Face Frame Joinery

The definitive, final, last-word discussion on all the ways there are to assemble face frames, until next time. June 28, 2007

We are a small two man shop, presently doing mortise and tenon face frames using a Leigh FMT jig. We're looking at other methods to speed up production but still give our customers a quality product. Can two dowels per joint be strong enough and be machined fast and accurate using a tool similar to the Delta two spindle horizontal bore? Are there other methods I'm not considering? No pocket screw suggestions, please.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor K:
I have also looked at speeding up face frame construction. I mortise and tenon currently with two separate machines. The tenon is done on a machine called the Multi-router sold by the JDS company. This isn't a true tenoner like a Balestrini. This setup has a moving table; the router is mounted horizontal and follows a template. The mortise is done on an inverted router with a 1/4" bit.

I just ran a time study with this setup. Setup includes the following:
Ripping and s4s the material.
Cut the material on tiger stop with whirlwind.
Layout frames for mortise.
Machine parts.
Glue up frames.
I averaged 12.7 minutes per frame.

I went to my door maker's shop who used to do cabinets. I used his Castle screw machine and easel for screwing the frames. I averaged 6.55 minutes per frame. (S4s material and cut on upcut saw with tiger stop.)

Time yourself on how long it currently takes you to do a frame. Compare to the above two time studies. Good luck! Sorry for the pocket screw comparison.

From contributor F:
If you insist on mortise and tenon joinery for face frames, you may want to consider buying one of those Festool dominos.

From contributor T:
We used to dowel our face frames because we wanted the best possible product for our customer. Now we pocket screw our face frames and I think we still have the best possible product for our customer. We glue the butt joints first and after they dry we set off the screws. We also add a plywood strap behind every rail on every face frame. The rail is glued to this member and this keeps it from ever twisting on the cabinet. Every now and then we've had to, and have been able to, disassemble a face frame. If it was a dowelled frame, we just had to start over. We've had the Castle drill now for about 5 years and it's provided a lot of solutions that simply were not available with any other approach.

From contributor D:
If you don't want to do it right (pocket screws), just stick with your setup. Why ask a question and tell everybody to leave out the correct answer?

From contributor J:
I worked for a shop in the 70's that did so-called high end custom cabinets. They doweled all their face frame joints. Then they bought a used Ritter table and boring machine. Life was easier and they made more money, then the housing recession did 'em in.

I'm on my second Castle machine. Wore out the first one. After it's rebuilt I'm going to sell it, or maybe keep it. The TSM20 drilled a better pocket hole than my new TSM21. Maybe I'll use both of them - one for the north end of the shop, and one next to my workbench. You've got to make money first, and there isn't anything wrong with pocket hole construction for face frames.

From contributor I:
I have doweled, mortise and tenoned, and biscuit joined frames... Pocket screws here is all I use. Sometimes I even pocket screw face frames to the boxes when there are going to be end panels. I have not had a problem yet.

From contributor O:
Why not go with Thermwood CNC? You can dovetail the face frame. Is that the quality you need? It's fast, too.

From the original questioner:
My intent was not to step on anyone's toes. To think all other methods of joinery have become so obsolete. When attaching the frame, the pocket screws get in the way.

From contributor V:
Contributor K, if you can S4S your stock, crosscut, mark up and machine it for mortise and tenon and glue up in 12.7 minutes per frame, I don't understand why you are looking for a faster way! I think that is very good time. I would pay standard shop hourly rates at four times 12.7 minutes per frame to have mine built like that in a heartbeat.

From contributor R:
For anybody that questions pocket screws, I hand them a pocket screwed joint and ask them to try and break it apart. Each piece is a good 6" in length. They can't. Then I point out that the pocket screws have been removed and it is only the glued butt joint they are trying to break apart. Then I ask them if they think they could break it with two screws in it and then again if the two pieces were glued and screwed to the boxes. I use mortise and tenons for furniture, timber framing, and entry doors, not cabinets.

