Order, order!

Order in the House!


As a woodworker trained in furniture making, I’ve designed and built many a kitchen over the past 39 years. Blame the first guy who employed me in 1980; he taught me a lot about business and design, but one of the most valuable gifts he gave me was an appreciation of making kitchens.

Until I started my own business in 1995, my work for kitchens never really took me into the rooms my work would furnish. In almost every case, I was working to plans drawn (often on the backs of envelopes) by others. After I’d built the cabinets to spec, someone picked them up and drove them away for installation. Beyond a dim awareness that the scribe rails I built into face frames would somehow allow the cabinets to be fitted to the walls around them, I had no inkling of what transpired at the job site.

Things are different when you’re the one responsible not only for building the cabinets, but designing the room and putting the whole thing together. You soon realize that there’s an order in which the different pieces of the puzzle should fall into place.

Writing a book about kitchens is a daunting task. (The book related to this post is planned for publication in the summer of 2020.) We all know that the hardest subjects to write about are those with which you’re most familiar. Where to start? With writing, as with building a kitchen from scratch (or remodeling one for people who will be living in the house while the center of their home undergoes an inevitably disruptive transformation), a systematic approach helps ensure a high-quality result.

So here’s a quick list of the order in which such work is typically done.

1 Demolition

2 Insulate exterior walls as appropriate. If you have gutted the room to the studs, joists and rafters, shim or plane down framing parts to make ceiling, walls and floor level and plumb. Add blocking for cabinet (and other) installation.

3 Rough plumbing (sink supplies and drainage, gas for stove) and electrical wiring (lighting, appliances, dishwasher, fridge, stove, undercabinet lighting, switches, etc.)

4 Patch or replace ceiling, walls and subfloor as necessary. Tape and finish joints.

5 Prime and paint at least one coat of color

6 Floor finish (lay tile or sheet flooring; sand wood floor and finish)

7 Install cabinets. (With the overwhelming majority of contractors, this means the whole shebang. Numbers 9 and 10 below aren’t relevant.)

8 Measure and make templates for counters

9 Fit doors and drawers

10 Remove doors and drawers for finishing in shop

11 Install counters

12 Install backsplash or tile

13 Install sink and faucet

14 Finish electrical—install the light fixtures, disposal, appliances, switches, etc.

15 Final painting.

Sure, you can mess around with the order of work, depending on circumstances and materials. But in general this is a reliable guide.


Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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18 Responses to Order, order!

  1. SSteve says:

    Boy oh boy I wish we could have afforded inset doors and drawers when we rebuilt our kitchen. Those look so nice.


  2. Tony Zaffuto says:

    You are such a gifted writer, already have several of your books, but will be ordering several additional copies of “Making Things Work” for each of my daughters-one an architect, the other a graphic designer, the third a sophomore studying engineering.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nrhiller says:

      Tony, that’s an impressive trio you have.


      • Tony Zaffuto says:

        But, all three will greatly benefit from reading “Making Things Work”! As informative as a college textbook, and a thoroughly enjoyable read to boot!

        Too many young folk enter varied fields so wide eyed, thinking their education and heart will overcome anything, only to come face to face with reality of work. Success (and limited at that) is only guaranteed to trust fund babies.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Keith Klickstein says:

    Honestly, I have never understood why anyone would fit doors and drawer fronts after installation. I do all of that in my shop on a leveled table. It is so much more efficient to do in a shop.

    Liked by 2 people

    • nrhiller says:

      Keith, I hear you. The following should be read with the understanding that I am talking about finely inset doors and drawer faces, not those that are overlay or half-inset, which I do fit in my shop.

      The shops where I worked before starting my own business, two out of three of which made inset-everything and used traditional butt hinges, fitted everything at the bench, then finished it all before delivery and installation. All of the cabinets I made at those jobs were installed by others, and as I mentioned in the post, I never got to see the final product. When I started my business, I did the same, but as the business owner I got to see final product. I found that whether I installed the cabinets or the general contractor did that part of the work, in too many cases, no matter how carefully I had leveled the work at the shop and again at the job site, inset doors and drawer faces did not fit as well. I want my work to look as good in its final destination as it does in my shop. As a result, I would spend hours tweaking the fit, which often required refinishing of some parts. Sure, some types of hardware, most notably 35mm/European hinges and drawer slides, make such fine tuning easy. Adjusting traditionally mortised butt hinges, which I use more often than any other type, is another matter. (Incidentally, I have an article on this topic forthcoming in Popular Woodworking, after many months of delay while the publishing side of the magazine got sorted out.)

      Other factors relevant in many of my jobs include working in early 20th-century houses with walls and floors that are out of whack (on jobs where the budget and scope of work did not allow for these conditions to be adequately addressed) and installing cabinets with flush (not recessed) kicks that are scribed to the floor, walls and sometimes ceiling. Installation in such cases is vastly more nuanced and challenging than in those where kicks are recessed and gaps can be concealed by applied trim.

