Frame-and-Panel Carcases Versus Applied End Panels

What's better, building a plywood box and attaching frame-and-panel elements to it, or using the raised-panel frames as structural elements in the cabinet? Cabinetmakers discuss history, technique, and the state of the art. June 5, 2006

I am designing a wet bar that will be an 8 foot L shape. I plan on putting raised panel end panels on sides as well as along the whole 8' run. How can I get away with using the panels as a structural component rather than a standard applied panel? Usually I am using 3/4" ply for cases. If I make this one 8' unit, it would be a monster if I use 3/4" with hardwood raised panels applied.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor J:
In addition to cabinets, I build church pulpits and chancel rails. They are often large raised panel units similar to what you're describing. I've tried using the panels as structural components and it will work, however, I've found that building a plywood sub-structure is a better way to go. It's heavy, but it's just easier to build up the plywood base and attach everything to that. Also, if you're concerned about the look from the back side of your unit, the finished plywood panel looks better than the various components of a raised panel.

From contributor P:
You could build the backs and sides just like big doors, with the stiles and rails as structural components. You just have to make sure your stiles and rails are arranged so you can attach your internal partitions, cabinet floors, etc. You can't use the raised panels as structural elements - they need to float, so you need to think about how you'll handle any shelves. If your stiles are wide enough, you can drill them inside for adjustable shelves.

From contributor F:
This maker's opinion is that applied panels are a new idea. A paneled end, front or back, has historically been and still can be an end in itself. All of my paneled ends, fronts or backs, are simply made the same as a door, except that the dimensions of the stiles and rails vary for reasons of proportion and the panels are divided by interior stiles and/or rails depending on the dimensions. I have never had a problem using a paneled structure as the carcass itself. Sometimes the inside is covered by a material that matches the cabinet interior.

From the original questioner:
I don't know if anyone who said that applied end panels are a new idea maybe misunderstood you, but I was trying to get a few different opinions of structural ideas. Somebody may make a 1/2" case instead of 3/4" - I don't know. Usually I use 3/4" ply with 1/4" backs. Now if I used 1/4" backs and put applied panels on it, this would seem too flimsy to me. Am I wrong?

From contributor F:
I think you misunderstood me. I am the only one who said applied panels are a new idea. I think they originated with the modular era. I will try to be more clear. I personally do not find it necessary to build a cabinet out of "non-show" materials and then skin it with applied "show materials." I am saying that it is possible to just use 8 foot long paneled parts plus paneled ends as the only parts that make up the exterior portions of your bar cabinet. You see? No need to build an interior skeleton to attach other exoskeleton parts onto.

From contributor F:
I suppose it is worth mentioning that if you outsource all of your doors and have no means of building them in-house, then you are probably stuck with the applied approach. If you have the means to build doors in-house, then you can still outsource the doors and build the paneled ends, backs or fronts in-house. You only need to match the door style when you make a paneled carcass part. The door companies charge quite a premium when you change a stile or rail width from the standard 2.25" or add multiple panels and their corresponding extra stiles and rails.

From the original questioner:
I understand what you are saying and think I will use a single 8' long panel. This should be sturdy enough for granite I believe. I have done the long panels before but skinned it. Thanks for your responses.

From contributor F:
Sure, that will be strong enough to support anything you would put on a cabinet. It is the same strength as the front of a face frame cabinet and stronger than the front of a frameless cabinet. The trick is that you need to plan your stile and rail sizes and locations so that your bottom shelf and interior partitions can be fastened to the frame and not the floating panels.

From contributor T:
Using panels with stiles and rails as a structural component will more than likely come apart and also cause a big headache where any door will meet the panel rail. (That doesn't mean it can't be done.) But why? Most modern builders would build strong boxes out of 3/4 material to handle the weight and stresses that come with a modern free standing bar, then apply pre-made rail and stile panels to the carcass. The boxes can be made easily and separately for ease of delivery and setup and all seams will be covered by the decorative finished panels.

