Face Frames First?

Most small cabinet shops build face frames first, boxes second. Here, woodworkers explain their preferences. July 5, 2006

Which do you prefer to make first, frames or boxes? Why? (This question is geared toward smaller shops with fewer employees where these tasks aren't necessarily done simultaneously.)

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor J:
We prefer to make the frames first. We found this to be better when it came time to dado the sides and bottoms of the cabinets. If there was any discrepancy in the drawing of where to dado, we have the frame we can measure. It just seems to paint a better picture of the cabinet before it is built. I know what the job will look like, but my guy in the back doesn't until he gets a picture.

From contributor E:
We lay out and build the frames first, we assemble them with pocket screws and the occasional biscuit. Then we finish them and install them on the boxes (sometimes on site on the wall) using pocket screws, cleats, glue, biscuits, even screws or nails through the face if we can hide 'em with molding.

I should add that we only do beaded inset frames (applied bead), no overlay. Mostly high end residential library/office/theater/built-ins, etc. Very few kitchens. I try to spray as much as I can horizontally. We often sail the frame 3/4" past the unfinished cabinet side and use end panels to hide it. We stain and finish cabinet parts (if necessary) prior to assembly. I'll even skin the interior of an open cabinet with 1/4" stained material rather than spray a box.

We're a small shop and often the boxes are the last parts we assemble. (We use confirmat screws and pre-finished maple ply.) We even cut, assemble and finish as much of the crown and base as we can in the shop (by building platforms, horseshoes, L's, self returns, precut copes, etc.). I preach the virtue of outsourcing the labor intensive stuff. My telephone and internet connection are among my most valuable tools.

From contributor M:

I do the frames first. It saves a lot of space. I tend to screw on my face frame and you can use pre-finished interior wood in your box. By finishing the face frame by itself, you do not have to worry about overspray in your box.

From contributor T:
No doubt... frames first. It opens up all of the other avenues of building the cabinet. As soon as the frame is done, you can build doors, drawer boxes, drawers, adjustable shelving and anything else that goes in the cabinet. If you use grooves in the sides of your frame, you can also use the frame for all of the measurements for your case parts. Also, if you build the case to the frame, everything will be square behind the frame (if the frame is square). Just so many advantages to frames first… to me, it's silly not to do it this way.

From contributor L:
I like to keep all my hardwood processes separate from my plywood processes. I have a pretty small shop, and I mill out and assemble all doors and face frames and set drawer parts aside, then cut out all my plywood at once, run all dadoes, rabbets, etc. It usually takes less than a day to rough out and sand all the plywood for the average kitchen, then I start to assemble the cases three or four at a time, and I can follow them right around and put the finished frames on. Then they stack nicely next to a big set of doors and are ready to ship out to the finisher. I find it maximizes my elbow-room time, but if you have access to space, you could probably do it either way just as efficiently.

From contributor R:
I build cases first because I don't have a panel saw. I still am using a sled on my PM66 to cut sheet goods. If any discrepancy in the product happens, it's there. I have equipment that allows me to cut face frames to great accuracy, so it's easier to make the frames fit the case than the other way around. I also build all case work with lockmiter corners and it's easier to fit the frames to the case when doing lockmiters.

From contributor L:
We do: frames first (including sanding/routing), then drawers, then cut all case parts, then all backs/nailers/stretchers. All parts are then stacked in rows at the assembly table, including hardware, shelf pins, etc... with sides on top, then bottom, back, so on. Works well for us, especially when there are interruptions in the flow (which are many).

From contributor I:
We have a two man shop. I produce a layered drawing of the project and then separate door fronts, face frames and boxes. One guy builds the frames while the other guy builds the boxes. Then one guy sprays while the other guy builds drawers and accessories. Seems to work fine.

From contributor K:
Frames first. I figure that everything in the box indexes off the frame, so there's less likelihood of cutting a bottom, top, or back the wrong size when you have a definite size to work from. Same is true for drawer boxes and to a lesser extent doors and drawer fronts. I've screwed those up from the drawings more than once. Like many others, I finish my frames off the box. It's much easier for me that way.

From contributor U:
We make the face frame first with the groove on the finished end. I cut the floor and back the same length, as well as the toe kick. We put the face frame on the table with the floor side toward us. We put the finished side in the groove and then the floor gets shot to the frame, squared and pocket screwed to the finished side. Then the other side goes on with pocket screws unless it is a finished end, too. Then the toe kick is pocket screwed in place. We then do all the sanding. We then spray the cabinet with the back off and the shelves out. When the finish is done, we install the shelves and back, corner blocks, drawers, doors and wrap with plastic and put in the trailer. This is different than some of the other methods described.

From contributor B:
I prefer to build the boxes first. I use unfinished plywood and finish the interior of the boxes before applying the frames. I put the frames together, sand them, apply them, then sand again where needed. I have some assorted cardboards to protect the interior of the boxes from overspray when the face frames are finished.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the responses. I'm leaning on the frame first side, too. We've done it every way. Lately it's been boxes first, and I'm finding that slightly out of square cuts seem to compound to a greater degree this way, causing way more problems than with frame first.

For you guys that pre-finish frames and boxes - do you have any ply to frame joints that are flush, or do you overhang the plywood all the time no matter what? We have customers who love the floor of their cabinets to be flush with the frame on the inside. (I hate this. A lot.)

From contributor K:
I don't ask the question about the ply being flush. Now that I think about it, I don't think I've ever had a customer mention it, either. I drop mine down about 1/8" below the frame and pocket screw the ply to the inside of the frame. If it's a long cabinet, I might even put a cleat underneath. Depends on what kind of mood I'm in. Today, no cleats :-)

From contributor M:

I always leave an overhang. If not, what do you have to play with?

Contributor B, you are wasting time if you are not using pre-finished plywood on the inside. I tried doing what you are doing and it took me twice as long. The pre-finished plywood cost me $3 more per sheet and it is well worth it!

From contributor E:
Ditto the pre-finished ply. I can't imagine spraying cabinet interiors. I own several Kremlin spray systems, arguably the best system to spray into boxes and corners, and still avoid it like the plague. We also leave an overhang.

From contributor G:
Spraying cab interiors isn't tough - they don't have to be perfect, after all. Drying time excluded, I figure actual spraying time 2 coats is maybe 90 sec and 2 min sanding. Why not do the frames at the same time?

From contributor E:
You're right, spraying boxes isn't tough. I contend that it also isn't necessary. Pre-finished is easier and less expensive in the long run. (Kinda like ordering doors.)

From contributor T:
90 seconds? Mixing and cleaning up alone will be 5 times that amount. If you want any kind of decent finish, it will take more than a few minutes to sand. I've sprayed plenty of interiors, and still do… but am seriously considering pre-finished.

From contributor K:
I just can't see a downside to the pre-finished ply if you can get good plywood. More and more customers are commenting on it and I've even had some finish carpenters and other subs taking notice and pointing out they like it. If you can get it done in 90 seconds, more power to you. It would take me an hour to clean the gun.

From contributor A:
Face frames first. You get to see what's being built. Then doors and drawers. I finish my ply, then cut and assemble to the dadoed front.