Remove Wall Cabinets

Cabinetry is the most obvious feature of most kitchens. That makes it the number one item to replace as part of a kitchen upgrade or remodel. Measuring and buying those new cabinets is obviously the first step in that process; but eventually the new cabinets arrive and the old ones need to be removed, making way for the installation of the new ones.

There’s always the possibility of paying a contractor to do this; but even if a contractor is doing some of the work on the kitchen or bathroom remodel, this is an easy place to save some money. Contractors will charge between $20 and $50 per running foot to remove cabinets. That can work out to $1000 or more for a 10’x 10’ kitchen, for a job that someone with a drill/driver can usually complete in an afternoon. It usually takes more work to empty out those cabinets, than it does to remove them.

Cabinets can almost always be removed intact, allowing them to be reused in other ways. Sometimes it is possible to sell the used cabinets, but they are usually more valuable if kept. Those cabinets can be installed in the garage, basement or laundry room, providing storage space and a usable work surface.

How is the Cabinet Hung?

The starting point for understanding how to remove wall cabinets is to understand how they are installed. After all, removal is really nothing more than the reverse of installation. Wall cabinets are usually hung with nothing more than screws through the drywall and into the studs; but it is possible to run into a case where nails or adhesive are used. There’s no real way of telling that ahead-of-time, so it’s just something that we need to be aware of and watch out for.

Wall cabinets are usually mounted just to the wall and to each other. But in some cases, they might be attached to the ceiling or soffit, rather than to a wall. This is found in cases where cabinets are hung over a dividing island between the kitchen and dining room, either where there is a breakfast bar on the dining room side of the counter or where a pass-through for food is left above the countertop. There is no wall to attach the cabinets to in those cases, so the cabinets are attached to the ceiling or soffit.

The other thing to look for, especially in the case of those cabinets that are ceiling or soffit hung, is a trim board that covers the back of the cabinet. If such a thing is installed, it will probably be nail to the cabinets with brad nails. The trim panel will need to be removed from the cabinet, using a pry bar, before the cabinet can be removed. The overall weight of all the cabinets, with the trim board behind them, would probably be too much to handle gracefully, so the cabinets might be dropped and damaged.

Removing the Wall Cabinets

The first step in removing the wall cabinets is to empty them out. Empty means, as I’m sure you know, really empty. But not everyone is going to see it as such. There are bound to be a few items left behind; items that may very well end up broken when the cabinets are taken down, so be sure to check before proceeding. Make sure they don’t just put those items on the countertop either, as that will be in the way. Should a cabinet slip and fall, it would most likely turn whatever is under it, on the countertop, into so much scrap.

It’s also a good idea to remove the doors from the cabinets, as that will save some on weight. The cabinets themselves are going to be heavy enough, even without the weight of the doors.

In the case of cabinets attached to the wall, all that has to be done to remove them, most of the time, is remove the screw holding them to the wall. But before doing that, seek out and remove any screws that are going through the face frames, from one cabinet to the next. These should be obvious, as the clearance holes for the screw heads will be drilled into the edge of the cabinet opening. One screw left in place will keep a cabinet from coming down and it will be much harder to remove that screw, once the wall screws have been removed.

These will usually be at the top and bottom of the cabinet, either inside or outside, depending on how the installer chose to do it. The one thing we can be sure of is that if there is a screw at the top, there will be a corresponding screw at the bottom, going into the same stud. There might also be one through the middle of the cabinet back, in line with those others.

For ceiling or soffit mounted cabinets the idea is the same, with the exception that all the screw will be going through the top of the cabinet.

If someone is available to help, it is good to have someone to hold up the cabinet while the screw are being removed. If there is no help available, place scrap wood or other material on the countertop, to prop up the cabinet while it is being removed. Holding a cabinet up with one hand can be challenging.

Always remove the hardest screw to reach first, working from there to the easiest. That leaves the easiest screws for last, when the cabinet is the least stable. Even that one last screw should be enough to hold the cabinet in place; but we can never be sure of that. With the screws removed, simply lift the cabinet, removing it from the wall and setting it aside.