From contributor C:
I have only built about 10 of these, so I by no means have all the answers. I would build an interior box out of 3/4 material, especially if you are going to put a granite top on it. Yes, it will work, and if your work is good and square, it will be very strong, but if your wall is not true, you will make it look good and shim or do whatever to make it set level with all your seams tight. After time, the weight will take its toll on your panel's every joint and it could crack or split. This could be minor, but it could be all prevented if you build a sub box. The advantage of the structure from top to bottom is greater than anything with joints. The weight will be distributed a lot better. If you plan to angle your walls at all, it is easier to assemble the sub box and then apply a finished end to that.

From contributor D:
It may help to apply a bit of historical context. Centuries ago, after wide planks showed their obvious limitations, frame and panel developed to limit cross grain expansion. This enabled strong (mortise and tenon) frames to be made with less lumber, weight and effort, but a higher level of skill. This method is so successful that most people - and many woodworkers - forget that it is function that drives the look of frame and panel, not decoration.

With the advent of panel processing, cheap veneer, and the combination of the two, hardwood plywood and related products slowly gained popularity. New designers in the early 20th Century realized wood movement - the old nemesis - could be designed around, and a new world of wood opened up with non frame and panel uses of structural wood.

Because of lower cost and ready availability, veneered panel product use exploded in the 50's and became so ubiquitous that it has nearly eliminated solid wood, frame and panel construction know-how in many shops. Indeed, many call themselves cabinetmakers without using anything more solid wood than iron-on edge tape.

With frame and panel culturally embedded, consumers still want that look even if they are unaware that it is more than a look - it's a method. So, those without know-how for frame and panel, or a bend towards reinventing a lesser, cheaper wheel, devised molding on panel, routed "panel" doors, and such. Then ultimately made carcasses out of ply, and then tacked on frame and panel as decorations.

The adding of frame and panel to a structural base is redundant, and should be viewed as a waste of time and materials, a lack of craft, and poor design. Properly made frame and panel will easily outlast both the structural integrity of plywood, and the soon-to-be-dated look of such a hybrid/bastard design. There simply is no historical precedent for adding panels to structure, without the panels being the structure. The simulated is never as good as the real. At best, it can only be a simulation. There is no substitute for the real thing. Merely the opinion of an avowed purist, but the above is the reasoning for the view.

From contributor F:
The above posting delivers my thoughts almost exactly. It does seem like a waste of resources to practically make two cabinets when only one was needed.

I am mostly taken aback by the post by contributor T. It leaves me wondering if he has any basis in fact for saying that frame and panels will most likely fail? I wonder if he has ever built a frame and panel with any means of joinery besides pocket screws, or even at all? "Problems when a door meets the panel rail." Huh?

Just guessing by what was said, perhaps the only "formal training" makers that feel this way have been exposed to other makers whose knowledge ends at simply fastening together rectangles and squares of sheet goods and leaving the actual solid woodworking up to the outsource door companies. I don't say this as a condemnation. I just think it is a shame to see the time honored craft of joinery fall by the wayside. It would be beneficial if makers at least knew how, whether they chose to build that way or not.

To the original questioner: You asked if you could simply build your bar using frame and raised panel carcass parts instead of using the appliqué type of modern methodology. The answer to that question is a resounding yes.

I do not say that appliqué cabinetry should not be done. I just want to point out that it surely isn't necessary for any structural reason. The weight of the bar top and all of its contents are borne by all of the carcass members if properly constructed.

While I don't say that appliqué shouldn't be done, I cannot sit by while some say that it is an improvement on cabinet strength. Baloney! It is a supposed shortcut that in my opinion is a long cut, because the labor and material still go into the panels along with the construction of the sheet good carcass.

