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 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 successfully done 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 tile and add a granite countertop, you need to determine if your structure will support that considerable additional 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 "temporary weight" of holiday visitors gathered around the island top.
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.
Don't forget to include expansion joints!
TCNA Handbook Method EJ-171 is the guide for Expansion Joints and Movement Accommodation Joints such as change in plane, perimeter joints and field expansion joints.
Movement Accommodation Joints must be designed and placed by the architect or design professional to meet the site conditions to include calculations for sunlight exposure and the potential for in-floor heat.
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.
Why Install Tile Before the Cabinets?
If the tile system 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.
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 finished floor will likely be open to access for work (and potential abuse) by other trades.
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 pressure on the finished installation is minimized.
If the tile system is installed after the cabinetry, perimeter joints must be placed where the tile meets the cabinets. The cuts to the edge of the cabinets need to be very neatly done and sanded, and filled with rounded backup (foam backer road) and 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 jobsite before turnover to the owner.
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 that 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?
Do you prefer one approach over the other? Why? Let us know in the comments.
Thanks to Scott Carothers and Mark Heinlein - CTI #1112.