If removal of the screw isn’t sufficient to make it possible to remove the cabinet, there is some other method being used in conjunction with those screws. That could be:

A French cleat can easily be defeated by simply lifting up on the cabinet and then pulling it away from the wall. But that is actually the least likely of these three options. For either of the other two, it will be necessary to use a pry bar to pull the cabinet off the wall. When using the pry bar, work only where the studs are, placing a scrap of wood between it and the wall, so as to keep the pry bar from damaging the drywall.

kitchen, wall cabinets, removed
Kitchen with wall cabinets removed, Sue Palmer

Removing Base Cabinets

Base cabinets are removed in much the same way as wall cabinets, with two notable exceptions. The first is that they are sitting on the floor, so there is no need to hold the weight up. Unless there is a serious problem with a missing section of floor, they aren’t going to fall. The second difference is that there is a countertop that needs to be removed, before the cabinets can be. At times, that countertop can be heavier than the entire set of base cabinets, making it extremely difficult to move.

But other than the weight issues, countertops are easy to remove. They are held onto the cabinets by screw from the underside, in all four corner of each cabinet. Removal of the screws has to be done from underneath, but is easily accomplished with a drill/driver.

Once the countertop screw are removed, it might also be necessary to cut through caulking around the edges of the walls and the backsplash. In some cases, the backsplash may be sitting on the edge of the countertop and may actually have to be removed. But it is usually possible to work the countertop out from under the backsplash, without removing the backsplash. Just cut the caulking and wiggle it back and forth a bit.

With the countertop removed, remove the doors and the screw holding adjacent cabinet faces together. It will also be necessary to remove the toe kick trim panel, if there is one installed. This is not always installed, but it is easy to tell if there is one. Just look at the seams between the cabinets. If there is no seam in the toe kick, then there is a trim board installed. If there is a seam, however, there is no trim board. The trim board will have been nail in place with brads, so it will need to be removed with a pry bar, if it is installed.

As with the wall cabinets, the base cabinets should be screwed to the wall, top and bottom, at each stud. Back the screws out and it should be possible to move the cabinets, taking them out.

Sinks can be a bit of a problem, as the plumbing under the sink has to be at least partially removed. There are typically three lines to concern ourselves with, a hot water line, a cold water line, and a drain line. The hot and cold water will usually be ½” pipe, with a chrome-plated collar around them, where they go through the cabinet’s back wall. That collar is to hide the hole, which should be big enough for the valve to fit through. So remove the collar, disconnect the flexible line going from the valve to the faucet and that should be ready.

The drain line will be larger, but will also have a collar that can be removed. The P-trap needs to be removed, disconnecting it from the bottom of the sink and the drain line. These connectors shouldn’t be more than hand tight, but may require channel locks to loosen. With all three lines disconnected, the cabinet should be able to be pulled straight out from the wall, removing it.

What’s Next?

With the cabinets removed, it is possible to install the new cabinets immediately. But that depends a lot on what else is planned as part of the remodel. If the cabinet layout is changing, it will probably be necessary to refinish some walls, before installing the new cabinets. In cases where the backsplash is being replaced, chances are fairly good that the wall will be damaged and need to be refinished.

But kitchen remodels can go far beyond just replacing cabinets and backsplash. Many times the homeowner wants a full makeover, including opening up the kitchen to the dining room or living area to meet newer styles of open living. If that’s the case, then walls may need to be removed to achieve that look.

The big question to think of, when it comes to possibly removing walls, is whether it is a load-bearing wall or not. load bearing would mean that the floor joists for a second story or the rafters for an attic depend on that wall for support. In most cases, there is one load-bearing wall in the home and it runs down the center of the length of the house. Removing that wall or even a section of that wall requires some serious structural modifications and a permit to make those modifications. Depending on the jurisdiction, a structural engineer may be needed to sign off on the modification, before a building permit can be pulled.

On the other hand, if the wall is not load-bearing and is just supporting its own weight, it can be removed, usually without a building permit. The wall will probably be a 2”x 4” structure, with drywall on both sides. It is held to the ceiling, floor and adjacent walls by 16d box nails. Cutting those nails allows the wall to be removed. In the case where only part of the wall is to be removed, the ceiling and floor plates will have to be cut, in conjunction with the nails being cut. In either case, a reciprocating saw is the tool of choice.

Keep in mind that there may be wiring, plumbing or heat ducts in that wall, if not for use in the kitchen, than for use in other rooms of the home. Any such mechanical systems will have to be rerouted if a wall is removed. How complex that ends up being depends on how much of it there is and where it ultimately has to go. The cost of such modifications can range anywhere from $100 to several thousand, depending on their complexity.

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