Removing old 'stick built' cabinets without destroying the walls?

hackwriterDecember 3, 2011

My kitchen in my 1953 cape cod has the old "stick-built" or "unitized" cabinets, which were built on site from pine and aren't really "cabinets". It took me a long time to find out how this was done, because when you look inside my cabinets, you can't see any screws or other fasteners.

Sort of like this or this.

My house has plaster walls, and the thought of sledgehammering being the only way to remove these things (if I want to do a DIY kitchen with new cabinets) is unthinkable, because there's no way I'm going to destroy plaster walls so they can be replaced with wallboard.

Has anyone ever had luck "finessing" removing these things carefully so as not to create significant wall damage? How would you even go about it?

My other alternative would be to keep the uppers, reface or paint them and get new doors, and just replace the base cabinets.


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No. I recently pulled out my site built cabinets, and they were so attached to the framing that it was impossible to removed them in one piece. I wanted to recycle them. They didn't use only a couple of nails.......there was a nail every 1 1/2 inches! So, no match for me. I would have loved to keep my uppers, but the cracks in the plaster and the lack of insulation in the walls made opening a cabinet door a bit of a chilly experience in the winter.

However, it is a great time to insulate the walls if you tear out the old plaster. I hate to do that, but since the kitchen was the coldest room in the house, it was a must. After tearing out the walls, I found out why it was so cold. The "insulation" was crumpled up newspaper from 1953!

    Bookmark   December 3, 2011 at 10:00AM
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Pry the old cabinets apart piece by piece.

If you need to pry against the plaster use at least a piece of 1x lumber to spread the load, and as soon as you have enough room switch to 2x.

You are still going to have some repair required o the plaster.

Nails into studs or blocking rarely come out perfectly clean with no damage to the plaster.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2011 at 10:33AM
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If you don't want to keep or recycle the cabinets, use a reciprocating saw (Sawzall) to cut them up so that only the back frames remain, then you have a fair chance of being able to get the frames down without excessive damage to the wall. Just be careful with the recip if you are not used to them - they can run away with you very easily...

You can also use an oscillating saw (Fein Multimaster or cheaper equivalent) to cut the back frame up into smaller lengths. Again, a steady hand and a good dose of common sense are required.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2011 at 11:37AM
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"If you don't want to keep or recycle the cabinets"

Rarely works for site 'built in place' cabinets.

They are not boxes that are fastened in place.

Over the years I have seen many techniques used, from fastening 1x panels to the wall.

They often do not have an sides between what appear to be adjacent cabinets, but are more like a long shelf with sides, top and bottom with and a face frame attached.

they just build out from the wall adding components as needed.

Use caution with a sawzall.
It can shake things hard enough to damage plaster.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2011 at 11:50AM
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"Use caution with a sawzall. It can shake things hard enough to damage plaster."

A fine tooth blade and a slow speed are your friends - takes a lot longer than the macho demolition blades at full tilt, but much quicker than having to replaster the wall.

Another tool I like for this kind of work is a good quality jigsaw (e.g. Bosch - not cheap, but very good). With the right blade, one of those cuts very quickly with relatively little vibration. Probably a safer choice than the recip if you are not experienced. I have cut 2x4 studs plus drywall (~4 1/2" deep cut) in-situ with a Bosch jigsaw with amazingly clean results.

Here is a link that might be useful: Bosch Jigsaw

    Bookmark   December 3, 2011 at 12:00PM
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Here's another vote for a knockoff version of a Fein Multimaster. Harbor Freight has them for under $40 on sale, and they have a multitude of different use that go beyond this single use instance. When the HF one wears out (and ours is still going strong 2+ years late!) you can upgrade to a better name brand. Or, buy another HF one and wait for it to wear out too. It really is the absolute most versatile and useful tool we've ever bought. It's become a "go to" for almost every job we tackle. If you are very careful, you can use it to parallel to the wall to cut into the wood that is against the plaster, and it will cut the wood, nails, and everything without giving you any kickback at all. I'd recommend removing as much of the other cabinet structure first as you can, but that's also an easy matter with the multi-tool. It'll cut everything to shreds in no time.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2011 at 12:28PM
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Here's a link to the tool on their website. It also has a video showing it in use. It's $10 higher than I've seen it in the stores on sale, so you might see if you have an actual physical store near you.

Here is a link that might be useful: Oscillating Multifunction Power Tool

    Bookmark   December 3, 2011 at 12:40PM
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Hopefully, you can put up new in relatively the same configuration/coverage of the walls, so that the finishing work does not need to be so precise.
Putting up a backsplash will cover some sins.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2011 at 12:43PM
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hackwriter sounds like more than a DIY-er who's terrified of saws can handle. Maybe I need to just save my pennies and then tell my husband who can't handle the disruption of a professional remodeling that he'll just have to suck it up. Insulation is not an issue, all the cabinets are on inside walls. But saws that can "run away with you" are. :-)

    Bookmark   December 3, 2011 at 2:20PM
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You CAN do this. I promise. Anyone with even novice DIY experience can handle a multi tool. It's no harder than your average squirming toddler to control. In fact, it's easier because it's lighter and smaller. I's more like an sander in it's vibration level and use than it is a saw. I suggest you buy one as a Christmas present for your hubby and try it out when it arrives. You may have to buy him another one, because you may not want to give it up!

    Bookmark   December 3, 2011 at 2:34PM
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"A fine tooth blade and a slow speed are your friends - takes a lot longer than the macho demolition blades at full tilt, but much quicker than having to replaster the wall. "

The problem occurs if then \blade grabs for any reason and starts to shake the cabinets and transfers vibration to the wall before you can release the trigger.
Wood lath walls are especially vulnerable.

Power tools are NOT always the answer.

It was probably nailed together by hand, and unless it was also glued (and some are) you should be able to pry it apart piece by piece with little wall damage beyond nails through the plaster.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2011 at 2:45PM
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So it just so happens that I got an e-mail ad from Harbor Freight Tools showing the knockoff for $19.99, and I figured for that price, I could buy it just in case I get the guts to do this.

You see, I've been refacing the cabinets for the last 4 years (working on and off)...but at the time I bought the refacing supplies, my options were unstained (yuk), dark, and "harvest oak". So I got the oak. It's not bad as oak goes -- it doesn't have that yellow look that oak can get, it's shaker doors, and I suppose if I wait long enough, oak will come back. But the kitchen has another problem that has to be addressed: It's 9.5' x 17' and the work area is a U along a wall shared with a bathroom and a load-bearing wall. It's sort of cut in half in the middle by the refrigerator on one side and a wall oven cabinet plunked in the middle of the wall on the other side. Between the wall oven and the start of the "L" (which has the cooktop) is a door to the outside.

I would LOVE to get rid of that wall oven cabinet and replace the cooktop with a range.

If I keep the existing pseudo-cabinets (and you can read my sad "Kitchen Hell" story, with photos, here, the appliance place said they can cut into the existing base cabinet and finish it off, which will also give sufficient clearance from the outside wall that would be next to the side of the range. But then the oven opens up and blocks the door, so I'm not sure how good an idea that is, even though another house on my block did just that.

The other issue is that I would lose four cabinets, which I would want to replace by building a wall of cabinets on the other 9-1/2' wall that is blank...but I have no idea what I'd put up there. I'd hate to do more oak, but I have no idea what would go with.

If anyone wants to take a crack at venturing opinions, I can take more photos. Or I can just live in this horrid kitchen until I can afford to remodel it (and can find a reputable contractor who would do it without costing me all my savings). It IS, after all, just a 1950's cape.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2011 at 5:02PM
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