Remove old cabinets that were nailed up in place

Periodically, we’ll need to remove an old set of kitchen or vanity cabinets that were joined and installed with nails instead of screws. If this is the case with your remodeling project, you will NOT be able to save the cabinets to install elsewhere. When you’re done taking them out, there will just be a pile of bits and pieces.

Take a flashlight and look inside your cabinets. If you don’t see any screws, then this cabinet removal method is for you.

Tools needed:

  • hammer
  • Small one-handed hammer
  • toggle bar
  • Gloves
  • protective glasses
  • Razor blade
  • reciprocating saw
  • puzzle
  • skill saw
  • Assorted Screwdrivers

Steps to remove old cabinets

  1. Shut off the water supply to the sink faucet and the power supply to the stove, dishwasher, range hood or space saving microwave.
  2. Remove the sink and all appliances. You may need someone else to help you with the sink. Most old houses have cast iron sinks and they are very heavy. I’m not kidding here, DO NOT try to pull out a cast iron sink by yourself.
  3. IMPORTANT: While trying to remove the cabinets, be careful NOT to pry the walls too hard. They are most likely made of drywall or sheetrock and are somewhat brittle. Try to remember to just remove things from the walls, instead of praying against them.
  4. Cut all caulking lines everywhere they are attached to cabinets and counters against walls, floors, or ceilings.
  5. Put on your safety glasses and cut large sections of Formica countertop, bottom of large base cabinets, front frames and foot sections into smaller pieces. You can do the same with the bottoms of the upper cabinets which are also large. Do this with whatever saw you feel most comfortable with.
  6. If the backsplashes are only three-quarters of an inch thick (3/4″), they are attached to the wall with liquid nail. Insert the putty knife between the wall and the backsplash, then push it down using the force of your hammer. Continue doing this in various places until it comes loose from the wall.
  7. If the splatter is thicker than three-quarters of an inch (3/4″), it’s most likely stuck to the countertop. You don’t need to put the scraper behind it if it’s stuck to the top.
  8. With your gloves and safety glass on, you can begin the removal process by hammering the countertop in an up position. Once it has started to loosen up, you can use the pry bar to lift it higher. I can almost hear the screeching sound of nails! Eventually you should get to the point where you can grab it with both hands and pull it out of the cabinet.
  9. Pull out all the drawers from their respective locations.
  10. Using the hammer and mallet, disassemble all the pieces of the cabinets. Start by tapping the finished ends, then the face frames, then pry up the bottoms, and lastly the backs. Cabinets should be removed fairly quickly if you follow that pattern. Whenever a part of the cabinet is difficult to remove, cut it into a smaller piece. Most of these old kitchens were made of pine and plywood. They were also glued with carpenter’s glue. This can make them stubborn to separate at times.

You should always be on the lookout for rocks. Who knows, if you’re lucky you might find an old newspaper article from the late 1950’s. I retired when I discovered an old safe that held a million dollars under the base of a kitchen cabinet in Hollywood. I believe the house originally belonged to Jed Clampet of the Beverly Hillbillies. Having a little fun during the project is a good thing!

The trick to making all of this easier is to cut as many of the parts into smaller pieces before you start ripping them out. This will make it easier for the dumpster or for you to take the pieces out of the house and put them in the dumpsters.

Whenever you remove old cabinets from the kitchen, be prepared to find things that need to be replaced or repaired. It is not uncommon to have water damaged areas where mold has been growing. Sometimes there are places on roofs where there were leaks years ago. Outside of the cost of your new cabinets, set aside a little more for unexpected repairs.

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