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Should You Install Tile Under Cabinets?

Should You Install Tile Under Cabinets?

If you're wondering whether it's better to install tile under cabinets or not, the answer is... it depends. It depends on the structure of your home as well as your kitchen and its subfloor, the materials selected, and your own preference.

No Tile Industry Standards Detail When to Install Cabinets

The reason that the answer is "it depends" is that there are no tile industry standards detailing when cabinets are to be installed. 

Ultimately the concern is about deflection or, according to Wikipedia, 

"the degree to which a structural element is displaced under a load. It may refer to an angle or a distance"

and placing a system into compression or, according again to Wikipedia,

"the application of balanced inward ("pushing") forces to different points on a material or structure."

Ultimately, the suitability of any structure and substrate needs to be reviewed by a structural professional before determining the type of tile installation and installing the tile.

A properly engineered and planned tile installation can be completed successfully either before or after the cabinets are installed, whether the substructure is concrete or wood. 

Calculate the floor load

In Looking to Hire a Tile Installer? Here's Your Roadmap., we mentioned how important it is to determine whether your home is structurally adequate for tile. So, for example, if you replace vinyl floorcovering with ceramic or porcelain tile and add a granite countertop on the center island, you need to determine if your structure will support the considerable added weight. The countertop alone can add six to eight hundred pounds, and depending on size, upwards of half a ton of dead load. 

That's when the services of a structural engineer are not only advisable but very strongly recommended!

When it comes to deciding whether to install tile under cabinets or around the cabinets, ask a structural engineering expert to review your structure. He or she will calculate the anticipated dead load of the floor (tile assembly, cabinets, and stone countertops) as well as the live load which may include the significant "temporary weight" of holiday visitors gathered around the island. 

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, floor load is,

"The load that a floor (as of a building) may be expected to carry safely if uniformly distributed usually calculated in pounds per square foot of area:  the live load of a floor."

Or, according to the NTCA Reference Manual Glossary:

Live load - Any load that is not permanently applied to a structure. 

The engineer or architect will be able to design the structure to support dead loads and acceptable deflection ratios from anticipated live loads.

But, don't forget to include expansion joints!

The TCNA Handbook detail EJ-171 is the guide for Expansion Joints and Movement Accommodation Joints such as a change in plane, perimeter joints, and field expansion joints. 

The specific location and details of Movement Accommodation Joints must be provided by the design professional or engineer to meet the site conditions which include calculations for sunlight exposure and the potential for in-floor heat.

>> See Why Do You Need Expansion Joints When Installing Tile?

Having made the case that you can install tile under cabinets as well as around them, let's examine some of the benefits associated with each approach.

Explore the Homeowner's Guide  to Hiring a Qualified Tile Installer

Why Install Tile Before the Cabinets?

If the tile assembly is installed before the cabinetry and permanently mounted equipment, the installer's job is easier since no finish cuts or sealant application are needed for perimeter joints at the toe kicks or finished sides of the cabinets. 

However, if waterproofing is a part of the installation, consideration will have to be made for mounting the cabinets if they must be fastened to the floor as is the case with an island. 

Additionally, to be effective, the waterproofing must cover the entire floor area.

  • Installing the tile before the cabinetry means additional square footage for the installer, but less detail and trim work. 
  • Installing the tile before the cabinetry means the newly installed tile floor will likely be the workbench for the other trades involved in the project as well as being susceptible to abuse and damage.  

According to "is it better to install tile flooring under kitchen cabinets or not?" on Angie's List, another reason is that water leaks from kitchen appliances won't cause as much damage. It also means more flexibility if you decide to remodel your kitchen later on.

Why Install Tile After the Cabinets?

The benefit of installing the tile assembly after the cabinets, stone countertops, and other dead loads are installed (understanding that the floor was designed to handle these loads) is to help ensure the system is placed into compression before the tile is installed, meaning the force of downward pressure on the finished installation is minimized.

If the tile assembly is installed after the cabinetry, perimeter joints must be placed where the tile meets the cabinets.  The cuts to the toe kicks and sides of the cabinets must be very neatly cut, sanded, and filled with rounded backup (foam backer rod) and a flexible sealant, such as 100% silicone, or have finish trim applied to cover the clean and open perimeter joints.

  • Installing after the cabinets means less square footage, but more time in detail and trim work.
  • Installing the tile after the cabinets can be beneficial for the tile contractor to ensure they are the last trade on the job site before turnover to the owner. This means the risk of damage to the tile floor by other trades is significantly reduced or eliminated.    

One item that must be considered when installing tile after the cabinetry is adequate clearance for built-in appliances such as dishwashers and compactors.  If the floor assembly is higher than the adjustable legs of these appliances, it may be difficult or impossible to remove them for service or replacement. 

According to Cabinet Install: Before or After Tile, installing tile after the cabinets means that it's easier to change your flooring later on without having to remove the cabinets. 

Which Do You Prefer: Tile Under Cabinets or Around Cabinets?

Which Do You Prefer: Tile Under Cabinets or Around Cabinets? 

