Built-in Closet Face-Frame Construction

by Lorenz Prem on November 8 2011 3:34 pm
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Built-in closets are large and heavy things. Building face frames for closets is significantly harder than it is to build a frame for a cabinet. There are lots of places errors can happen. Let's take a look at what our options are.

The Anatomy of a Face-Frame

The face frame is a built from individual pieces of stock joined with pocket screws and glue. It is imperative that all pieces are straight, have a uniform width, and square ends. Imperfections will result in an uneven reveal around the closet's opening, out of square corners, or ill-fitting doors.

The joints between frame pieces need to be reinforced. Pocket screws driven in from the back of the frame are a good option. The joint only needs to be strong enough to keep from opening up. Once the frame is attached to the carcass, the glue joint running all around the frame will keep the pieces from moving under stress.

The frame is connected to the front of the carcass with glue. Clamps may or may not be an option. Face nailing can be used for painted projects.

Options

Frames for closets can built a number of ways. Each technique has its own challenges and qualities.

  • Build individual face frames in the shop
  • Build and install individual face frames on-site
  • Build a single face fame piece by piece on-site
  • Build a single monolithic face frame on-site; install it as a single unit

Let's take a look at each technique in detail:

Build individual Face-Frames in the Shop

Cabinet shops prefer to build the face frame in the shop. In the controlled environment of a professional woodworking shop quality face frames can be produced faster and more accurately than they can be on a job site. Clamps can be used since the whole cabinet carcass is accessible.

The downside of this approach is that it can only be done on closet units that can be moved into the customer's space. Narrow hallways and doorways may require each unit to be broken down into smaller pieces. This requirement effectively reduces the units to cabinet size. The closet becomes a stack of cabinets.

Once assembled the finished closet will show lines where the individual units meet. These marks identify lower quality, off the shelf closet units. Some installers cover these joints with molding.

This technique requires high precision from the hobby woodworker. The reveals of the face frame of each individual unit in a closet install must be perfect in order to create one continuous border running the entire length of the closet. Installation must be equally error free. Cabinet shops with their professional equipment have no problem producing a product of this quality.

Build and install individual Face-Frames on site

If the cabinets are large enough to necessitate on-site assembly, the face frame must be assembled on-site as well. Since the unit is not attached to the wall yet, the face frame can be installed with glue and clamps. This creates a much better bond between the frame and the cabinet than the techniques used for uniform frames.

As noted before, this technique will produce lines between the individual closet units. High accuracy is a must.

Build a single Face-Fame Piece by Piece on-site

To avoid joints between the closet units, the face frame pieces must run continuously from one side of the closet to the other. The pieces must bridge units.

The pieces of the face frame are cut and installed on the carcass individually. Each board will fit perfectly, since the woodworker can spend all his attention on the fit of just one board.

Joints between the boards of the face frame, however, cannot be reinforced. Pocket screws cannot be used, unless drilled from the front.

The joint where the long vertical stiles meet the horizontal rails are prone to splitting. Unless you find a way to reinforce these joints, I would not use this technique.

Build a single monolithic Face-Frame on-site

The final technique requires assembly of the entire face frame before attaching it to the carcass. This technique produce the continuous front we want to see. It is difficult to carry out, however. Since clamps cannot be used, the technique can produce a weak bond between the face frame and the cabinet carcass.

Like with the previous technique, the frame is built piece by piece. Instead of attaching each piece individually, the pieces are laid out on the ground. Once all pieces have been the cut, they are joined with glue and pocket screws. The entire frame is lifted into place and secured with glue and nails.

The difficulty of executing this technique is in creating accurate measurements for the individual pieces. Since all of the pieces are lying on the ground, measurements have to be taken without clear reference points taken from pieces already attached to the carcass. If the closet carcass has imperfections that necessitate custom cut pieces, it is much harder to create an accurate measurement.

If you simply build a face frame to the dimensions specified in the plan, you are counting on the cabinets to be perfectly built and installed to specs. Any error anywhere will cause uneven reveals all around the project. I believe that most hobbyists do not work accurately enough to make this technique viable.

Since the entire face frame is accessible on the ground, it is possible enforce the corners with pocket screw. This greatly increases the strength of the frame. The joint between the frame and the cabinet carcass, however, will be relatively weak. Face nailing and glue don't create as good of a bond as glue and clamps produce. Face frame clamps can be used, but few woodworkers own enough to cover an entire closet. I don't have any.

I built the face frames for my closets using this technique. The two frames came out fine. In some places the frame pulled away from the carcass before the glue dried. I did not flatten the front of the carcass properly. Wood putty will fill these gaps and make them invisible in the final product. I still took a hit to my professional pride. Maybe a few face frame clamps need to go on my shopping list.

Ignoring Drawer Units

The individual rungs of a unit of drawers can be ignored during assembly of the face frame. They do not affect the alignment of the rest of the face frame. Once the frame is in place, the rungs can be installed individually. The back of each rung is accessible, which makes pocket hole joinery a good option. Keeping the back of the unit accessible makes it easier to finish the inside of the box.

Summary

Face frame installation is when reality hits. If the carcass runs true and is installed correctly, the frame will go on easy. Once the glue dries you'll have something that looks like a closet. If anything is off, you'll notice it at this stage. You'll have to fight to get the work done. It pays to be accurate.

Built-In Closet Series

About the Author
"Lorenz is the founder of Hingmy. When he is not reviewing power tools or improving the site, he is building things in his workshop or playing hockey."
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