Stud finder/locator, tape measure, level, pencil, drill, flashlight, utility knife, keyhole saw, hand saw, reciprocating saw, rasp, hacksaw blade, construction adhesive, wood screws, toggle bolts, expanding bolts, drywall anchors, caulk, eight to ten foot piece of two by four lumber
Recessed medicine cabinets are so-called because they’re installed within a recess or indentation within a wall. Walls, however, aren’t just empty spaces. There are wall studs, pipes, wires, and vents hiding inside. Sometimes walls are load bearing, carrying and distributing weight to keep floors level and houses upright, which makes cabinet installation a trickier proposition. All these things must be taken into account before installing a recessed medicine cabinet.
So how do you know if your medicine cabinet wall is load bearing? Here are a few clues:
- If it’s an exterior wall, it’s load bearing.
- If it’s an interior wall that’s perpendicular to the rafters, it’s load bearing.
- Check the floor below the wall (or basement if it’s first floor). If there’s a wall, concrete footer, or girder directly beneath it, it’s probably a load-bearing wall.
- Check the next floor up. If there’s a wall or supporting beam directly above the wall, then it’s load bearing.
Installing a medicine cabinet in a load-bearing wall is doable, but if it’s not done properly it could lead to a sagging floor/ceiling. You may want to call a pro. However, if your cabinet is narrow enough to fit between two studs, then load bearing shouldn’t be an issue.
OK, if you’re clear on the load-bearing front, you need to check the wall interior. With a pencil and level, mark out the wall space where the cabinet will go (to be on the safe side, make the dimensions about ¼ inch larger on each side; about 72 inches high is standard for bathroom medicine cabinets). Next, use a stud finder to locate the stud(s) within that penciled rectangle. With a keyhole saw, cut small holes on either side of the stud(s)—about 4 inches square should suffice. Be careful to angle the saw no deeper than necessary. To make the drywall piece easier to remove, drill in a screw—keep it shallow—before cutting, and use it as a makeshift handle.
Take a look inside the wall with your flashlight. If there are pipes, vents, etc. that would prevent installation, then you may need to go the surface mount cabinet route. If the only obstacle is a stud, you’ll need to cut it, so check that there aren’t items drilled into it on the other side, e.g. a bookshelf or cabinet.
If you can fit your recessed medicine cabinet between two wall studs, then you can skip the stud-cutting steps outlined below. Wall frames are usually 16 inches on center, i.e. from the center of one stud to the next. See our selection of 14- to 16-inch wide recessed medicine cabinets for easier-install options. (Of course the stud-to-stud space will also have to be a good placement for the cabinet, e.g. aligned with the bathroom sink.)
- Cut the drywall from the cabinet space dimensions penciled on the wall, and remove drywall pieces from the stud(s).
- Use a small handsaw (or hacksaw blade) to cut any drywall screws behind the stud. That way when you cut and remove the stud, you don’t rip drywall from the other side of the wall.
- To create a recess, cut the top and bottom of the exposed stud(s) in line with the opening for the cabinet. Be careful not to cut through the opposing drywall.
- Lift the medicine cabinet and check if it fits smoothly into the opening (removing the door helps). If not, use a utility knife and/or rasp on problem spots.
- Next, measure for the blocking or cabinet frame, i.e. pieces of two by four you’ll install at the top and bottom of the opening, flush with the cut drywall. The blocking will attach horizontally to the adjacent studs and the ends of the cut stud. Apply construction adhesive to the blocking ends, place between the studs, and screw into place. Add vertical blocking on the sides of the recess.
- When the adhesive dries, install your medicine cabinet, and screw into place.
You’ve got it easy: your biggest challenge should be ensuring that your cabinet’s pre-drilled holes match up with the wall studs. If studs won’t work, you’ll need to use drywall anchors or toggle bolts.
- Locate the wall studs.
- With a pencil and tape measure, mark where the cabinet will go.
- On the back of the medicine cabinet, measure from the top edge to the drilled hole. Measure down the same distance on the wall, and drill a pilot hole into the wall stud.
- With a helper holding up the other side, screw one side of the cabinet into the wall, check that it’s level, and attach the other side.