Do the Upper Cabinets Need to Line Up With the Base Cabinets?

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Mismatched, misaligned cabinets might suit your style.
Mismatched, misaligned cabinets might suit your style. (Image: Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images)

Because cabinets are the most visible and often the most expensive elements in a kitchen, installing them correctly is important. Luckily, there are few rules about cabinet placement. Upper and lower cabinets may align at each end, and they sometimes do. However, aligning every upper and lower cabinet throughout the room is rare. As long as the cabinets are installed securely, almost anything goes.

Depth Alignment

Upper cabinets are much shallower than base cabinets, when measuring from the front to the wall, so the depth profile of the two almost never aligns. This difference provides better visibility for food preparation on the counters, helps guard against hitting your head on the upper cabinets and makes moving items from an upper cabinet to the counter more convenient. Base cabinets among different manufacturers are usually 24 inches deep.

Width Alignment

Plan your kitchen on paper before buying cabinets if you want them to align perfectly from left to right. Cabinet manufacturers design lower and upper cabinets in varying widths for different functions. Sink base cabinets are among the widest, and some upper cabinets are only 10 inches wide. Even with varying sizes, cabinets are made to work together, so perfect alignment at each end is often possible. However, aligning the sides of every base cabinet with the sides of every upper cabinet will reduce your options for special components. A narrow spice cabinet will throw off the alignment unless you a choose special base component such as narrow cookie sheet cabinet to fit under it. Cabinet makers know their product, are skilled in design and usually offer planning services. If you want to do it yourself, measure the room and the cabinets you like, then use graph paper to plan the cabinet layout.

Reasons to Align

Overall symmetry is one reason to align upper and lower cabinets, and safe installation is another. After plotting the design on paper, apply the total length measurement to the floor. Begin in a corner, at the end of a wall or wherever the cabinet row begins. Mark the floor at the end of the row, and make a vertically plumb line on the wall above it to use as an alignment reference. Finding the studs is important for safety. “Workbench Magazine" explains that your cabinets can fall if they are screwed only to the drywall. Locate each stud with a stud finder or a hammer, and mark the stud locations on the wall. Because studs run vertically from the floor to the ceiling, they encourage straight alignment.

Reasons to Misalign

Perfectly aligned cabinets can be inconvenient or dangerous. Many kitchens incorporate a work triangle, which is an invisible or unmarked triangular walking path between the stove, refrigerator and sink. If efficiency is more important than alignment, plan your work triangle cabinet positions based on where the appliances will go, and add whichever base and upper cabinets you like on each side. If a base cabinet row ends close to a doorway, placing an upper cabinet directly above it can cause head injuries, especially if the cabinet door swings toward the doorway.

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