Face Frame Cabinetry

Face Frame Cabinetry


Years ago, building kitchen cabinets meant calculating the size of each cabinet, cutting the parts, determining if the cabinet was an end unit or middle-of-the-run unit and assembling each piece. It was time-consuming and slow. Today many cabinetmakers, both the small and large production shops, have adopted a systems approach to building kitchen cabinets.

European vs. North American Cabinets

Cabinets are sized in specific increments and built as a unit. In some European countries, kitchen cabinets are moved from house to house much like furniture, so a modular approach is important. The North American industry realized the value of this approach. The system offered flexibility with quality and could be incorporated with the high-quality North American-style cabinet by replacing the edge tape with a wooden face frame in the traditional style.


Drill pilot holes for any joint that will be secured with particle core board (PCB) screws. This will prevent the PCB from splitting by allowing the screw to self-thread the hole. The pilot hole and screw combination is one of the most critical applications of this building style. Proper joint assembly will result in a long-lasting and very high quality cabinet.

The Europeans perfected the “box” or unitized construction methods to a point where the frameless cabinet, often called the Euro-style kitchen cabinet, has become a popular option in North America. European design features such as the hidden hinge, bottom-mount drawer glides and adjustable cabinet legs are now an important part of the North American cabinetmaking industry.

This kitchen cabinet building system is based on that box-style construction. The techniques apply to cabinet carcasses and drawer assemblies. Think of the construction system in its basic form, and don’t get confused with thinking in terms of the finished product. If you break the system down to the box concept—four sides and a bottom—you’ll quickly understand and appreciate the simplicity of the construction methods.


The joints are almost all butt joints, secured with 2″ screws designed specifically for particle board material. The strength of the butt joints is due in large part to the holding ability of these screws. They are installed in a predrilled pilot hole and, because of their design, thread the hole, providing an extremely strong joint. However, we can also use the many other high-quality methods available, such as biscuit, dowel and tenon joinery. Whichever joint you feel more comfortable with is perfectly acceptable.

Base and Upper Cabinets

I suggest that you use vs”-thick particle core board material as your standard. As discussed, it’s strong and able to accommodate the loading capacity that kitchen cabinets are often required to handle. A full Ys”-thick back should also be standard. It provides many advantages, including the elimination of cabinet mounting strips that are normally seen on the inside top and bottom of cabinets. You’ll end up with a stronger cabinet that stays square, reducing the twisting and racking that sometimes occur during installation. The cabinet can be installed by screws into a stud wall anywhere through the back. Most importantly from a maintenance point of view, you never have to paint the wall behind the cabinet; it is completely hidden. Both top and bottom cabinets are built with this full ‘A” back board, making each unit extremely strong. After completing the installation, and after all the cabinets are secured to the wall as well as joined to each other, you’ll have a very strong and stable unit. This strength helps keep doors properly aligned.

Make certain that all boards are cut square and to the proper dimensions. The two most critical boards in terms of dimension are the top and bottom, as they determine the inside width of the cabinet. The face frame must be installed on the cabinet face edge with the inside width of the face frame being slightly less than the inside width of the cabinet carcass. This ensures that the exposed edges of the PCB are fully covered and European hinges can be properly mounted. The face frame is built as an assembly, as is the cabinet carcass. Therefore, its important that you pay close attention to accurately cutting the cabinet carcass top and bottom boards as well as the face frame rails.

The upper cabinet carcasses are built with five pieces of PCB: two sides, which are almost always drilled to accept the pins for adjustable shelves, a bottom and top piece, as well as an overlapping back piece. The sides are fastened to the bottom and top boards with a butt joint and secured with three PCB screws. The back forms the “bottom” of the box and is installed so it fully covers the edges. In reality, the bottom of
the box is the back of the cabinet.

