full remodel in the kitchen both replacing the cabinets and the flooring at the same time. If these are done at separate times due to budget reasons, this may need to be done differently. Please also not that if cabinets are done before the floors, it may severely limit your flooring options due to height issues, especially with appliances. It is best to think the whole process through and discuss with both cabinet and flooring contractors, even if you will do this in phases. Otherwise, you may be very sorry. I have seen several customers who did not adhere to this, and as a result they could neither do solid hardwood, nor tile and instead opted for vinyl flooring.
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Why it’s better to install the hardwood floors BEFORE the cabinets
1. Proper heights. First, it’s important that the cabinets are the standard 36 inches above the floor and it’s important that the appliances are at this same height so that there aren’t issues later if/when you want to change the appliances (e.g. you would not want your dishwasher to be trapped underneath the floor and have to rip up portions of the floor to remove it. Of course, an alternative way to achieve height consistency is to insert plywood underneath the cabinets, but this can cause other issues, and really doesn’t save much money as you still need to pay for the plywood and you will need to pay more for the labor both in cutting the plywood and finer cuts on the hardwood around the cabinets. (By the way, often when I price out the costs for these 2 options they come out about the same).
2. Flexibility to change cabinet footprint later. Generally the hardwood floors will outlast the cabinets. Cabinets styles will come and go and they over time they need to be replaced from wear and tear. Solid hardwood floors may last for 100+ years. Sure, the color preferences may change, but the wood will often remain in there through many kitchen renovations. It’s important to have hardwood throughout the floor so that if you change the foot print of your cabinets, or decide to move the appliances, you have flexibility with the same wood flooring throughout the area. This is also important if you decide to change the style of your cabinets later, especially as some show the hardwood underneath.
3. Cleanest look. Installing the hardwood floors first will give you the cleanest look with the cabinets. This way, you don’t need to worry about adding quarter round to the cabinets and instead can just have clean toe kicks that match the cabinets. The hardwood just flows underneath the cabinets.
4. Safer on cabinets. Very importantly, you can avoid potential nicks or stains to your cabinets that could happen during the demo, install, and/or sanding process for the floors. If this does happen, you may need to either replace the cabinet or just live with the damage. You will get a much cleaner look if the floors are done first. Below, I have recommended a full sequence of events to also account for minor damage that the cabinet contractors may cause on the floors.
One counter argument that doesn’t hold water – what if you have water damage in your kitchen?
Some people have mentioned that it’s “safer” to have have plywood underneath the cabinets in case you have a flood. Their supposition is that this may avoid needing to rip up the cabinets if you have a flood. I really don’t buy into this supposition. First, if you get water under the cabinets, there is plywood there which would absorb the water anyway. Second, if anything, you are more susceptible to having issues with the plywood which is untreated vs. the hardwood which is protected with polyurethane. By the way, if you do have water damage in the kitchen and it’s caused by a mechanical issue, this is often covered by homeowner’s insurance and/or the warranty on the kitchen appliance.
How to sequence the hardwood floor refinishing with the cabinets
Here’s the recommended sequence of events for kitchen remodeling when it comes to floors/cabinets. Demo the cabinets, demo the floor, install the hardwood, sand with stain + 2 coats of poly, install the cabinets, install the countertops, then, add the 3rd and final coat of polyurethane. This will help take care of minor scratches that may occur during the rest of the kitchen construction. Of course the cabinet contractors should be careful, and they should allow for enough drying time before walking on the floor (ideally 4 days) and cover the floors. This, to me, is the ideal sequence and what I’ve seen work best while working with many contractors. And, it is, of course, the order that I had my mom do her kitchen, and I wouldn’t steer her wrong.
The one exception – Install floating hardwood floors AFTER the cabinets
If you are installing a hardwood floating floor (or any floating floor such as cork or laminate), you should install the floor AFTER the kitchen cabinets are installed. Floating floors are clicked together and not adhered to the floor. You can read more about floating floors here. The reason for this is that floating floors move, and they expand and contract. If part of the floor is trapped underneath the heavy cabinets, it can not properly move. This can cause all sorts of issues including bulging, buckling and breaking. So, floors that are nailed (or glued) should be installed BEFORE the cabinets and floors that are floated should be done AFTER the cabinets.
Related questions on timing and sequencing
Related kitchen flooring articles:
- Kitchen floors: Is hardwood or tile better?
- Real hardwood flooring vs tile planks that look like hardwood
- Hardwood flooring for kitchens. Does it make sense?
- Kitchen flooring trends for Westchester County
- What types of kitchen floors do new home buyers look for?
- Kitchens with dark hardwood flooring
- How to design a kitchen backsplash
For more info, check out my Ebook – Discover the 6 Secrets of Refinishing hardwood floors.
If you live in Westchester County NY, I offer color consultations to advise customers on paint colors and stain choices. My designer discount at the paint stores usually more than offsets the cost for the hour consultation. Read more here. Due to many requests, I’m now doing phone consultations, too.
Complementary products that will prolong the life of your hardwood floors
Complementary Purchases – Vanities and fixtures
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