Process For Large Built-in Cabinets


From original questioner:

Long time reader, first time poster..
I have been a finish carpenter for 30 years now and I'm transitioning into doing more cabinet making instead of installations. I'd like to put together a procedure of sorts to build specific types of cabinets. The reason why I'm being so anal about this is because I work from a very small shop (appx 300 sqft) so my procedure's needs to flow well or else.. I have no room to work.

The types of cabinets that I've been designing are large built-ins. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall. I design cabinets with Mozaik Software and have gotten many calls for my designs. All my cabinets are paint grade and I do the finishing myself.. The first few cabinets I did, I learned that space is very important and maybe, just maybe finishing these cabinets is better done in the field.

My complications and the main reason I'm writing this is concerning larger cabinets with no pop-outs or breaks as I call them (8-10 feet tall by 8-20 feet long) Here are some static methods I don't want to change, and also the things I'm willing to change as far as my construction method on these large cabinets

All my cabinets are paint grade
All my cabinets have a faceframe
All my cabinets use euro hinges

I like my cabinets to have a seamless look between the face frames, but achieving this means (A) I have to build very large face frames and attach them on the job and (b) All my boxes need to line up perfectly in order for my 'fixed shelving noses' and drawer banks to line up. My research suggests that finishing cabinets in an occupied home is a huge mistake, considering I use an HVLP sprayer. The preferred method that I've read is clamping finished frames to finished cabinets with 3-way clamps and glue but after 25 years installing cabinets I know that transportation and installation almost always dings a few corners here and there and I hardly thinks with uneven walls and floors that this type of frame installation can be as perfect as I want it to be.
With that said, joining multiple face frame cabinets along the same horizontal AND vertical plane's over and above 8-20 feet will definitely show many seams, unless I finish the frames in the home?
I have been pondering installing the boxes finished and attaching the face frame piece by piece on the job, sanding smooth, primer and finish the frames with a brush.. thoughts on this? I've not read anything about people building a face frame piece by piece as some say it doesn't have the "strength" but with glue I think it would be fine.. except where drawers are concerned where I would need to build drawer banks with the frame already attached.
The only downside I can see with attaching face frames on the job piece by piece is I won't be able to order my doors until I'm through.
Anybody have any insight on the matter?

From contributor Te

Hey Andy- First of all, congratulations for going off on your own.

We've dealt with this many ways, but our most common is to overlap faceframe from box to box, and have some field applied joints connecting rails to adjacent stiles. Everything has been finished prior to installation, but we have a very slight eased "expressed" edge where joints are located. You might do this at every joint, even if it is shop glued joint. Very important to this method is to show a detail and call out joint locations in your shop drawings to customers- set expectations. I found it was a trade-off they were fine with. (and to think for years we struggled to find a solution that did not exist!)

Also, and we admittedly hardly ever do this, I think clients find that a professionally site-painted built-in perfectly acceptable given odors, etc with typical cabinet finishes.

Good luck

From contributor an

I see, thanks Ted. That eased edge effect would definitely solve the "seamed" issue I am facing.
Very interesting, curious if that is simply eased with sand paper or so you make it with a beveled router.

From contributor Te

Andy, It needs to look crisp and clean and planned for. So I suggest a router. Hope it works! You'll probably want to use some sort of biscuit, dowel, or tenon in that location.

Surprisingly, we are able to outsource this from our faceframe/door supplier- we still have to bevel joints though.

From contributor Ma

It sounds like at least one of your factors is going to have to give.

If you wanting to avoid fabricating, transporting, and installing, massive single piece face frames for a monolithic/seamless look, your going to have to incorporate some form or visible or nearly invisible transition to allow for smaller components.

I know each job has its own criteria but other than minimalist/modern it has seemed to me that the monolith design aesthetic has given way substantially. Often times now the designs seem to incorporate plane/elevation changes intentionally (of course because trying to control costs architects and designers are selling designs that can be assembled from non-custom sub assemblies).

It seems like an either-or question. If seamless faceframes and transitions are essential you have no choice other than to transport them full size or assemble and finish on-site.