From contributor T:
I too would like to honor the tradition of fine craftsmanship as so eloquently pointed out by contributor D, but I currently live in the real world, which in my case, has nearly 100% humidity and most of that craftsmanship has already floated down the bay (so to speak). In today's world, time is money and to spend excessive time crafting a fine piece of furniture will only get you a pink slip. I truly miss that fine craftsmanship that unfortunately I only see in museums. The only thing that comes close is some of the craftsmen that I work with on large yachts where we have lots of stupid money but not much time. I was only pointing out how most cabinetry built today comes under realistic conditions and I meant no disrespect to anyone. I stated that your thinking was valid and doable, just not realistic for most conditions. This is how our craft has become known to be just boxes with pretty moldings.

From contributor F:
No real harm done. I do not feel disrespected. I just dispute a few things you stated in print as though they were fact.

#1- Frame and panel is weak and will fall apart.
#2- Frame and panel backs and ends are only found on museum pieces or else made by makers that are not in touch with the real world, in most cases.

I think there is more labor in creating enough small appliqué type panels to cover a wide area than in just building one large one because there are fewer joints to cope and fewer parts to handle. Then you still have the added labor and material it takes to build the sheet good parts plus the labor of attaching all of the applied panels. I think you would be surprised at how many makers young and old still know how to make, and do make, frame and panel carcass parts. I am sure they are as surprised as I am to learn that this is now only done in the building of fine furniture and not used by the "realistic maker" of kitchen and bath cabinets.

From contributor D:
I speak as an independent shop owner that has worked - 30 years plus - at elevating my/our skills and personnel to a level where we are known for a small amount of very well crafted items. This is not stuff for the masses. I certainly don't think it is stupid money.

The fact that "the industry" has accepted such low standards, and then lowered them again and again, is a sure sign of trouble for this country/industry/shops. This "wal-marting" will be the end of the bulk of the shops in this country, just as it has for furniture. When low end mediocre is the norm, what does it become when it is reduced yet again? Unfunctional.

What is the word for a thing that is made so cheaply that it does not perform the function it was made for? Why has the medical, automotive, software, and other fields not succumbed to this wal-marting?

If we as independent professionals do not uphold standards and try to improve the standards of our work through our careers and professional attitudes, we are merely hacks. Who is going to lead if the independent builders and designers do not? Where is the deep, soulful satisfaction in a career where such a dark and narrow interpretation of reality is perpetuated? Is this why we see so few qualified younger people entering this field? Is this why burnout is a number one problem in this forum? This industry? Is this why shops are under trained, under capitalized, and under realized?

I know I'm against the current here. What I'm trying to say is that unless you have an attitude and show some guts to be different, you will be down in the trenches slugging it out with each other instead of rising out of that morass and finding a path of growth - professional, personal, and financial - that will be satisfying and productive. The world is what you make of it, so what are you afraid of?

From the original questioner:
I appreciate all of the postings. Didn't mean to cause such a ruckus.

If I build this bar standard height with a raised counter at 42", how do you build out for this raised section? What I mean is if I make cases for inside of bar with doors and drawers at 36" tall, and take the raised panel 8' run on outside of bar up to 42", do I put on substrate with corbels spaced accordingly? The reason I ask is because I've seen this 42" (outside of bar) kicked out maybe 4", and it looked good. This design would raise the question of the raised panels we were discussing as not really a structural component because it is taller than the countertop at 36". How do you make this?

From contributor B:
Build the cabinet standard 24" deep. Add the back panels 42" high. I use the fluted legs for a couple of different reasons. You can hide an outlet box in the leg and it sets above the 36" counter height and hides in the splash. The leg lets you have room for the box and a chase to get power to it. The leg also adds great strength and keeps that back panel straight. The leg wraps at the corners and sits "proud" of the end panel by 3/4". It also makes 135 degree corners easy to assemble. Easy to put together in the field with already finished cabinets. The leg gives you a fudge factor and covers a corner that might not be perfect otherwise.