Attaching a Face Frame to a Plywood Built-In On Site

Tips and tricks for fastening face frames to built-ins without leaving nail holes. September 8, 2008

I am constructing a floor to ceiling built-in bookcase that will span two walls and return around an inside corner. To ease installation issues, the design I have come up with will comprise a series of stacked 3/4" plywood cabinets (each bookshelf bay will comprise a lower and an upper cabinet.) There will be ten 3' bookshelf bays.

I want to face the exposed edges with 2" hardwood frame after the cabinets are all installed and fixed together. The frame will cover the 1 1/2" thickness of adjoining cabinets). Due to the size of the bookshelves, I intended to fix the stiles directly to the ply cabinets, and then in-fill with the rails, rather than build a fully joined frame assembly.

My question is; how do I fix the framing pieces to the cabinet? I don't really want to use nails or screws. Would the Festool Domino and glue work ok without clamping? (I have the Domino machine, but do not have the edge clamps needed - anyway clamping would add a significant amount of time unless I bought a very large number of clamps to allow). Or am I approaching this the wrong way completely?

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor F:
Is it paint grade? If so, just glue and nail it on. You should only need a few brads to hold it until the glue dries. Biscuits wouldn't be a bad idea either. If you built it as a larger assembled unit, then you could hide some pocket screws.

From the original questioner:
It will be high end paint - possibly pre-finished 2-pack, so touching up nail holes will be a problem. If I used biscuits, would nails or clamps still be needed, or will they provide enough pressure until the glue dries?

From contributor P:

I'd use biscuits myself. You're going to have to come up with some sort of clamping solution though. You can buy edge clamps or maybe attach clamping blocks inside the box somewhere. It will have to be clamped somehow. You might try pin nails, but I personally wouldn't depend on them to hold the frame tight enough for gluing.

Now you might be able to use some sort of super-fast drying adhesive. I don't know what that would be though and you do have to have some sort of moisture for biscuits, and I think the Dominoes, so there's another concern. It would be much simpler to figure out a way to attach the faceframe before installing I think.

From contributor G:
I think you're over-thinking this one. I've done this kind of thing many times, and I usually use biscuits and pin nails. If you are concerned about the nail-holes, get a headless pinner.

The biscuits need to be coated properly with glue - not just squirted in the holes. The pin nails hold the parts in place until the biscuits swell and lock everything in place. Try this on some scrap and you will see. People get hung up about not using nails, but most of the highest quality furniture ever built had nails in it, and a good finisher can touch them up so that only the builder knows or cares that they are there.

From contributor T:
You could also try to apply the faceframe in the shop, overlapping one side onto the next cabinet with a staggered installation. I usually put one or two pockethole screws behind the top ff rail to pull it to the adjacent stile (if that makes sense). I've also had good luck using the hipur system glue for a quick strong bond - no nails as it keeps the finish nice. It probably wouldn't work with biscuits.

From contributor J:
What about some of those plastic barbed biscuits or the aluminum or steel snap together biscuits? You would just cut your slots insert both halves at the shop then snap together on site.

From contributor R:
How about using miller dowels? I've not used them for this type of application, but they feel like wood nails when you drive them in. They will be end grain, but the birch or cherry will eliminate open pores.

From the original questioner:
I will experiment on some scrap with gluing Dominoes and see if I can get the frame to sit tight enough to the case. Failing that, the Lamelo simplex aluminum plates sure look like a good idea. I don't know how available these are in Australia though!

From contributor Y:
A poor man's edge clamp, one which eliminates the need for biscuits, dowels or any other connector, is 4-6 c-clamps or light-duty bar clamps secured to the shelf. Having pre-cut and registered the location of each piece of solid edging stock, apply glue evenly to the shelf edge and hold the edging in place.

With protective pads so as to avoid shelf surface damage, place each clamp so that the bar sits about 1/8" off the edging. You will have pre-cut a bunch of small wedges. Place one between the clamp bar and the edging and tap it just snugly enough to squeeze out a little glue. Damp-rag the glue, allow for curing time and remove the clamps. (No need to tap the wedges out in advance of loosening the clamps). In a situation where this method can't be used, such as edging against a wall, ceiling or other edging, lift a sliver of edging with a sharp 1/4" chisel, hammer or shoot in a finish nail, and glue the sliver back in place.

From contributor O:
Make the frames 3" and put a 3/4"x2" filler piece on the back in the center forming a "T". Slide in-between the cabinets and screw from the inside and cover cap. Works great. On the end, we attach a 3/4" applied end with 3/4" filler strips on the inside (same setup) to keep the overlay the same. We do this with our KD bookshelves and they go up quick and look great!