The standard upper cabinet carcass depth is 111/4″, made up of 10 Ys”-wide sides, top and bottom plus the thickness of the applied back board. The total width increases to 12″ when a 3/4 “-thick wood face frame is installed. A 1 2”-deep upper cabinet with adjustable shelves is an industry standard. There are applications for deeper upper cabinets, which are easily built
by simply increasing the depth of the sides as well as the top and bottom boards.

The upper cabinets over a fridge, stove and sink are usually reduced-height cabinets. All dimensions remain the same, with the exception of the sides and back board height.

Base Cabinet Differences

Standard base cabinets differ from upper cabinets in that they require only four boards. All you need are two sides, a bottom and a back. The top is not required because the countertop acts as the cabinet top. Sides are drilled to accept adjustable shelves only if required. Very often, base cabinets are fitted with pull-out shelves to provide accessible storage for pots and pans.

As with the uppers, the bottom board dimensions are the most critical because they will determine the inside dimensions of the cabinet carcass. All base cabinets, with a couple of exceptions, which we will discuss later, are constructed of “” melamine-coated PCB in the box style. Butt joints, pilot holes and PCB screws are used when building these cabinets. Additional screws are used for the butt joints, as the base cabinets are normally 24″ deep. You should use a 2″ PCB screw every six inches as your standard.


Drawer construction is sometimes very intimidating. Building drawers seems complicated and beyond the ability of the average do-it-yourselfer. In reality, it’s a very simple process once you understand the basic box concept. The drawers are constructed in the same fashion as the upper cabinets. You require two sides, a front, back and a bottom board.

The drawer box is identical to the upper cabinet box, normally in smaller scale and used in a horizontal position. In place of the face frame, the exposed edges can be trimmed with 1/4″ hardwood strips and the bottom edges are covered with iron-on melamine tape. It’s a simple construction method that produces a long-lasting drawer.

In this building system we use the bottom-mount drawer glide that is rated to carry a 75-pound load. Using Ys” melamine-coated particle core board for the box parts, hardwood trim on the exposed PCB edges, melamine tape on the bottom edges, bottom-mounted drawer glides and a hardwood drawer front produces a very attractive and functional drawer. Drawer dimensions are determined by the width and height of the opening in the cabinet. With most bottom-mount drawer glides, the drawer carcass is 1″ less in total width than the opening; all hardware comes with very specific installation instructions.

You’ll soon see the strength of this box style of cabinet construction. The sides overlap the back and front board edges, and the bottom board completely covers the edges of one opening. If you cut your bottom board square, the drawer box will be square when it’s installed.

Understanding the finished cabinet size relationship is also important. Cabinets are specific sizes so that industry-standard doors can be used to lower your cost. The standard cabinet uses a face frame with two 1″-wide stiles; therefore, the inside width of the carcass will be 2″ less, allowing for proper hinge and door installation.

This may be a little unclear at this point, but as you will see, a high-quality building system that is complete, simple and flexible also allows you to quickly calculate your material needs.


Face frames are simply rectangular frames of wood consisting of stiles, which are the vertical members, and rails, which are the horizontal members. The purpose of this wooden frame is to cover the exposed edges of the cabinet carcass assembly. The frame, glued and nailed to the carcass edges, also provides additional strength to the cabinet.

This construction method, with the installation of hardwood cabinet doors, looks very traditional. The cabinet door covers all but ‘A” of the stile. As discussed previously, we are using full-overlay Euro hidden hinges that allow the door a vs” stile overlap. When cabinets are installed side by side, the face frames are joined with a 1 1/4″ screw through the edge to securely hold them in position. The resulting space or reveal between cabinet doors is 3/4″.

The completed face frames are secured to the cabinet carcass, flush with the top of the cabinet, hanging 3/4″ below the bottom of the cabinet, as illustrated in Figure 4-8. I secure the face frames to the carcass with glue and 2″ spiral finishing nails at 8″ centers. Pilot holes are a necessity prior to
hammering in the nails. Countersink the nails, and use a wax stick matching the finished color of the cabinet wood to hide the holes.