Since originally publishing this article in 2017, we've received many comments from our readers on how best to install tile when there are cabinets involved. As you can see from these responses, it really depends on the situation…

Under the Cabinets

Alice Bradford is in favor of under the cabinets. She explains,

Always install the tile to the wall, under appliances, and cabinets. Good flooring could be in place for 20 years or more. In that time there could be water leaks, appliance failures cabinet damage that requires replacement, electrical problems that require cabinets to be moved, etc... When our bathroom was re-tiled, they left the cabinet in place. We had to replace the cabinet recently and the new footprint is very different. Now we have a gap to deal with. He also left the baseboards in place, so in order to take them out to fix the gap problem around the cabinet, we have to break them. We had lots of tile left after he was done so we could have done it wall to wall. But now we are spending extra time and effort, and money, because it wasn’t done right the first time. Appliances wear out, stuff happens, tile to the wall to save yourself grief later.

Jean Tessmer agrees and adds additional perspective as follows:

Under the cabinet always for me. Easier to seal the toe kick against the tile. The counters will be consistently 36" AFF (above finished floor) instead of 34.5 inches plus or minus, to the top and you can pull the DW (dishwasher) and refrigerator out for repair. I too have had problems pulling DW out of the depressed floor, had to jack up the countertop. If spills happen to migrate under the cabinets, they will not soak into the substrate. Mold mildew etc... under the cabinet. If there are last-minute changes the tile on top makes changes or corrections a lot easier and you come out being a hero!

Linette Brown says,

I prefer to have tile under cabinets because many times the homeowner wants to change the cabinets or their layout. 

Also with dishwashers and other appliances that may have been installed with the cabinets cannot be removed after tile is laid. We have been called out multiple times because a dishwasher needed to be replaced and we had to take up tile in front so it could slide out. 

Also, it makes for a nice clean look going under the other appliances and trims. You cannot do a furniture-style cabinet either without having a finished floor under it.

Installing Tile Around Cabinets

James Miller says,

I prefer to tile around cabinets but under appliances since cabinets typically are permanent installs where appliances come and go.

Installing Tile Under Cabinets and Around Cabinets

Mike Duhacek explains,

As a residential remodeler, I've done both.

When I'm building a kitchen from a complete tear-out, I'll install the tile first. As mentioned above, it creates a more seamless install of the cabinets in relation to the appliances and it's a much cleaner look.

If the cabinets are already in place, I'll tile around them, pull the appliances out, and tile under them. If spec'd right, the dishwasher should have no problem fitting under the countertop, depending on what type of flooring is removed (always!! remove the old flooring). The only difference you might see is the height of the stove against the countertop.

Conrad Hamp states,

I just finished tiling my kitchen. I spent a majority of the time ripping up linoleum and scraping all the paper backing a glue that did not easily come up. So, picture this. Contractor has a 5-gallon bucket of adhesive. Sets in center of room and kicks it over and commences to slather all over the floor for linoleum install. That’s what I picture in my mind. So, an additional 60 dollars in floor adhesive remover that works mediocre at best and several additional hours in prep is what I experienced. Adhesive around the perimeter of the room done correctly while the center was a three-day back-breaking exercise to prep the concrete slab for tile. Anyways I tiled around existing base cabinets. If money were no object, I would have preferred to tile the entire area and put new cabinets. The biggest hurdle is clearances for the dishwasher and top of the stove/oven. My free-standing oven will be about a half-inch taller than the countertop now. The dishwasher luckily had enough adjustment on the feet to fit in the now shorter top to bottom space. I used porcelain tile and after doing this I should have done ceramic as ceramic tiles are usually thinner than porcelain and could have made a little difference for clearance or flush top issues with existing countertops. I am going to put in new countertops so I will be building up on top of the base cabinets to compensate for this anyways. But if you plan on tiling with no other changes, clearance for dishwasher and oven height are your biggest concerns.

Additional Questions Relating to this Topic

And then, there are other questions that this topic generates.

For example, Tim McHenry explains,

The kitchen design I'm on has cabinets on one wall only, with tile that extends out only 4 feet from the cabinets. It is on slab. It seems a little silly for a third of the tile to be under the cabinets, but it did occur to me that it would be hard to replace the dishwasher if I didn't tile underneath. Has anyone ever raised the cabinets slightly, like with a layer of cement board, then tiled?

A: Normally backer board would not be used on a slab to raise the cabinets similar to the thickness of the tile.  Most likely, the easiest solution would be to tile under the cabinets which eliminates the potential dishwasher issue.

Dolly Donovan has questions about bathroom vanities:

How about bathrooms. Do you tile under the cabinet/vanity that is to be secured to the wall on the floor?

A: Here again, this is a matter of personal preference.  But if the bathroom floor calls for waterproofing, the best choice would be to install tile under the cabinet

Which Do You Prefer When It Comes to Tile and Cabinets: Under or Around?

As you can see from the comments and questions, this isn’t an easy decision or a final conclusion.

Do you prefer one approach over the other? Why? Let us know in the comments.

Wondering How to Select  Your Next Tile Installation Contractor? Download the 3 Tip Sheets.

Thanks to  Scott Carothers and Mark Heinlein - CTI #1112.

Please note: The opinions expressed by our readers are not necessarily those of the blog team.

Note: This article was originally published on 5/16/2017 and has been updated.