      In the end I concluded that it was more efficient for me to get the doors and drawer faces roughly fitted to their openings in the shop (and mortise the doors and face frames for butt hinges or drill for European hinges), but leave the final fitting until after the cabinets were installed. Having written about this in other publications, I am aware that there are strong opinions on all sides and many people disagree with me. Then again, many others have concluded independently that this is a reasonable (and arguably, for us, the most efficient) way to work. It is not my intention to claim that mine is the only way or the best way for all. Hence my acknowledgement that many people do the final fitting and finishing in the shop before delivery. The main point of this post was to point out that there’s a basic order to the process of kitchen remodeling that generally produces an efficient work flow and a high quality result. (It’s no fun to see a tiled floor laid after the cabinets were installed, or backsplash tile with a dramatically different reveal just above the counter from everywhere else on the wall…etc.)


  4. woodworkerme says:

    after doing that very thing for close to 30 years you got it right on the money. you did forget to mention all the stress that goes with it from subs and the poor customer with no kitchen for 2 or more weeks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nrhiller says:

      woodworkerme, I didn’t forget to mention those other parts of the job; they’re just not relevant to this post. I find that in most cases, the fewer people involved in the work, the lower the stress. It also helps if you prepare the customers by explaining how the process works and making sure that they have everything necessary on hand before the demolition starts.

      I should explain that I am not a general contractor. I have worked with several g.c.s over the years (since 2013, I have been married to one) and have managed a number of smaller remodels myself, with the customers acting as g.c. in those cases. In every case it’s important to plan carefully and (pardon the sales speak) manage expectations. In the overwhelming majority of jobs I’ve been part of, the customers truly appreciate the effort and expertise invested by the cabinetmaker and others; we go out of our way to make the process as bearable as possible for the customers, sometimes setting up a temporary kitchen with a stove, fridge and sink in another room. My goal, aside from producing a job that’s well done–and one my customers will love living with–is to involve the customers as informed participants. That helps enormously with the stress.


  5. Lynette Breton says:

    What a great list, Nancy. Building kitchens and creating such an essential room in any house is an important cabinetmaking endeavor and expands on the skill set of furniture making. It also broadens the scope of commission work needed to stay afloat and can be as quality driven as any free standing piece. I think this can be misunderstood by some woodworkers. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt that this skill set was looked down upon by other furniture makers, especially in the woodworking school I spent so many years teaching at. I look forward to your book and seeing the work that you have so pridefully done. And, I agree, you are a great writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nrhiller says:

      Thanks, Lynette. You’ll see that I addressed the view of cabinetmaking as an inferior species of woodworking in the book right from the start. (Insert crying with laughter emoji!) It has colored my experience since I returned to the States in 1987. It’s funny that I didn’t experience this in England; there, the contrast was inevitably with “carpenters,” i.e. those who build and trim out houses, and the cabinetmaker was the winner in those comparisons. It’s all ridiculous. The skills involved in building any structure to a high standard are admirable and necessary–and in my opinion, the more necessary the structure, the more admirable the work. On a related note, this book will include several kitchens done by others. There are some ingenious ideas. Aesthetically, the work is all over the map, which makes it a lot of fun!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lynette Breton says:

        Peggy B. encouraged me to send photos of my kitchen to you, but, alas, still on phase three of a four phase 50’s inspired Breton style cabinet look. You may bock at the hinges but it was the final look I was after that influenced the decision. No inset doors or butt hinges. I have enjoyed indulging myself with the beauty of no pressure and a thoughtfully approach so we were not ever living in chaos. I do, however, look forward to its completion. Thanks for your response and your book will be a great summer read when it comes out.


  6. Richard Mahler says:

    Your list is precisely the order we took on my son’s/daughter-in-law’s 2700 square foot second floor loft apartment we are just completing, except that we built all but the outer brick walls (though even those we lined with 2’x6’ studding and insulation). Forty feet of cabinets and granite counters and a 5’x9’ granite island, nine months of 5-6 full days per week, doing 75% of the work ourselves. Interesting, satisfying work, but glad to see the end of it and the chance to occupy and enjoy it. It is a fine century-old main street building with 17’ ceilings, so we cased the 15” deep windows and milled our own window and door trim and laid hardwood floors to suit the period. It has a partial secondary loft office and open ceiling rafters, so a semi-industrial treatment.


  7. John Dunlop says:

    We are putting new cabinets into an existing kitchen and at the same time refinishing the existing oak flooring. To me you would refinish the floor after removing the old cabinets but before installing the new – but others are pushing to leave the refinishing to the end? Thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    • nrhiller says:

      I would do it in the order you suggest. While it’s possible to refinish a floor with cabinets in place, it’s much harder, because you have to work around so many finished parts.

      Liked by 1 person

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