Home Improvement: How Not-To

Our Kitchen

Winnie and I have a considerable amount of experience in home improvement. My expertise goes back to my teen years and I’ve been involved with projects (some of which involved contractors) on each of the five homes I’ve owned. Winnie used to help her uncles pour concrete and lay tile roofs back in China, and has worked with me on all our home improvement projects starting right after hurricane Katrina.

One would think that with all this home improvement experience something fairly simple like installing an over-the-range microwave would be easy.

We own a rental property, a 1950’s vintage home that Winnie and I renovated several years ago. Recently we had to replace the over-the-stove microwave for the third time in five years. How people can destroy a microwave is beyond my understanding and probably the topic of another story. The important part is that, having installed two previous microwaves in the same kitchen, I had Experience.

Our new tenant contacted me a few weeks after move-in letting me know that the microwave was giving him problems. I checked it out, tried to go into denial mode, and finally accepted that in fact the high-end microwave that I had installed only four years earlier was in fact broken and would need to be replaced.

Installing a microwave is fairly straightforward. The actual weight of the microwave is supported by a perforated metal plate the size and shape of the back of the unit, with several hooked tabs along the bottom edge. This plate comes with the microwave and is mounted on the wall over the range, with the perforations giving lots of options for getting screws into the wall studs through the metal. The back bottom edge of the microwave has slots that hook onto the tabs. Screws go through the cabinet over the microwave into the unit to hold it in place.

To perform an installation, the installer mounts the plate on the wall with screws going into the wall studs; then locates and drills the holes in top of the cabinet. With the help of another person the installer lifts the microwave into place, hooks it onto the wall plate, swings it up and uses the three screws through the bottom of the cabinet to hold the microwave into place. Connect the vent duct, plug it power and test; job over and its Miller time (or your choice of beverage).

So when I knew I needed to replace the microwave yet again, I knew I wanted the same model so the back mounting plate and upper holes would presumably be the same. (Different model microwaves have different mounting plates and upper screw-hole locations.) I ordered the new microwave and waited three weeks for delivery. On a beautiful Saturday morning Winnie and I went over to the rental house for the big event.

I told our tenant to plan for three hours but secretly thought I could do the job in 30 minutes. We arrived, unpacked the microwave, staged my tools and started work. I pulled the old unit down in ten minutes, which ended up being the best part of the project.

With the old microwave down I compared the new wall plate with the one already installed. They were the same size and shape so no replacement needed! Then I checked the top of the new microwave for screw-hole locations. The three holes appeared to be in the same location as the old ones so we were cooking. Winnie helped me lift the new microwave into place, hooked it onto the mounting tabs, swung it into position and I tried putting in the top screws. Then I discovered that although the new holes were in the same arrangement as the old, they were about one inch further to the front of the unit. Which meant I needed to re-drill the upper cabinet. We took the microwave back down.

I used the template to carefully align and drill new holes. They were very close to the old holes and I was already concerned whether there would be enough strength in the wood to hold the weight. Winnie and I lifted the microwave back into place and tried again. My holes were one quarter of an inch off towards the front, and the screws would not go in. We took the microwave back down, again.

I re-drilled the holes further back and now the new holes merged with the old holes making really large holes that the screw heads fell right through. The only fix would be using large fender washers that I didn’t have with me, meaning I would need to make a hardware store run. Then Winnie came up with a Really Good Idea; cut up the extra metal wall plate with perforations that I didn’t use to make washers. I really didn’t want to make a shopping run, and I did have a pair of tin snips with me, so I went along with her idea. I cut up the plate to make three large washers and Winnie covered them with duct tape so no one would cut themselves on the sharp edges. We raised the microwave again.

This time the over-sized holes lined up with the microwave screw-holes and I drove the screws in with the metal plates. We plugged the microwave in, tested it, and everything worked fine. Then I noticed marks on the cabinets on either side of the microwave indicating this new microwave was sitting up over one quarter of an inch higher than the old one.

I investigated, and quickly discovered that the wall plate tabs were not aligning with the slots on bottom of the microwave. After looking closely, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I realized the placement of the slots in the new microwave was slightly different than the old microwave, and did not line up with the mounting plate tabs. I needed to use the new wall plate after all, but it had been cut up for the over-sized holes.

Winnie and I quietly and rationally discussed the problem, then calmed down and tried to decide what to do. After looking it over, I realized the tabs were about one inch wide each, and were about one-half inch misaligned with the microwave slots. We pulled the microwave back down, again, and we carefully cut about one-half inch off each of the tabs on the side were they were misaligned.

Once finished, we lifted the microwave back into place, watching the tabs alignment. The microwave slide into place and we put the screws back in. While putting the screws in I discovered why my holes were off the first time; apparently the misaligned mounting tabs pushed the microwave backwards. With the microwave properly sitting in the tabs, the holes lined up with where I first drilled them.

By now Winnie and I were both frazzled. What I though would be a 30 minute job had taken almost four hours and there was tools, saw dust, and metal snips all over the kitchen. We quietly declared victory, cleaned up the mess, loaded my tools along with the old microwave and pieces of scrap metal into my trusty Rodeo, and went to lunch.

Lesson learned…oh never mind.

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