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How to build a Face Frame Cabinet

by Lorenz Prem
published on December 5 2012 4:17 pm

Face frame cabinets have a long tradition in the US. Their solid-wood show surface makes face frame cabinets a popular choice in high-end kitchens. A face frame cabinet takes more time and materials to build than a frameless cabinet, but it has an elegance that some customers crave. Let's take a look at how one of these cabinets is constructed.

Face frame cabinet

The face-frame cabinet gets its name from the solid frame that is attached to the front face of the cabinet. This frame is both decorative and structural. The elements of the frame are wider than the cabinet panels. This creates a lip around the front opening of the cabinet, and heavier overall appearance. This, in turn, allows the spacing between adjacent drawers to be larger.

The face frame is typically built from solid wood. Combined with a drawer front built from the same wood, the front face of a face frame cabinet is made from solid wood. This creates a distinctive old-world look, as opposed to the modern style of frameless cabinets.

Since the face frame is a structural member, the cabinet carcass requires fewer cross members than a frameless cabinet. Corner blocks take the place of continuous cross members at the top of the cabinet.


The sides and bottom of the cabinet are made from 3/4" cabinet grade plywood. The pieces are joined with dowels placed on all mating surfaces. Dowels create a strong bond as well as align the pieces without the need for extra care during assembly. The dowel joint is used primarily in industrial shops where CNC machines perfectly place each dowel.

In a hobby shops dowel joints can be time consuming to place accurately. Alternatively biscuits can be used instead of the dowels. The cabinet parts will no longer self-align themselves during assembly, but the resulting joint will be just as strong as the dowel joint.

Another alternative is a rabbet joint cut into the sides of the cabinet that accepts the bottom. Reinforced with screws driven through the side this practice results in a very strong cabinet carcass. As long as the screw holes in the side of the cabinet don't show, this method is a good choice for small shops.

The back of the cabinet is made from 1/4" plywood. It's main function besides covering the back is to square the cabinet. The back carries no weight. It is installed in a 1/4" dado cut into the bottom and both sides. A 3/4" cross brace near the top is the only structural member of the back. During installation the cabinet is attached to the wall with screws driven through this brace. This transfers any load from the counter top through the brace into the walls.

The corner blocks at the top of the cabinet keep the cabinet square during construction and transportation. After the cabinets are installed and the counter top is attached, the blocks experience very little racking force during daily use. The counter top helps to keep the cabinets square.

The face frame is built separately. Pocket holes, screws and glue are used to reinforce the four joints in the corners. If the frame has cross members for drawer openings, these too are added to the frame before it is installed.

The frame is attached to the carcass with biscuits and glue. This eliminates any holes for fasteners in the front face of the face frame. A good amount of clamps are required to attach the frame to the carcass during the glue-up.

Cabinet Base

As with frameless cabinets the base of a face frame cabinet is built separately. It is attached to the cabinet with screws driven through the base into the underside of the cabinet. The base is constructed from the same material the cabinet is made from. This makes efficient use of cutoffs.

The base is held together with brad nails and glue. Screws can be used to further increase the rigidity of the base. An individual base can be dimensioned for a single cabinet or, if a site plan is available, for several cabinets at a time. Bases that span cabinets are easier to level on the job site. Installation of the cabinets becomes easier and faster.


Face frame cabinets are constructed almost the same way frameless cabinets are. The solid, structural face frame eliminates the need for solid cross members at the top of the cabinets. The frame is built separately from the cabinet carcass. The two are married during final assembly.

The main benefit of a face frame cabinet is the solid wood front face it presents to the user. Functionally and structurally a face frame cabinet is equivalent to a frameless cabinet.

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."