Cabinets – Frame or Frameless?

examples of face frame cabinets When planning and designing kitchens, one of the most basic questions relates to the style and look of the cabinets.

Traditional style cabinets have face frames while contemporary or “European style” cabinets are essentially frameless.

There are also variations with each style that serve to define the room to suit your taste and budget. And then there are different doors styles…

Confused Yet? Relax.

While this isn’t going to be the definitive article on every possible option to consider for your dream kitchen, I will clarify the basic differences of the three most common cabinet styles.

  • Frameless
  • Frame with Inset Doors
  • Frame with Overlay Doors

Comparing apples to apples

For the purpose of this article, the drawings show two individual cabinets placed next to each other with door-type panels mounted on the exposed ends. Each example is shown from the front as well as in section – as viewed from the top.

The gables (sides) of all cabinets are 3/4″ thick. The stiles (vertical) and rails (horizontal) on the Face Frame cabinets shown are 1 5/8″ wide.

All the cabinet styles shown can use the appropriate European style (35mm) concealed hinges.

Frameless (European style)

Frameless cabinets provide the most interior space relative to the overall width of the cabinet. Look at the drawings below and you’ll see that the doors overlap the edge of the gables.

Typically, a single door or drawer front is about 1/8″ narrower than the cabinet case. This allows a bit a of a “reveal” or gap between the doors so they will open and close without touching. The same reveals apply vertically between drawer fronts and below countertops.Frameless Cabinets Face Frameless Cabinets Plan view Section

Some frameless cabinets may just have the exposed plywood ends finished to match the cabinet doors and interiors. In many cases a door panel is attached to the end of the cabinet to give it a more consistent look. Panel ends look best when the front edge is flush to the face of the doors as shown.

Frame with inset doors

Face frame cabinets with inset doors and drawers are without a doubt my preferred style. Inset doors are flush to the frame around them. The width of the stiles and rails can be as narrow or wide as you want.

For a minimal frame on a cabinet case made of 3/4″ material, I usually use 13/16″ wide stiles and rails (like the centre cabinet in the top picture). This allows for a slight fudge against the vagaries of plywood thickness or assembly tolerances. This is especially important if your cabinet will have multiple openings in single frame.Frame Cabinets (inset doors) Face Frame Cabinets Plan view Section

The cabinets as shown waste a bit of space between the cabinets and represent what you’d have if you were purchasing individual framed cabinets. When designing custom frame cabinets I would build this as one cabinet using a single 1 5/8″ stile between the door and drawers with a double-thickness partition placed behind the stile to accommodate hinges and drawer guides.

Inset doors and drawers should be about 1/8″ smaller than the opening, allowing a consistent 1/16″ gap around the perimeter.

Frame with overlay doors

There is no difference between the cabinet cases and frames regardless of whether the doors are inset or overlay. Overlay doors are larger than the opening and as the name indicates, overlay the frame when they’re closed. Typical overlays are from 3/8″ to 5/8″ meaning the doors or drawers would be 3/4″ – 1 1/4″ wider and taller than the opening.Frame Cabinets (overlay doors) Face Frame Cabinets Overlay Plan view Section

There are two variations of overlays:

  • Full overlay where the full thickness of the door rests against the face.
  • Partial overlay where a rabbet is cut in the back of the door so only half the thickness projects beyond the face frame

Full overlay doors tend to look chunky but don’t require the same exacting fit of inset doors. Full overlay doors add about 3/4″ to the overall cabinet depth before adding knobs – make sure your counter tops are deep enough to prevent catching clothing on the knobs.

I’ll get into more detail about cabinet construction, door styles and other details in future articles.

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