From contributor S:
I am in a similar situation myself. Our focus is on producing true furniture-grade cabinetry. As such, there is no room for pocket screws, hot-melt adhesives, cope and stick doors with solid floating panels, etc. These current industry standards do not result in cabinetry built to last for multiple generations. Unfortunately the reality is that there are few people today that want interior millwork built like it was a hundred years ago. (If Stickley furniture was built with pocket screws, it would not be around today). In order to keep busy between the high end jobs, we do have to compromise somewhere. I have tried dowels for face frames (I used the Mafell portable dowelling machine - kind of like a biscuit jointer, but it drills a pair of holes instead). It worked well on larger components, but any piece with one dowel had a chance of spinning as we glued up. I've also used the new Festool domino machine and think it's the best option out there right now for building quick face frames without compromising too much on the strength of a real mortise and tenon. I do realize that we are all in business to make a living and hopefully a nice profit as well. However, it is very difficult to tip the balance of quality and maximum profit toward quality without sacrificing some of that extra profit.

From contributor D:
Right on, contributor S, but the fact is the big jobs pay the bills and the people wanting the 60k (and up) kitchens wouldn't know a mortise from a pocket screw and probably wouldn't appreciate the difference even if they did. So why worry whether or not you've built the best cabinet in the history of mankind for someone who will rip it out in 10 years when Viking and Sub-zero come out with new colors anyway?

From contributor J:
When the shops were arguing dowel versus pocket screws back in the 70's, the shops that didn't have enough money to buy a face frame table and drill tub always took the high road, and of course dowel joints were best. They all use pocket screws now, even the high end shops. A well-made cabinet with pocket screwed joints should last 50 years, easy. No matter how nice they are, most homeowners will rip out the cabinets for new appliances. Who knows - in 20 years there will be some new kitchen oven that uses some new form of radiation and everyone will have to have it, hence double ovens will be obsolete. Maybe all refrigerators will be small modular units placed throughout the kitchen in the lowers and uppers, and broom closets will be replaced by docking stations for Honda robots that will do all the cooking for the homeowner. Then again, we may go back to cooking by fire and fire pits will come back. Cabinets only need to last 20 to 50 years. 20 for frameless and 50 for face frame. Save the M and T for furniture - helps make the sale of course. Get out the wood plane and some hand tools, cut and dry your own sustainable wood, talk the green talk, plant a tree in your customer's name, and in 500 years they will write books about your work. Go for it.

From contributor M:
Pocket screws are perfectly acceptable as contributor R described them - as clamps for the glue that go with the project. In face frame construction, some can get away with not gluing the frames and just using pocket screws - others wouldn't dream of it. In cases where pocket screws might be visible or in the way, consider the Festool domino - makes a floating mortise and tenon with the ease of a biscuit joiner - there's a place for everything and everything has its place…

From contributor S:
I do agree that most customers wanting those high end kitchens don't know or care much about any of the construction specs on any part of their house. A high end kitchen or built-in in some new McMansion or other general new plat-house type construction doesn't merit the additional care of furniture quality construction, as it will be ripped out and replaced with the next fad. I am a small operator who prefers not to take on this type of work. My interest in high quality construction does not pertain to this type of work. I am referring to an area of architectural millwork where it is relevant.

For example, I built a small kitchen for someone who lived in an original Sears kit home from the 1930's. When you walked in the door, the house looked like it was built yesterday. We didn't have the luxury (not that it would really be one) to build the kitchen on-site with shelves and sides nailed to cleats on the wall as they originally would have. The basic idea here is that we wanted to build a product that would be keeping with the theme of quality and would hold up as well as the rest of this interior did.

There are a lot of us who choose not to be influenced by the idea that who cares how it's built because the original customer doesn't care and the next owner is going to throw it away. I choose to believe that when I'm allowed to perform my best work, it will be appreciated and preserved by the future owners of the house. Maybe the kitchen will be such a nice element of the house that when the new owner decides to upgrade appliances or add new ones that come out, they will choose to integrate them into the existing kitchen because it's nice enough to be saved. Also keep in mind that not all cabinetry is located in areas of the house that are as in need of updating as a kitchen. Ultimately I don't think that any of these joinery options create poorly built cabinets, some just seem to look better and hold up better for a longer period of time. Any joinery you choose to incorporate should be relevant to the whole job (the builder, the customer, the design).