From contributor Pa

I'm a small shop guy, too (closer to 600 sq. ft. and still too small!). Early on, I tended to do the same thing with big cabinets, but I've changed my ways. Unless it's a modern design where all face frames, internal cabinet sides and fixed shelves are all flush, I'm much happier breaking the cabinets into manageable pieces.

For traditional pieces, bumped out (or in) sections usually look better, and provide way more flexibility at installation time, not to mention the ability to move pieces around in the shop.

Why do you need to wait to order your doors? If you're using design software (or even good drawings), you should be able to trust your drawings and order them up front.

If you really need to separate your face frames and boxes, there are a number of tactics that can help. "Dry fitting" the FFs to the boxes using pocket screws and/or biscuits in the shop and detaching them for transport can work. I've also successfully used "Fixo" biscuits to attach FFs and trim to boxes in the field. The Fixo biscuits are plastic biscuits with barbs that are essentially self-clamping.

I would never brush a finish in the field. I have yet to find a spray finish that brushes nicely, or conversely, a brushable paint that performs like a good spray finish. I've sprayed waterbased paint in the field a few times, but it's a lot of trouble and I hope to never do it again.


From contributor Jo

Congratulations on your new venture. I am sure you will be very successful. I too came from a trim background. We still do interior trim in both new homes, commercial and remodeling. One of the most important things you need to talk about with your clients is expectations. We have installed bare cabinets for many years. In Cincinnati Ohio itís very common. I can tell you from experience it depends on what part of the country you are from very much. I travel some to do work and if you mention this type of application in some parts of the country they might think you are a bit goofy, depending on what the norm is in their area.

I talk to my customers about a site applied finish and how itís done. I will not under any circumstances spray on site any more. We use Catalyzed lacquer as many do and you have no idea what this stuff smells like to ďnormal peopleĒ that do not breathe this nasty stuff all day. I have had a few of my own and many other peoples clients having to move out for anywhere from a few days to weeks depending on the clients sensitivity to smells. If you know much about lacquer it dries more or less inside out. All Lacquers continue to dry, evaporate and flash off for weeks. Do not believe anyone that tells you otherwise. The smell and is horrible in a closed up house and can really harm people.

Design is also critically important for your ability to be able to hide certain aspects of site built, applied stuff. The same goes for prefinished product. We always know if itís being sprayed in house or on site and it gets treated very differently from the start in regards to the designs of the piece.

Communicate all this to your client and what it takes to have a site painter do it.

Good Luck


From contributor Ch


Sounds like you'd be a perfect candidate to check out Lamello's P system connectors. We have a lot of guys using these invisible connectors to manage and install large cabinet assembly and installations by themselves. The Tenso connector in particular is perfect for installing large face frames on site without clamps. Spend some time on the Lamello website and watch the videos to learn more.

We have a Zeta P2 demo loaner program here at Colonial Saw if you want to check it out for a couple of weeks and see for yourself. Give me a call anytime, I'm a former woodshop owner too: 781.585.4364 x.206

Chris Hofmann

From contributor an

Thanks for the responses. I've put a lot of thought into this if you couldn't already tell.
I think, after reading many posts, threads and talking to a lot of people my consensus is cabinet makers do it their own way based on their own variables. I think my quality would be best shown through a field application of the frame provided it's size. I think installing a finished product is the way to go as long as it's finished with the frame attached. I'm a one man show pony and because of that, installing large face frames in the field causes some problems, fingerprints from tugging and pulling on the cabinets along with smudges and a ding or two makes a finished coat needing to be re-done.
I think in my case, (and I'm open to suggestion) When I'm not able to install a finished FF cabinet due to size, finishing just the boxes, drawers and doors while priming the face frames and cutting them to length would be best. Then applying the frame in the field, piece by piece..sand joints and prep/paint with brush.
I like the Lamello Tenso P14 very much. I will look into the costs and consider this in the future.

From contributor Da

I, like Ted, don't try to hide the joints. I either ease all edges (flush example) or set the horizontals to butt just behind the ease.

From contributor an

Dave and Ted,
How much bevel is too much? 1/16" from long point to long point? I'm thinking of doing with with my router but was wondering the acceptable depth and if you used a hand held trimmer or router table?

From contributor Da

I use an offset base trim router with a 1/16" roundover bit.