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Face Frame Cabinets


Face Frame Cabinets

Master these techniques to open up a world of projects.

By George Vondriska

If you can make dadoes, rabbets and face frames, you can make almost any cabinet. Master this foundation of skills and you’ll be ready to launch into complex variations of the simple cabinet shown in this story. Here’s how:

Face-frame cabinets are little more than plywood boxes covered by a solid-wood frame. The frame adds strength and rigidity to the box, while covering the ugly plywood edges. In this story I’ll take you through the building of a typical freestanding wall cabinet. The concepts and techniques can also be used for kitchen cabinets, bathroom vanities and bookcases. There’s plenty of room for mistakes, and I’ve made them all over the years. To stay in business, and provide my students with shortcuts to success, I’ve developed systems for avoiding these kindling-producing errors.

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Dado the case sides to receive the cabinet bottom. Be certain the dado head is set up correctly for your sheet stock. The shelf should slip into the dado with no more than hand pressure, and the parts should stick together when you try to separate them. Setting up the dadoes can be fussy, and may require dado shims (thin material that allows you to change the width of the head a few thousandths of an inch; see Sources). Take the time to get it right. The correct depth for dadoes and rabbets is one-half the thickness of whatever they’re being cut into. 3/4-in. plywood gets a 3/8-in. dado.

Caution: The blade guard must be removed for all of these dado blade cuts. Be careful.

Click any image to view a larger version.

Rabbet the back edges of the case sides, top and bottom to receive the back. Use the procedure shown in Photo 4 to make the rabbets slightly deeper than the back requires. Don’t disassemble the dado head for this thinner material, just bury part of the head in the sacrificial fence.

Assemble the case, keeping the front edges flush. Clamp pads protect the wood surface. Old plastic honey bottles make great glue bottles—just keep them out of the reach of children. Use just enough glue in the joint to cover the surface; it’s just like applying paint.

Rip the face frame pieces to width with a jointed edge against the fence. Make them 1/16-in. wider than the finished size so the sawn edge can be cleaned up. Use a push stick for these narrow pieces. My rule of thumb for keeping both thumbs is to use a push stick on rips less than 3-in. wide.

Use screw pockets to join the rails to the stiles. Face frames can be joined by dowels, mortises and tenons, minibiscuits or simple, fast, effective screw pockets. Mark the rail faces and be sure the holes get drilled only in the backs of the rails. Incorrectly flipping parts around has put some rails in my scrap pile.


It’s a temptation to cut the face frame exactly the same size as the case. Unfortunately, this often leads to disaster. When you glue the face frame on, it often slips sideways a bit, so you can end up with the unfortunate and unfixable result shown at right. The solution is to build the face frame slightly oversize, as we show in Photos 13 and 15.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker December 2001, issue #91.

December 2001, issue #91

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