The original question about a quality substitute for a true mortise and tenon isn't really relevant to anyone building cabinetry that doesn't justify such joinery. For those that do, for when it is relevant, it is a difficult question. If anyone wants to try out the new Festool domino machine, most retail shops should have a demo to try out.

From contributor V:
As someone who started making cabinets in the mid seventies, I don't remember any conflict about dowels versus pocket screws. All the shops I worked for had boring machines and used dowels. That's just nonsense that shops stuck with dowels because they couldn't afford pocket screw equipment. Pneumatic boring machines, bits and clamps cost money too.

So much for history! In the eighties I saw a few innovators trying to make face frame joints with pneumatic corrugated fasteners... what a mess. I say, use whatever works for your product line. I like a single spindle pneumatic boring machine for my dowel joints because it is more versatile than a double spindle. My limitations are a minimum rail width of 1.25" and a minimum stile width of 1". This allows me to have two dowels minimum per joint, thus no "spinning" troubles.

Please don't ban me because I don't pocket screw... I can afford the equipment but I am already equipped. You guys will probably understand when some new generation of cabinetmakers tells you that you aren't doing it right, because you are sticking with pocket screws instead of the next easier way. You will stick with pocket screws in your final years because you are equipped and it is the method you know and trust.

From contributor J:
In Southern California in the late 70's, most custom shops did dowel their face frames, and their selling point was the joint was stronger, and would hold up better. Most of the larger shops had the money to buy the Ritter setup and yes, it was a lot more money, more than what most small shops could afford. Many small shops today can afford a table top pocket machine and a home built face frame table, but not much more. It was history, but then in 20 years someone will say there was no issue between frameless and face frame cabinets. Rewriting history should be saved for the likes of the State and Federal government.

From contributor Y:
I learned this trade in the late 50's early 60's in So Cal. All the shops I worked in used dowels, two per joint except 1" rails. A single bit boring machine and sometimes m&t. I still like that method and will not pocket screw anything. To me it is not a craftsman-like way to do it. I learned early on not to go the fast and easy way. I also wasn't trying to get rich.

From contributor J:
See, dowel versus pocket screws are still an issue for us old timers. A good pocket screwed face frame joint done correctly works just fine. A poorly made face frame joint (often with a high angle pocket screw or a non-Castle style pocket) isn't anywhere as strong as a doweled joint. Not all pocket screwed joints are the same. Some are quality - some are basically apartment grade. Been there, done all of 'em. Then again, if you want to get rich, buy a CNC and switch to frameless cabinets. No face frames to fuss about, just melamine boxes. (But do you dowel them or screw them together? The argument never ends.) Isn't the International Space Station screwed together?

From contributor N:
We used to M/T our face frames - now we use pocket screws. I don't know how long a tenon you use, but I honestly can't believe it makes a stronger joint than pocket screws. Maybe we weren't doing it right - LOL. Also, joints seem to be tighter now. I guess we could have left our M/T frames in clamps longer, but that would really slow things down. (We never use screws where the pocket can be seen.)

From contributor V:
I can believe that some pocket screwing equipment makes a stronger joint than others, but I just can't buy into how somebody said I wouldn't be able to break a glued end-grain butt joint with no fasteners in it. I'm not against other shops pocket screwing, but I am happy with my own system.

From contributor J:
It's great you have a system that works well. Pocket screw are an economic blessing for the industry. Anything that makes us money and keeps us productive. I know cabinetmakers that swear they have to lock miter all their finished ends. Then there are those who only a dovetailed drawer box lives up to their standards. I know a guy who doesn't believe in plywood - he makes all of his shelves out of solid cherry or white oak, and they're frame and panel. I remember one San Diego shop that only used lumber core because plywood was inferior. If you can make money doing what you do, great!

Everyone has their selling points. Selling quality is what we all do. If quality wasn't an issue, we would all be doing something else, and Home Depot would be the primary source for custom cabinets. Good to hear good craftsmen like yourself have carved out a niche and like what they're doing.

From contributor Y:
I think the space stuff is pop riveted. There is no argument about methods in construction of anything - just a personal view of it. And it is fun to hear them.