Kitchen floors take a beating. If your floors weren’t new when you moved in, you will likely need to replace them in the next few years. Perhaps the surfaces are worn and damaged. Maybe you just want to update your decor. But you’re thinking about replacing your kitchen floors. 

Removing the old material and installing the new floor is a major project. You might wonder if you can save time, money and headaches by working around the existing architectural elements and appliances. Here’s how to replace a kitchen floor without removing the cabinets.

Some Considerations

Before you decide to replace a kitchen floor without removing the cabinets, ask yourself the following questions.

How Long Will You Keep Your Cabinets?

Depending on the material, kitchen cabinets can last at least 20 years. If you plan to renovate between now and then, will you want to change the layout? You would want to install the flooring under the cabinets if so. That way, you don’t have to fill in gaps or redo it when you update your kitchen.

Are You Replacing Your Flooring and Cabinets at the Same Time?

If you’re doing a complete remodel or building from scratch, you probably wonder whether you should install the floors or the cabinets first. This largely depends on the flooring material. The main rule of thumb to keep in mind is that flooring that isn’t glued down should not be weighed down by cabinetry.

Most experts agree that hardwood and tile should be installed before the cabinets if at all possible. This produces a uniform surface throughout the kitchen and keeps the counters at the proper height. 

On one hand, hardwood and tile floors can withstand the weight of the cabinetry. But they can get damaged by the cabinets. If you expose covered areas in the future, you might have to replace or refinish them anyway to get rid of unsightly blemishes. 

Also, you’ll use—and pay for— more material when installing flooring beneath the cabinets. But you may save on the cost of labor. Laying out a floor in a rectangular room is faster than cutting out complex angles.

When you’re installing floating floors of any kind, you should avoid running them beneath the cabinets. The weight of the cabinetry will cause the floors to shift and buckle over time. Floating floors need room to expand and contract. Therefore, if you know that you’re going with floating floors, feel free to install your cabinets first. A benefit of doing this is that you won’t damage your brand-new floors.

Is Your New Flooring a Different Thickness?

Is your new flooring is significantly thicker or thinner than the old surface? If you replace the kitchen floor without removing the cabinets, the height of the countertops is going to feel different. 

This change is negligible to most people and becomes less noticeable over time. But you can prevent this from happening by removing the cabinets and running the flooring underneath everything. You can also adjust the underlayment, which is often necessary if you’re switching to a new flooring material.

What Kind of Toe Kick Will You Need?

The toe kick is the vertical piece of wood that butts up to the floor at the base of the cabinet. Sometimes, quarter-round molding is used in place of a toe kick. These boards provide a clean line and seal gaps at the edges of the floor. 

You can customize toe kicks to match laminate floors by cutting extra laminate planks to fit. Don’t be tempted to extend other flooring materials up the base of your cabinets, though. Vinyl or tile toe kicks would look strange. All other flooring materials should be paired with a toe kick made of plywood or a material that matches the cabinet.

Should You Install Kitchen Flooring Under Appliances?

Your refrigerator, oven and dishwasher hide much of your kitchen flooring. You can save money if you don’t extend the flooring beneath the appliances. Plus, you wouldn’t want your dishwasher or refrigerator to leak on the material. 

Many people choose to install a piece of plywood that’s the same thickness as the flooring under their appliances. Still, you should extend the flooring far enough under appliances so that you can’t see the plywood. Alternatively, you could install a toe-kick across the appliances. This creates a cohesive, finished look across the kitchen.

First Things First: Removing the Old Flooring

Before you think about installing new floors, you have to get rid of the existing material. Check whether it is installed beneath or around the cabinets. Laminate is usually installed around the cabinets. Vinyl and linoleum may be cut around the edges or run under the cabinets. Hardwood flooring often spans the width of the room, traveling beneath the cabinets as well.

If the cabinets cover the flooring but you don’t want to remove them completely, you have the option of cutting around them. You can use the following method to remove hardwood, laminate and engineered wood flooring. It works around any baseboard, such as in cases where a floor travels under a narrow wall.

  1. Remove the quarter-round molding or toe kick from the base of the cabinet.
  2. Cut through the depth of the wood at the edges of the cabinet using a toe-kick or flush-cut saw. Follow appropriate safety precautions when performing this step. Cutting through hardwood is a tedious and labor-intensive process.
  3. Use a circular saw to cut across the hardwood planks, perpendicular to the direction they’re installed. This makes each plank shorter and easier to remove.
  4. Use a tapered reciprocating saw or a hammer and chisel to finish scoring through the wood at corners.
  5. Pry the planks off of the floor with a pry bar.

Vinyl is much easier to cut than hardwood. You can remove it by following the steps above. However, instead of using a toe-kick saw, you can use a sharp blade to pierce the material.

Tile is a bit harder to cut. Use a diamond blade on the toe-kick saw to get through it cleanly. 

Installing the Floor Around the Cabinets

When installing a kitchen floor around the cabinets, the most important advice is to measure several times before cutting and laying out the planks or tiles. 

The following tips on how to replace a kitchen floor without removing the cabinets should help:

  • Remove baseboards, toe kicks and molding before you start.
  • Leave an adequate expansion gap to allow for movement in the floor.
  • Don’t cut all of your planks at once; measure and cut as you go.
  • Seal the edges, especially in moisture-prone areas, such as around the sink.

If installing a kitchen floor after the cabinets seems like a complex task, that’s because it is. If you’re not proficient in carpentry or home renovation work, you’ll probably get the best results by leaving the installation up to the experts. 

Flooring professionals understand how to measure and lay the floor so that it withstands the test of time. This is especially important in the kitchen, which is exposed to more moisture and traffic than most other rooms in the house. Your contractor can also help you make the final decision as to whether to install your floors or cabinets first.