Face frame assembled with pocket screws.  Novice Woodworker On The Loose:

Building Face Frames For
Custom Cabinets


In This Article:

A cabinet face frame is assembled from pieces of 1x2 red oak, using pocket screws for fasteners. The completed face frame is attached to a cabinet box.

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Skill Level: 3-4 (Intermediate to Advanced)

Time Taken: About An Hour

By , Editor


One of the most common methods of building cabinets involves a face frame, which is an assembly of vertical and horizontal sticks of wood, typically 1x2's. The face frame is attached to the front of a plywood or particle board box (called a carcass), and the doors and drawer fronts cover the openings in the face frame. This method of cabinet construction has long been the tradition, but lately there has been a new method... the frameless or "European" cabinet design. 

The contemporary-looking  frameless design employs cabinet doors and drawer fronts that fit closely together, forming what may appear to be a smooth, almost unbroken surface. The trick behind so-called Euro-style cabinet construction is the use of rather complex hinges that attach to the sides of the carcass instead of the face frame.

For most shop-made cabinets, I would say that building face frames is easier than trying to achieve the clean-looking perfection demanded by the frameless method. For any custom cabinets that will be part of an older home, face frame construction is certainly the preferred method.


Laying out parts of cabinet face frame.

This discussion begins with the 1x2 pieces of red oak after they have been cut to length and stained.

The exact size and location of the 1x2 face frame components depend on many factors, such as the height and width of the door openings and drawer fronts. I made drawer fronts from 1x6 red oak, for instance, and many sizes of raised panel oak doors are available at home centers.

I examined the pieces of wood to decide which sides should face outward. Since I'm using pocket screws to hold the face frame together, the back side of this assembly will have big holes in it.

I applied wide masking tape to the visible faces of the 1x2's because my photo-backdrop work table leaves blue marks on pieces of wood. Most woodworkers don't have this problem, but taping the visible face may be a good idea if your workbench is less than perfectly smooth or perfectly clean.


On the back edge of the side rails I applied some masking tape so I could mark on it with a pencil. Sometimes it's hard to see pencil marks on dark wood.


Laying Out The Pocket Hole Locations:

Using an adjustable try-square, I made pencil marks on the ends of each of the horizontal boards. The marks were 3/8" in from the sides.


This is the Kreg Pocket Hole Jig.


I lined up one of the jig's holes with a pencil mark on the board (red arrow). Note that the other hole does not line up with it's corresponding mark, so I had to re-position the jig for the other hole.


This is the stepped-drill bit that creates the special hole required for the pocket screws.


I bought the Kreg Rocket Pocket Hole Jig kit in 2001 for about $55 from a woodworking catalog. Amazon now sells several Kreg Pocket Hole kits at similar or better prices than other woodworking catalogs.


I just drilled away, backing out the bit a couple of times to clear the sawdust. This takes about a minute.

Okay, it's not that simple. The stop collar on the step drill has to be set to the desired depth, which means a few practice holes must be drilled.

The end result is an oblong opening in the face, and a hole that directs the screw at a very low angle into the adjoining board.


With both holes drilled, I placed the boards in their desired positions.

I didn't take a picture, but I also dabbed a small amount of carpenter's glue on the mating surfaces.


It's possible to make face frames with no glue at all, but when the assembly is moved around later, a slight movement can occur between pieces.


I clamped the two pieces to the workbench with a Quick Grip clamp. It's very important to have both work pieces held securely. One common problem with this method of joinery is mis-alignment of the front faces of neighboring pieces. That's a problem that does not really occur when biscuits are used to assemble face frames.


A pocket screw.

Note the flat under-side of the head, and the self-tapping feature on the point.


I forgot to shoot a picture of a screw being driven, but this photo shows the procedure from another project.

The Kreg kit comes with a special long driver bit, but a long bit-holder extension is helpful because it keeps the drill chuck from rubbing on the wood surfaces.


It only took a few minutes to attach four horizontal pieces to a vertical side rail.


The finished face frame, ready for urethane. I stained the wood first so any glue that squeezed out would have no effect on the stain absorption.

Even though I always use a damp towel to wipe the glue that squeezes out, it's easy to miss some glue.


You can barely see the screw heads in the pocket holes.

