Installation Comparison Face Frame Versus Frameless

Are the efficiencies of frameless construction canceled out by installation difficulties? There is more than one point of view on the question. April 21, 2007

I'm revisiting this tired subject because I have been doing both frameless and face frame cabinets for residential work now for some time, and have formed some conclusions I hadn't previously come to.

Frameless are a breeze in the shop, in so much as you only have to mill all your box pieces, edge them, assemble them, and put the wood veneers on the surfaces that show after installation (finish ends, etc.). You can even pre-finish your wood veneer in large sheets before you assemble.

But there's one big headache in the shop with frameless: I have found that you generally have to build and attach face frames for built-in appliances like wall ovens and refrigerators, or even non-built-in refrigerators which are boxed in. With face frame cabinets you have to make and attach frames on all the cabinets, but there are no special adaptations needed for built-ins or refrigerators. That problem is already solved.

Installation is where the work factor is reversed: frameless become more work because they are much less adjustable for fitting purposes. Where cabinets meet at inside corners, there's always the worry over rather the doors will meet each other with the correct spacing, and clearance for drawers pulling out, etc. Also, providing for crown moulding in situations where the cabinets go to the ceiling is a big hassle. You have to set up some system where the crown moulding starts exactly above the doors but proud of them in the face plane and goes up to the exact ceiling line without having to scribe too much off the moulding itself or leaving gaps between the moulding and the ceiling. With face frame, there's usually a wide top rail to plant the moulding on which hides a little variation in the run of the moulding.

All in all, I find that a lot of the labor savings in the shop for frameless is cancelled out in its hassle factor during installation.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor J:
We build frameless cabinets. I think they are easier to install than face frame, but maybe it is because I am used to it. I really don't like pre-drilling and screwing through face frames. I think it is much easier to screw 2 pieces of 3/4" together.

We have what we feel are easy ways to deal with the problems that you have been having with your frameless installs.

Problem 1) "Where cabinets meet at inside corners, there's always the worry over rather the doors will meet each other with the correct spacing."

Our solution: We build a 3" by 3" corner filler. This is built in the shop when the rest of our fillers are built. When it comes time to install, we just screw it on like we would any other cabinet.

Problem 2) "and clearance for drawers pulling out, etc."

Our solution: The only time a 3" by 3" filler has not been enough was when we were putting a drawer bank then 3" filler, turning 90 degrees and putting a dishwasher. For that we use a 5" filler so that the drawers will open. This has only happened once. For everything else, we use a 3" by 3" and have had no problems.

Problem 3) "Also, providing for crown moulding in situations where the cabinets go to the ceiling is a big hassle."

Our solution: When building an upper cabinet, we attach a piece of what we call subcrown to the top of the cabinet and on the bench. This is usually a piece of particleboard. This piece is stapled flush with the front of the cabinet and is used to support what we call crown build-up. This is a 3/4" by 1 1/2" piece stained and finished to match the doors. This piece goes on top of the subcrown and is installed so that the reveal between it and the doors is 1/8". The crown attaches to the face of the crown build-up. This gives the crown some fudge when attaching to the ceiling. You do have to attach the crown build-up and the crown instead of just the crown, but not having to mill, cut, assemble, sand, finish, and attach a face frame to every cabinet more than makes up for this.

From contributor X:
My customer dictates what I build, but I'm more inclined to push face frame cabinetry. I prefer making face frame cabinets in one piece. If I can get it in the door and in position in one piece with the cabinet being 10 feet in length or even longer, that is how I will build it. My installation time is vastly reduced. I set and scribe the bases, then do the uppers. I'm not connecting cabinets together out in the field. I try to do things as easy as possible for these old bones.

From contributor R:
We build frameless also, and do like contributor J with 3" fillers, or scribes as we like to call them. Sounds fancier to customers also.

Our solution to your crown mold issue: We cut 3" tall valances to run across the tops of cabinets, and with the 1" to 2" gap we always leave between the cabinet and ceiling, the crown fits just like your face frame cabinets. The valance is flush (almost) with the doors for a nice finished look.

From contributor E:
I build mostly frameless, although I will tackle the occasional face frame piece. I'm not sure why you would need to build a face frame for appliance installations. I build a wall oven cabinet the same way I build all my other frameless and have no issues. My refrigerators will usually have tall panels on either side for a built-in look. And corners almost always have corner cabinets, which does away with worrying about drawer clearances. In the odd occasion where a corner cabinet cannot be used, then a 2" or even 3" corner filler, as previously stated, will work.

As for installation, I also prefer frameless. For the base cabinets I use ladder frame construction. It's fast, easy, and accurate. You just install the ladder frame and the cabinets pop right in place. You know everything will line up because the boxes just attach to each other. Once the whole run is connected, I shim and fasten to the wall. For uppers I use deadmen to hold the boxes up, and use the same process of connecting all the boxes to each other and then to the wall.

Finally the top of the cabinets get a nailer attached, which is basically a 1"x3" finished block, set 1" out from the cabinet. This allows the crown to be flush with the front of the doors.

Works great for me, but everyone has to have their own methods and no one way is necessarily better than another.

From the original questioner:
I think it's a great to create a little valance above the uppers to give you a little wiggle room for your crown.

Also, in the original post I forgot to mention that one of the greatest advantages to frameless construction for me is that you can built all cabinets in modules and hook them together at installation without the seams showing. This beats the hell out of building long cabinet runs as single units to avoid showing face frame seams.

From contributor N:
I build 80% face frame. I think that the more complex the kitchen (angles, varied height and depth, large runs of drawer boxes, etc.), the less advantages euro cabinets have. By the time you attach filler panels, crown valances, light rails, etc., you could have built a face frame.

From contributor A:
I have installed many kitchens over the past 26 years, both face frame and frameless. For me without a doubt, frameless cabinets are easier to install. The biggest time saver is base cabinets adjustable legs on frameless cabinets make it easy to get your cabinets in flat and level on an uneven floor. I hate having to scribe and trim and shim the sides of face frame base cabinets. As far as upper cabinets go, just drilling through the line bore and fastening cabinet sides with screws and posts is much easier than trying to screw face frames together. It is true for crown mouldings you have to add a valance to the top of the cabinets, but I see this as an advantage because you can pull the valance forward flush with the doors to give your cabinets a full inset look. I usually put a valance at the bottom of the upper cabinet also to complete the inset look and to hide under-cabinet lighting. I have never had trouble installing appliances because I believe it is easier to add fillers to the frameless cabinet around the appliance than to cut out a face frame. If done correctly, the fillers will be in the same plane as the doors and the valances to complete the full inset look.

From contributor L:
If you use the full Euro system, they are easy to install/adjust. Levelers, sex bolts, hanging rail with adjusters, laser - valances and scribes/fillers. If they aren't built square, you will have problems, but the system works very well.

From contributor D:
One thing being left out is how easy drawers are. We do not have to use fillers for slides but we do put a rail under each drawer. And drawers can be built as soon as the bottoms of the cabinets are cut.

From contributor L:
What does cutting the bottom of the cabinet have to do with when you build the drawers? Euro boxes make sense because they are very system oriented. By using the full system, labor is reduced. You do need to invest in the correct machines to make the system work. A PM66 won't cut it!