How to Properly Measure for Kitchen Cabinets

Measuring for kitchen cabinets is perhaps the most important step in the whole process of installing a cabinet system. Whether you’re working on a renovation project or starting from scratch, it’s vital to understand the space you’re working with from the get-go to avoid costly mistakes down the line.

But how do you even begin to measure for kitchen cabinets? How do you account for all the interlocking parts of what’s already there, or what’s going to be there ⁠— the appliances, the counters, and the cabinets themselves?

With this guide, we will walk you through the basics of measuring for any kitchen cabinet installation, or any space for that matter, helping you take the first step toward accomplishing your client’s vision.

Determining The Cabinets For the Space

Any space is only as good as the cabinets that go into them, and it’s important to determine what cabinets are going in up front.

“Are you measuring for standard kitchen cabinets or custom sized cabinets?” Nick Sollecito, an experienced builder with Cabinetmaker’s Choice, asks. “Standard cabinets usually come in 3 inch increments on the width and height. If you’re using standard cabinets, that’s what you want in your mind. What’s going to fit in this space with a standard cabinet? What’s left over, you’ll need to put in some sort of filler.”

Some customers prefer a personal touch and will go with a custom-built cabinet.

“If you’re doing custom sized cabinets you have more flexibility,” Nick explains. “Once you know that, what type of cabinets do you want in the space? Let’s say you have a sink base, maybe you put a dishwasher next to it on the right or left side. Typically what people also like to do near the sink is put in a trash base, so that’s close by when they’re prepping or working in the sink.“

With custom or standard hammered out, there comes the question of space itself

“How many cabinets can I fit in the space, and what’s my priority?” Nick asks. “What do I want for cabinets? Larger kitchens have more options and ways you can design but a lot of times we’re dealing with small spaces. Many times customers don’t know all the different types and features available to maximize the space.”

Common Mistakes in Measuring and Mapping Spaces

Even with cabinets selected, it’s important to keep some key things in mind before measuring a kitchen or space for cabinets. With that said, it doesn’t take much: just a pencil and paper, tape measurer, a careful eye, and some patience ⁠— and a level, if you have one on hand.

“Accuracy is important,” Nick reminds us. “Most people start with a floor plan — an overhead view of their kitchen layout with basic wall dimensions. It gives the wall dimensions, but we also need the opening dimensions. Where are doors and windows located? What’s the ceiling height?”

This last point is crucial to pay attention to.

“It’s common to forget about the ceiling height,” says Nick. “But it’s important. We need to know if the cabinets are going to go to the ceiling.”

It’s important to get your vertical measurements in addition to your horizontal, making preferred design features easy to install later down the line.

“For example, are they going to have a crown molding?” Nick asks. “Sometimes people don’t want the cabinets to reach to the ceiling, so you end up with an empty space above the cabinets and below the ceiling. However, most people want the cabinets to reach the ceiling. They say that the space between catches dust, and crown molding will close the gap.”

In addition to the ceiling, you’re going to have to consider the existing features of any space, whether you’re renovating or building ⁠— for example, as mentioned earlier, doors and windows.

A kitchen soffit with lighting installed may hold electrical wiring

A firm grasp on what’s happening inside the ceiling of any given space is also important to know before proceeding with any cabinet project. For example, when measuring ceilings, you may have to deal with soffits ⁠— enclosed spaces hanging beneath the ceiling, extending downward into the space you’re working with.

“Sometimes people won’t tell us there’s a soffit above the wall cabinets,” Nick explains. “That’s important to know. A lot of times, especially in older homes, they’d put the soffit in above the cabinet for duct work, plumbing or electrical.”

Talk to your client and be sure you account for the details, like soffits. Consult with the builder of the house if you’re unsure of what these details entail.

“It’s hard to know if you can remove that soffit unless you know what’s inside,” Nick reminds us. “Many clients don’t like the look of soffits, so usually they want to take them out and go up to the normal ceiling height.”

Beyond ceilings, it’s also important to take note, as mentioned, of the openings of any space ⁠— doors and windows, to be specific.

“Most windows and door openings have casings around them — the finishing molding,” Nick says. “These are important⁠ — for example for a window over a sink. You want to space the wall cabinets so you’re leaving room around the window.”

It’s important to take these features into consideration with your clients and know specifically what they envision for the space.

“Sometimes people want to bring window treatments in,” Nick offers as an example. “We need more space around those. Door openings too ⁠— if you have a door coming into the kitchen near the end of the cabinet run, you want to leave a little space there, not just come right up to it in the case of molding.”

Taking Measurements for Kitchen Cabinets

With the cabinets selected, the ceiling measurements taken, and any potential soffits noted, you’re ready to start the measuring itself.

“There’s two ways you can start measuring for kitchen cabinets, or measuring for cabinets in a bathroom or washroom,” Nick explains, “either at a corner or an end because it’s easier to layout the cabinets; or if you’re starting on a sink wall with a window.”