Note that you can buy special plugs for pocket holes. They are not intended for high-visibility surfaces.


There are other ways to build face frames:

  • Wood Dowels: This was a common method of joinery decades ago, and it involved drilling precise holes in the ends of the horizontal boards as well as matching holes in the sides of the vertical boards. This technique is accomplished with nothing more sophisticated than a drill press, but it requires a high degree of precision, which means special fixtures must be used.
  • Biscuits and Glue: This newer technique employs a biscuit joiner, a special power tool which cuts accurate circular slots in wood. The precision fence mechanism makes it easy to get accurately located slots. The biscuits (small football-shaped pieces of wood) are inserted with carpenter's glue and the assembly is clamped while the glue dries. Full size biscuits are too big for 1x2 face frames, but miniature biscuits will work with lumber this small.
  • Mortise and Tenon: An ancient method of joinery, this time-consuming technique requires that the ends of some sticks be machined (or carved) to a smaller dimension, while a rectangular hole of similar size is cut into the mating piece. A great technique for purists seeking historic authenticity, and people with lots of time on their hands.

Note that these methods may require glue, which means that the assembly must be clamped and held for at least 30 minutes, possibly longer. That fact alone makes pocket screws a very desirable method of joinery, because you can man-handle the assembly right away.


Attaching The Face Frame To The Cabinet Carcass, 
And Some Additional Points:

This face frame was part of a combination drawer base and shelf unit that I built for a client. I only took a few pictures, because the main point of this article was to illustrate the fabrication and installation of the face frame. 

The recessed shelf unit was made from 4 foot tall pieces of oak veneer plywood.

I drilled a series of holes with a special hole-spacing jig to allow shelf clips to be positioned at one-inch intervals.


Here I'm test-fitting the top piece to the back and sides. I used biscuits and glue, and clamped the entire assembly with 5' pipe clamps.


The bookshelf assembly had a three-piece face frame. I clamped the face frame in the desired position (note how the frame overhangs the inside by 1/4", to conceal the edges of the shelf boards) with long Quick Grip clamps.

Then I drove in pocket screws from behind. This method would not be suitable for a cabinet with a visible exterior. The beauty of this method is that no nails are used to attach the face frame to the plywood box, and there's no need to fidget with a bunch of biscuits.


The lower section of the cabinet during installation at the client's home. The previous owner had left an unfinished closet opening near a chimney, and my job was to make it look good and function well.

Note how this drawer base is just a box (1/2" plywood) with a face frame attached to the front, and drawer slides attached to the sides.


I screwed the face frame to the studs that framed the opening. The screws were later covered with fluted trim.

I also placed shims below the base to support the weight.


The finished cabinet.

I couldn't get far enough back to fit the entire unit into the picture, and the lighting wasn't very good since it was after sunset, but you get the idea. 


The upper portion. I made fluted casing from 1x4 red oak to match what is found elsewhere in this 1898 house. The rosettes and the shelf cap trim are the only millwork that I bought, everything else I made.


Since this was built for a children's room, I designed the cabinet so the lowest shelf would be about 30" above the floor, the same height as a typical table or desk. That way children could reach the lowest shelf (which is like a countertop) with ease.

(It's funny reviewing this article almost ten years later. That little girl is about 9 feet tall now. OK, I exaggerate... a little.) 


The drawers all had roller slides. The drawer boxes were made from 1/2" oak veneer plywood with oak edge-banding, so they look like solid wood.

This was the first custom cabinet I have built for money. It cost the client a small fortune, yet I didn't earn much. Building cabinets is just plain time consuming, but with enough shop space I suppose you could use some basic mass-production techniques to gain some efficiency. I spent about 60 hours on this project, but a lot of that was stumbling around trying to figure out what to do, so I only billed the client for a little over 40 hours. The material cost for this project was around $200. I still have no idea how to price out a job like this and make a decent wage from the work. I read somewhere that cabinet makers can charge upwards of $65 an hour. HAH! Not around here! Nobody's willing to pay me that kind of money, not even half that! Maybe someday.


For more info on pocket screw joinery, read Assembling A Custom Book Shelf.



Tools Used:

Materials Used:

  • 1x2 Red Oak
  • Pocket Screws


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Written March 15, 2002
Revised January 24, 2005