Face Frame Corner Joints

The corner butt joints for the face frames can be glued and secured with two 2″ wood screws at each corner. Countersunk predrilled holes should be made prior to screw insertion. This creates a tight joint and allows for a Vs” wood filler plug to be placed in the screw hole should this cabinet be an end cabinet that requires hidden screw holes.

Exposed Cabinet Sides

When the cabinet end will be exposed, use a 1 ‘A” stile on the exposed end. This allows you to install a 1/4″ wood veneer panel along with 1/4″-thick molding. Wood plugs on the exposed stile are sanded smooth, giving the cabinet a professionally finished appearance. Remember to account for this added width, particularly with base cabinets. A standard 36″ base cabinet becomes 36 1/2″ wide—an important consideration when calculating countertop length.

Other Joinery Methods

Face frame joinery isn’t limited to the butt joint and screws. Mortise-and-tenon joints, as well as the lap joint, can also be used very successfully when constructing the face frames.

A lap joint has one member overlapping the other. The simplest form is accomplished by using two equal-size rabbet joints. With glue and a few nails on the back side, this joint can be made very strong and attractive.

If you want to completely hide the joinery at the corner of the face frame, a mortise-and-tenon joint is by far the best choice. A tenon is cut on both ends of the rail and fitted into an open-end mortise on the stile. When using this joinery method be sure to account for the length of the tenons when calculating your rail length.

My preferences are the screwed butt joint and the mortise-and-tenon joint. However you’re not limited to these suggested methods. Just about any good-quality joint, including dowel spline or biscuit joints, can be used to secure the face frame. It is really a matter of personal preference and one that you’re most comfortable with. I’d suggest you experiment with a few alternatives to see which one is best suited to your needs and the equipment you have in your workshop.


The following table details the face frame sizes for each of the standard cabinets. All face frames are 3/4″-thick solid wood.
Standard face frames are 313/4″ high for both the upper and base cabinets. Special situations and cabinets that use shorter and wider stiles will be detailed in later chapters. However, a high percentage of your cabinets will use the standard rail and stile dimensions as described in the chart.

Face frames are constructed of the same wood as the doors; most common are red oak, cherry, birch and pine. The final finish of the face frame wood is normally the same as the final finish on the doors.


Cabinet Width Two Stiles Width x Height Two Rails Height x Length

12″       1″ x 31 3/4″       11/2″ x 10″
15″       1″ x 31 3/4″       11/2″ x 13″
18″       1″ x 31 3/4″       11/2″ x 16″
21″       1″ x 31 3/4″       11/2″ x 19″
24″       1″ x 31 3/4″       11/2″ x 22″
27″       1″ x 31 3/4″       11/2″ x 25″
30″       1″ x 31 3/4″       11/2″ x 28″
33″       1″ x 31 3/4″       11/2″ x 31″
36″       1″ x 31 3/4″       11/2″ x 34″

Building the Face Frame

A high-quality 1/8″ drill in a vs” carbide-tipped countersink assembly is an excellent drilling tool for the butt joint screws. The 1/8″ pilot hole in the hardwood is important, as is a nice, clean, well-defined hole for the wood filler plug. The edge of the stile will be visible on end-run cabinets, so their appearance is critical in achieving a professional-looking project.

The face frame is an important part of this building system for two reasons. First, it allows us to construct a cabinet with a frameless-style carcass that will look traditional. Second, it gives the cabinet tremendous strength and rigidity. The cabinet is very resistive to racking and twisting, so the doors tend to remain in proper alignment. It’s important that you secure the face frame to the carcass edges with glue and nails.

As described earlier, I use good yellow polyvinyl acetate wood glue with 2″ spiral finishing nails that are countersunk and fill the holes with a wax stick. The nail holes, for the most part, will be hidden by the overlap of the cabinet door, so don’t be afraid of putting in too many nails. As a wise old carpenter once said, better to have one nail too many than one too few.

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