Traditional Frame-and-Panel Construction for Cabinets

Traditional Frame-and-Panel Construction for Cabinets


In earlier times, panel and composites such as plywoods and particle core boards were unavailable. When they began making an appearance, acceptance was limited in the cabinetmaking field. Most cabinetmakers in those days “glued up” solid wood to form a panel for cabinet construction. A number of joints, typically the dado, rabbet and mortise and tenon, are all used in frame-and-panel construction.

Also, the availability of wide solid-wood boards was far greater than today, so it was quite common to have a mill produce full 12″ and larger planks for cabinet work. Most cabinetmakers, like my father, commonly used these wide boards to produce kitchen cabinet parts such as sides and shelves for base units. And solid full-size boards were used to build upper cabinets. Today you would have difficulty locating a solid-wood board over 10″, and if you were lucky enough to find a supply of these boards, they would most likely be very expensive.

As the wider boards began to disappear, frame-and-panel construction became more popular. This construction style also eliminated the checking and splitting problem common with solid-wood panels. Another beneficial factor that made frame-and-panel construction more acceptable was its reduced-weight properties when compared to a solid-wood panel.

The cabinetmaking system described in this book uses the “look” of traditional frame-and-panel construction when finishing the end of exposed cabinets. Refer to chapter eight, Special Cabinets and Accessories under the End Cabinets heading.

As the man-made composite boards gained acceptance, frame-and-panel-style construction methods continued to be applied when building cabinets using the new products.

Today’s modular-style cabinets were unheard of twenty years ago. Most kitchens were either built as frame-and-panel or “stick” built in place. I often replace older kitchens that were built on the spot, and in most cases the walls play an important part in holding the cabinets in place and together.

Frame-and-panel-style cabinetmaking continues to be a viable option, particularly when building cabinets for turn-of-the-century homes. Dimensions used in this book for man-made composite boards can easily be applied to traditional frame-and-panel construction. A glued-up panel inserted into a hardwood frame is simply one part of a cabinet, much like a PCB cabinet side. The backs, bottoms, tops and shelves of the cabinets are normally solid glued-up wood panels cut to size.

If you’re lucky enough to own a turn-of-the-century home and want the look of “original” cabinetry, the frame-and-panel method will give you very dramatic results.


Initially, in the planning stage, make some basic decisions on cabinet style. Do you want absolute authenticity with the turn-of-the-century cabinets or do you want modern features? Adjustable shelves, cabinet legs, removable toe kick boards, pull-outs and modern hinges are interior features that may or may not be a priority.

Base cabinets can have frame-and-panel sides, if they are exposed, and glued-up tops, bottoms and shelves.

Face frames, simply a frame without a panel, are built in the same style as the modern cabinets in this book. However, corner joinery can be mortise-and-tenon, lap joint or dowels to give that old-time look. I would also suggest attaching the face frame to the cabinet face with old-style cut nails, which can be purchased from outlets specializing in antique hardware.

If you want the added feature of adjustable shelves, you can maintain the look of older-style cabinetry by using wood dowel pins in drilled holes in place of the modern plastic shelf supports.

Door hinge choice might cause some difficulties, as older-style hinges do not have the adjustment range or the ability to maintain their position over time. You may have to add a center stile in your cabinet design to allow for hinge movement. The Euro or hidden hinge is very precise and the center stile can be eliminated, but it may defeat the old-time cabinet style appearance that you’re trying to achieve. If you want to use antique hinges, add the center stile to the cabinets and install the doors on the cabinet face frame so that you maintain a 1/4″ gap between doors on two-door cabinets. This will allow you to easily mount the doors, and the door gap will be covered by the center stile. Face frame stile width on the standard cabinet is 1″, so there should be room to mount the doors, depending on the style of
the antique hinges.

You can achieve the traditional frame-and-panel look with your cabinetry and still use all the dimensions in this book. All the cabinet part sizes remain the same, including the doors. If you require a side 221/2″ x 31″, build the frame and panel to that finished size. However, take the thickness of the panel into account when determining cabinet width for shelf, bottom, top and face frame sizes. You may very well have a 3/4″-thick or greater side. If the standard 30″ base cabinet requires a 28″ bottom board, that is referenced to Ys”-thick side material. Simply adjust the width of the bottom, top and shelf boards to maintain the maximum standard width to accommodate doors and face frames.

It’s also good practice to leave a 1/8″ space on all sides of the panel in the frame. This allows room for the solid boards to expand should there be high humidity levels in your area. Remember, wood expands and contracts, so to avoid problems, leave room for the panel to float in the frame. Do not glue the panel to the frame (the same rule applies when constructing raised-panel doors).

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