Frameless Cabinet Joinery
HASSLE-FREE AND FAST
I’ve always liked the clean, modern look of cabinets built without face frames. My early attempts involved building plywood boxes first and applying hardwood edging later. But cutting, fitting, gluing, and clamping each edging piece was frustratingly slow—and that was nothing compared to leveling the edging flush with the plywood, a task that was especially aggravating on the inside corners.
I had almost given up making this style of cabinet when I learned a new technique that streamlines construction. It allows you to put the edging on before assembly. Flushing up the edging on a flat panel is no problem. I can even pre-finish the cabinet parts before gluing them together. I get perfect looking butt joints and an almost invisible line where the edging joins the plywood (see photo far left).
Here’s how it works.
1. Cut all your cabinet parts to size. Leave one shelf about 1/2-in. long to use later for test cuts.
2. Cut all the rabbets and dadoes (Photo 1). Because this technique requires consistent . dado depth I prefer to use a router and a jig rather than a tablesaw.
3. Glue the hardwood edges to the side panels and shelves by sandwiching a single piece of hardwood between two panels (Photo 2). The hardwood piece is twice as thick as the finish thickness of the edging plus an extra 1/8-in. for the saw kerf. For example, for a 3/16-in. thick hardwood edge use a 1/2-in. thick piece of hardwood. I like the looks of a thin edge and it still offers plenty of protection for the plywood edge.
4. Rip the glued-together panels (Photo 3). The hardwood edge creates stopped dados and rabbets on the cabinet sides.
5. Flush up the edging with the panels. I start with a block plane (Photo 4) and finish with a light sanding. Using a power sander is asking for a sand-through on the veneer.
6. Trim the edging to length with a handsaw.
7. Use the extra long shelf to set your jointer for notching the plywood (Photo 5). It’ll take some trial and error to get the depth of cut just right. The extra length on the shelf allows you to trim and retest the joints’ fit.
Cut all dadoes and rabbets with a router, a pattern bit and a simple dado jig. A couple of offcuts are all you need to perfectly size your dadoes without fussy trial and error set-ups.
Glue a single strip of hardwood edging to two panels at once. The single piece of edging is twice the desired thickness of the finished edge plus a saw kerf thickness more. Scrap wood protects the plywood edges.
Rip the panels down the middle of the edging.
8. Test the shelf’s fit by sliding it forward in the rabbet (Photo 6). If the notched edge butts into the back of the side’s edging, the cut needs to be made deeper. If the notch slides over the side’s edging and leaves a gap, the jointer needs to be set for a shallower cut.
9. Once you get the right fit, go ahead and notch all the shelves.
10. Dry fit the cabinet to check for any problem areas. An open joint is almost always the result of a high spot in a dado.
11. Do any finish sanding on the edges while the cabinet is clamped together. It’s too easy to ruin the fit if you sand the edging when the cabinet is apart.
12. Disassemble the cabinet and finish sand the flat panels taking care not to round the corners on the hardwood edges at the joints.
13. At this point, you can reassemble the cabinet with glue or prefinish the panels and then assemble. Be sure to tape off glue areas and be careful not to build the finish on the shelves so much they no longer fit the dado. I often stain and seal before assembly, then add the last coat or two when the cabinet is glued together.
Plane the edging flush with the panel sides. A block plane gives better control than a power sander. Set the blade for a light cut and ride the plane’s heel on the panel.
Test cut a notch on the leading edge of a shelf that’s been cut extra long. The jointer’s depth of cut must exactly equal the dada’s depth. It takes a little trial and error to get the right setting on the jointer.
Slide the shelf forward in the joint to test the depth of the notch. The notch is cut long enough to leave no trace of the cutterhead radius on the hardwood edge.