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.
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12 thoughts on “Is it better to install hardwood floors before or after the cabinets?”
So, if you install a floating floor after the cabinets, how do you ensure the countertops are the correct height? Should the floor extend under the stove, dishwasher, and fridge?
Rob – In general, the flooring should go under the cabinets – assuming it’s hardwood or tile and it’s nailed or glued. With a floating floor, you install after and cabinets should be raised by adding plywood underneath them before the cabinets are installed. This assumes that the floating floor has a significant height. If it’s vinyl/linoleum and it’s only 1/8″ then it’s not necessary. I hope that made sense.
If you’re doing a floating floor, what goes under the stove and fridge? The floating floor, and just use the plywood for under the cabinets? Seems like it would be hard to make plywood look ‘right’ under a refrigerator, because you still see so much of the floor around the edges.
Bethany – Yes, the floating floor goes under the refrigerator and stove, but not under the cabinets. You can put plywood under the cabinets, but make sure it’s the same thickness of the floating floor (including the underlayment).
If I am installing handscraped engineered hardwood that in the kitchen, will it be a problem to put the engineered wood under the cabinets. It will be glued to concrete floor. Thanks
Tim – If you are gluing it down, that is fine (and better to go under the cabinets. If engineered floors are floated, they should never go under the cabinets.
Argued with my floor guy about this topic. Kitchen people wanted the floor stained with 2 coats of varnish, kitchen install and then final 3rd coat. Floor guy said no no no….we always go in last to finish. 36K worth of cabinets and island and veneer missing from Island leg, stain on cabinets, pooling stain around legs. I’m beyond explosive..
Mona – Oh gosh, I’m so sorry. That stinks. Yes, the better way to do it is stain + 2 coats, then cabinets, then last coat. It’s less convenient for the ones doing flooring, but, it’s the right way to go (as you can now see). Hopefully, you can get the flooring guy to fix/pay for the issue they caused.
Also, they may be able to remove stain from cabinets with some chemicals. And, maybe kick plates can be replaced. Not sure how to solve the other issues.
I’m so sorry this happened to you. And, it’s especially frustrating when you brought it up to the flooring contractor.
Also, make sure they are licensed and insured. If so, there may be more options for you.
I am considering installing NuCore, similar to CoreTec. Your review convinced me to go with vinyl. Since vinyl doesn’t expand or contract and it is also floating. Would you still do the cabinets before the flooring?
My downstairs is L-shaped. You enter the house in the living room continue to the kitchen then turn left into the family room. The long exterior walls are the same length. Was wonder how to arrange the planks. The living room and family room will come together in the kitchen.
The other question is the living room is carpet and the family room and kitchen are tile. Should I remove the tile or lay the vinyl over the tile. I am worried about the height difference between rooms.
Adam – You should do the cabinets before the floors, since they are floating. This is especially important if you change the flooring in the future, or if there is some sort of water issue where leaking water from an appliance could get under then flooring. It’s much safer this way. And, even though Coretec would not normally expand/contract, you just don’t want to put heavy weight (with granite) on top of it.
I would also recommend that you do Coretec Plus rather than NuCore as Nucore is inferior…it’s much thinner. And, while they do claim that’s it’s waterproof, almost all knock-off products don’t seem to be fully waterproof and haven’t stood the test of time. This product is 5.5 mm thick vs. Coretec Plus is 8mm. It’s certainly less expensive…and there is a good reason for that. So just be aware of it. I keep hearing stories from many installers about problems with the cheaper knock-offs.
Regarding direction, you can do it whichever way your prefer – i.e whichever looks better. Generally you would follow the longest length of room and you would also go from door inward (so the boards are “welcoming you in”, not running perpendicular. I can’t quite tell if that works with your layout, but I think you can achieve both of those based on my understanding (And, I hope this made sense).
Regarding ripping up the tile, that is up to you. I think it’s obviously better to rip up the tile IF YOU CAN. That would obviously be better so that everything is the same height. But, I don’t know if you are doing this yourself and how challenging that is for you and whether you have plywood or a slab underneath. (It will be much harder to rip up over a slab).
Coretec Plus can be installed either way – either on top of tile or remove the tile. It depends if you can remove it or afford to pay someone who can and how important it is to have everything on same level. Obviously, it will look better on same level and you won’t need to have transition pieces.
And, if you leave tile in place, this may impact the direction(s) you want to lay the planks. I hope that makes sense and I hope it helps.
Why in the world would you recommend wasting expensive hardwood flooring by hiding it under cabinets and appliances when cheap plywood would do the job as well as leave you backup flooring to make repairs someday when likely the hardwood you spent so much money on is no longer available? Vinyl, cheap laminate, sure. But NEVER hardwood!
Lacyt – Thanks for your opinion. There are many reasons. 1) I have seen way too many people change the foot print of the cabinets (and then it’s more expensive and they waste more wood and it’s a different color if they redo later, 2) it avoids the need for shoe molding (which is more waste and looks worse), 3) It does in fact make sure that the whole area is even, especially as many plywoods, especially those in big box stores are thinner than what they say (usually by 1/16″), 4) it saves the homeowner a bit of money, 5) plywood is wood too and when you use 2 woods, you end up with a bit more waste for both woods and finally 5) it gives you more flexibility on types of cabinets you use now and in future. Also, you would NEVER put laminate or any floating floors under cabinets as they would buckle. But, if you prefer to use plywood underneath you cabinets go ahead. There’s not much savings on cost or wood, but if it makes you feel better, that’s fine.