Small Shop Case Construction

More back-and-forth on how to assemble cabinet carcases. April 6, 2007

I have a small shop and have tried many different ways to make cases. I do make face frame cabinets only and have done dados/rabbets, butt, and just tried dadoing face frames and fitting the ends/bottoms in the dados using a tongue and groove system. I like certain things about each method and am trying to find the best system for me. I like the tongue and groove because it lines everything up for me. I don't like the fact that I have to build around the face frames, meaning each component goes into the face frame. I pocket screw the face frames onto the case. I always build the face frames first. I am looking for speed and accuracy.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor T:
When I had a small space I came up with my method. I pocket screw everything together... including the boxes. I also use pre-finished plywood. This enables me to completely finish the ff, doors, crown, etc. and then build and assemble the boxes right before I load them into the trailer to be installed. I could have several jobs in process at all times without taking up all of the space.

From contributor X:
My method of construction relates to one piece construction. If I can get a cabinet into place that is eleven feet in length in one piece, that will be the way I construct it. That will also include a one piece face frame. I don't want to piece cabinets together; I prefer the face frame to flow. I save a lot of time out in the field while installing these cabinets. My face frames are nailed/glued on. I also save on materials that are used. They're strong cabinets and also lighter in weight overall.

Making a box cabinet is only for the small size cabinets that are needed at times. I also save in space by standing the large cabinets on end while waiting for further processing. One piece construction saves me time... which means money either in my pocket or the customer's.

From contributor P:
We use biscuits, screws and glue. I'm looking at the Kreg pocket hole machines and think that's a good way to go too. For some cabinet jobs, I'll dado the bottoms and tops and glue and screw. Mostly though, the biscuits work fine.

I'm curious about biscuits, though. For awhile, everybody was using them; now it seems that they've gone out of style, around these parts at least. Personally, I can't think of a faster, easier way to build cases and attach face frames.

From contributor J:
I agree with contributor P. I use biscuits for the case work in euro and face frame. I attach the frame to the box with biscuits. I use 5/8" sheets for all the parts of the box, so dowel construction is out with full backs. I find it to be the best solution for me.

From contributor A:
There are two reasons for using pocket screws to attach the frames. No putty versus plain Jane nails. You need an arsenal of clamps to use biscuits. Many people already use pocket screws for assembling the frames.

I have never had a good experience building cases with biscuits. I find it very fussy to get the exact location of the panels for face frame construction. But I mostly do beaded inset face frame casework.

After years of experimenting, I have settled on rabbets/dados flush backs. Assembled with glue and 1 1/2" 18 gauge staples. The staples are kind of a new thing. I've always stapled on the backs and used a trim gun, clamps or screws for the dados. This system works well for pre-finished plywood casework.

From contributor R:
It amazes me to no end how many different ways we all build cabinets. It amazes me more the amount of inefficient overbuilding there is going on out there. Take a little time and take a look at how high quality factory cabinets are built. These guys have spent years and piles of money to get their processes efficient and strong. Some things that they do just make sense, like...

1. Make all face frame material the same. All stiles, all rails, everything.
2. Use 1/2" ply for all of your case parts and dado the box together.
3. Dado all of the face frame parts and attach the frames to the case using glue and staples or Senclamp.

If you are looking for efficiency with frame construction, this is it.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the responses and I know there are a million ways to do this, as I have tried a lot. How is the Senclamp? I see that in posts from time to time and know it is kind of pricey, but is it worth it? I use pocket screws for face frames and attaching them to the box. That is not the problem; it is squaring the face frames to the box before pocket screwing. This is where alignment can go wrong.

From contributor R:
I guess my point is... Why do we all try to reinvent the wheel? I am guilty of it as well. We can build our boxes from 3/4 material, but does anyone really care after the countertops are set? We can pocket hole the whole case together for strength, but will anyone care once the install is done and it is all covered up? The factory guys have all figured this out. There is no reason in the world that you can't build high quality custom cabinets using their proven production methods. Go buy yourself a good quality cabinet that has the attributes that you like, then tear it apart and make notes.

From contributor M:
We pocket hole everything together - face frames, cabinet boxes, drawer boxes, face frame to cabinet. It works well if you have a good pocket hole machine. We use the Castle tsm-21 and love it. We used a Kreg manual for a while, but when you drill 300+ holes in a kitchen, it takes too long. We also used a Senclamp and it is an overpriced piece of crap. When it worked right, it only drove half the nails in far enough to hold anything. Pocket screws may be overkill, but it's a quick machining process with the Castle and not as accuracy driven as dados. We use import birch a lot and the thickness can be 11/16" to 25/32" and a pulling is just part of the assembly process with that material. I have actually had people comment on the cabinets being put together with screws instead of nails.

From contributor R:
You can pocket hole with a Castle, Ritter, Kreg, etc... but making the hole is not the slow point. It is driving the 25 odd screws that it takes to put a box together. Drive 25 screws with a driver, then pick up your staple gun and shoot 25 staples. You figure out which is more efficient. There is no doubt that the pocket screw method is stronger. Is it necessary? No! A properly engineered cabinet that is dadoed, glued and stapled is more than strong enough to stand up to a lifetime of abuse. I have removed many 20, 30, 40 year old cabinets built from 1/2" material that was nailed together, still in good structural condition.

If you are dadoing your frames, there is no reason to pocket hole them as well. Glue and a few well placed staples from behind is all it takes. A dedicated shop built router table set up to clip the ends of cabinet tops and bottoms makes quick work of assembly.

Take a look at a high quality factory custom cabinet like a WoodMode, Holiday Kitchens, Hampshire, etc. Let them answer the questions for you by looking firsthand at how they put their boxes together. They spend tons of money and time to have efficient methods of construction. You will see how the parts are machined; how the hardware is attached and what types of hardware are used. You will see where the fasteners are used and how many. You get to see what material they use for the face, box, back and shelves. This info is invaluable and it is there for the taking. Why spend hours upon hours trying to figure all of this out when you can just spend a few hundred bucks and have all the answers delivered to your shop?

From contributor A:
Fastest, best way I've found is pocket screws. I use a Porter Cable because I like the low angle. I can hold things in place with my hand and screw them. No clamps. I still use them for face frames, but that's all. I use pre-finished plywood, 3/4 inch for all construction. That way I only have to stock one thickness of plywood. I also pre-finish my face frames. Then I take a finished face frame, attach it to a pre-finished box, and it's done. Install drawer slides. Load it on the trailer.

From contributor B:
Make your life simple and look into a Kreg Jig.

From contributor M:
The Castle machine will give you a better hole. It has a lower angle which means less part shift when putting the components together.

You lost me at clipping the ends top and bottoms. For some reason that doesn't register. Also, if you use staples inconspicuously to fasten frames to carcass, is there ever any problem with blow out? I will definitely try this, by the way. I know if we got into 1/2" ply that would be another topic, so I will just ask if you think 1/2" ply is more than strong enough to hold granite or, better yet, concrete counters? The reason I ask is I have always gone with 3/4" with 1/4" backs and stretchers or corner angles.

From contributor R:
No reason that you can't use 3/4" for face frame cabinets, but there is no reason to either. When holding up countertops, the weight is placed directly on the edge of the ply. The compressive strength of 1/2" sided cabinets that were properly built would hold just about whatever you could stack on it. You need to play with the staples and glue. The dado placement and depth is also a factor. If you use the right length staples, blowout is not an issue.