Building with Prefinished Face Frames and Plywood

Cabinetmakers discuss the fine points of assembling cabinets using prefinished face frames and half-inch prefinished plywood. July 5, 2006

I've been toying with the idea of prefinishing my face frames and maybe even using prefinished plywood. My problem is that we build our boxes out of half inch material. Is anyone else prefinishing their face frames and building their boxes out of 1/2 inch? If so how are you attaching the faces?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor A:
I don't build that way, but I know how it's done. You need to do a 1/2" dado in the face frame or a combination of a smaller dado in the frame and a rabbeted edge on the panel.

From contributor B:
I prefinish my frames and for a long time used 1/2" prefinished plywood with the finished side facing in. Now I use 3/4" prefinished but only because I dado the bottoms, tops, and backs and prefer the added thickness. 1/2" works just as well, particularly if you butt joint and screw the box together. There was a thread some time back where this was discussed and I think many, if not the majority, use 1/2".

With both, I put a groove in the frame to receive the plywood and pocket screw the plywood to the stiles. Just play with the depth on whatever you drill your pocket screws with so you don't put the screws through the front of the frame. If it will be a finished end, I make the groove 1/4" wider so I can prefinish and apply a plywood end panel. This also covers the pocket screw holes. I started prefinishing about a year ago and using the prefinished ply shortly after. It's faster, easier and I've gotten great feedback from my customers about the clean inside look.

A word of caution - be careful when you buy the prefinished ply. There's some real garbage out there, particularly some of the Asian import stuff.

From contributor C:

We build our frames using pocket screws. We v-groove all of the joints. Finish them first. Use 3/4" prefinished ply for the cases and attach them using pocket screws, cleats, even screws through the face if we can hide it with molding. It's fast and easy.

From contributor D:
I dado the face frames and pocket screw also. To contributor C: If I understand correctly you put a V groove in the face frame and V the end panels. What do you use to V groove the face frame? Dado blade at a 45?

From contributor C:
We use a laminate trimmer router with a 45 degree bit. I learned long ago to celebrate the seam rather than try to hide it. Better to look intentional than to look like you tried and missed.

From the original questioner:
To contributor B: When you pocket screw 1/2" ply into the stiles, do you have any problems with splits or anything due to the thickness of the panel? I've used pocket screws with 3/4" ply before with no problems, but always assumed 1/2" was too thin.

From contributor B:
I've never encountered a problem with the plywood splitting. I still use a Kreg jig. The kind you mount to a board I can't remember the name of it, but it has an adapter for 1/2" material. I use the 1" screws and it's always worked fine. I forgot to mention that I glue that joint also but that may be a little bit of overkill. The pocket screws form a good solid joint. I've always been one to err on the side of caution and besides, glue's cheap.

From contributor E:
We made this change about 6 months ago and it has been great for us, particularly with all the dark red colors we'd been getting for the last year or so. Before, we masked off the interiors. The pre-finishing eliminates this and makes a nice clean interior. We attach face frames with pocket screws. It took a little tinkering to get them set so you wouldn't come through the edge of the bottom rail on the bottom decks. For pocketing the bottom decks, we made a sled that fits over the Foreman machine. It is 1/8" masonite with a cleat on each side to fit the surface of the machine. This way, we don't have to always be re-setting the depth fence. Anyway, pocket screws. Go for it. It will increase your productivity and make a cleaner product, in my opinion.

From contributor B:
To contributor E: I'm getting ready to buy the Foreman and a Kreg Face Frame table. How do you like the Foreman and which one do you have: electric or pneumatic?

From contributor E:
We used a PC 552 for about 4 years and then it laid down (after replacing both motors at least once). I always said I'd buy a Kreg when it came time and I'm glad I did. It is so much smoother, faster, and quieter; pull the handle and you're done. The shifting with the shallower angle is a non-issue. I have the electric. I would love to have a dedicated frame table but just can't spare the room. Has anyone made a dual -purpose assembly table by using the rout-in keyhole clamp plates?

From contributor B:
To contributor E: I've heard nothing but good things about the electric Foreman. I've heard the clamp on the pneumatic doesn't hold as well. I don't have room for this face frame table either, but I really need one and don't have time to build one. I haven't tried the keyhole clamp. It just doesn't look like it would fill the need.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
If you dado your frame with a half inch wide quarter deep slot to receive the ply set in 1/4 from the outside of your face frame you will have an automatic scribe or the option to add 1/4 species ply to make a finished end. The obvious or v groove idea looks great to for the finished ends. Attach the ply to the frame using strong glue and wedge nails. Senco makes a great gun for this - clamp tightly as it kicks hard. For a less expensive route use strong glue and nails through the outside of the ply at a shallow angle into the face frame. It's a lot lower of a price than screws and the angled nails will hold forever.