The two methods for beginning your floor plan have their time and place. For Nick, it all depends on whether or not there’s a window in play — if so, start there.

“Most often, there’s a window over a sink. That’s probably 75 to 80 percent of the jobs I look at,” he says. “A lot of times it’s important for the customer to use the window for a view, or to consider the way they want the light to come in.”

With this in mind, Nick often starts with the windows.

“From the center of the window right into the corner,” Nick explains, ‘that’s the measurement that’s most important.”

Figuring out the center of a window and its width is not hard.

“First, measure the width of the window, including the casing,” Nick explains. “Then, divide that by two to find the center of the window. Then, measure from the center of the window to the end of the wall, or the end of where you want the cabinets to go to. That gives you the length from the center of the window to the side of the window. So that’s where the cabinet will begin and end from the center of the window.”

But even with the windows figured out, often there’s sink installation to consider.

“A lot of times, the size is restricted by how much space you have, but most people want as big a sink as possible,” Nick says. “That can be anywhere from 24 to 42 inches. It depends on other cabinets you want to put on the wall.”.

Of course, not all rooms will feature a window, so if you have to start from the corner, it’s important to know how to navigate this tricky, but inevitable, part of any space.

”A lot of kitchens have a corner where they make an L or U shape,” Nick says. “A lot of people don’t understand what the correct dimensions are.”

Nick offers the example of installing a lazy susan — a very popular and space-effective feature of many modern kitchens.

“If you’re putting in a lazy susan, that’s usually 36 x 36 inches when you make the turn on the back wall up against the wall,” he explains. “But what’s actually exposed, the working side or the face of the cabinet, is only 12 x 12 incheas. So when they’re measuring off the wall, some folks make a mistake ⁠— instead of 36 inches, they’ll use 12 or 24 inches.”

Again, accuracy and patience is most important in measuring any space, including bathrooms, which pose their own problems on where to begin mapping.

As far as bathrooms go, Nick advises starting at the vanity.

“It depends if the vanity is going up against the wall on one side or another, or fits between two walls,” he says. “There are also free standing vanities—  you don’t have a wall on either side, so either the right or left side isn’t covered. In that case, we’re typically looking for where the plumbing location is. From there, locate the center, where the vanity is. That’s where the plumbing is.”

Properly Mapping the Space to Order your Cabinets

Regardless of the space, whether starting at the vanity, window, or corner (having already measured the ceiling and noting anything out of the ordinary there), it’s really just a matter of patiently drawing out the walls, appliances, and any other obstructions— such as an island.

Take your time and double-check your measurements, but with that said, the drawing itself doesn’t have to be to scale⁠— just make sure that you have the shape of the space down, and label each wall and feature with the proper measurement in inches.

For best results, it’s best not just to map the floor, but other features of the space as well.

“It helps to make elevations,” Nick explains. “Elevation is the ‘view’ looking at the individual walls of the room ⁠— looking face on, looking at the height, like you’re standing back, looking at the wall and the fronts of the base of all of the cabinets. Typically elevations are of the individual walls. It’s not a perspective view of the room, it’s an individual view of the wall or walls.”

“It’s not required,” Nick says, “but it helps us and helps the customer when they can see the elevation. You can do it by hand, it doesn’t have to be fancy. We see rough sketches, things put on graph paper, etc. Any additional info you can get can help show what the customer is looking for.”

Elevation will also help keep things on the level.

“Houses, new or old, are rarely level, either the floor or ceiling,” Nick says. “So It’s hard to know if the height measurements will work. When you have the tools to measure correctly, like laser levels or traditional levels, you’ll know the high and low points of the ceiling and floor. They can compensate for anything that’s not level.”

Compensation for uneven levels is easy enough.

“First you want to make sure when you add up the height of your cabinets, you know what that top dimension will be,” Nick explains. “Then from there, you’ll select what height wall cabinet you should use. Base cabinets with a counter are usually 36 inches. The distance between the top of the counter to the underside of the wall cabinet is usually 18 inches. So if you selected a 36 inch high wall cabinet and you total that all up, you’ll end up with 90 inches.”

Molding is a good way to ensure an even grade.

“One of the simplest ways to make up for variation or levelness is to put in what’s called a starter molding on top of the cabinet,” Nick says. “That installs on top of the wall cabinet and gives you a surface to mount the crown molding to. It doesn’t matter if your ceiling is out of level. You can adjust the molding up to the ceiling and fasten it to the starter molding.”

Final Thoughts

All in all, it’s important that you keep open clear lines of communication with your client ⁠— to know what they know about the space going into the project, to know what they want accomplished during it, and to know what their vision is for the end product.

The more information you can get from your client, the better, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.

More than anything else, take your time and be precise. If you accurately measure for kitchen cabinets will help you avoid fatal mistakes later in the process.

With all that said, grab your pencil and paper and get to work!