Inset Door Cabinetmaking 101

Pros explain the basics about making inset door and face frame cabinets. October 8, 2005

I have been asked to build a paint grade inset door kitchen. I have never done one before. What am I getting into? Shaker style doors, no beads. Do you use different slides and hinges? How much time does it take to fit the doors and drawers? Are the doors made oversize (1/8"), then fitted? Anything to watch out for?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor F:
You're getting out of a great deal of work, since there are no beads.

The amount that you need to make the doors and drawer fronts oversized depends on how accurate you make your face frames in relation to squareness. When I build my face frames (dowelled), I rough rip the stile and rail stock 3/16" oversized and then joint it straight edgewise and re-rip and edge plane to finish width. Then, when I glue up my face frames, I make sure that the openings are square by using accurate framing and small, flat squares. I am also careful to make the carcasses square as I build the boxes, so as not to throw the face frames out of square with an out of square cabinet carcass. With my cabinets and face frames built in this manner, I am able to make my inset doors 1/16" smaller than the opening size. The finished gap I use is 3/32" per door edge. Of course, I glue up my doors with the same attention to squareness. It takes me about 15 minutes or less to fit a door to an opening and I use the jointer and a sliding saw table or sled to remove material while fitting them.

The drawer slides are the same hardware, only set back the thickness of the drawer front instead of flush to the front of the face frame. You must also use the correct cranked hinges for the doors - check your catalogue for the correct application. I would say that if you are outsourcing your doors, you will have to order them at a larger size that I make mine, since their accuracy is out of your hands.

From contributor L:
I have to assume this is going to be a framed cabinet. First of all, try to make everything as square as possible. This is critical. With the tight margins around the door, 1/32" is noticeable. When you are making cabinets for your drawers, it is easiest to try to make the boxes flush to the inside of the cabinet opening so you can just screw the slides on the sides. Otherwise, you will have to make up shims to make it flush to the inside of the face frame. This happens when you have an exposed side. You can still use a Euro hinge. Grass has a hinge plate that will screw to the back corner of your face frame. You need 9/16" of FF exposed on the rear to use them. (3704 VS half-overlay 110 hinge with a G3 FFA inset 1.3mm FF adapter plate for 3000 hinges, made by Grass). You can always use conventional hinges and mortise them.

Fitting the doors and drawers shouldn't take much time if you have made everything perfectly square. I usually make my drawers and doors 3/16" smaller than the openings. This gives you a 3/32" margin all around. Some people opt for a 1/8" margin. If you have a nice panel saw, you can make your doors 3/8"-1/2" oversize and cut them down to get a nice square door. Otherwise, make them the perfect size, and remember to account for sanding the edges down. If I were you, I would make the doors 1/16" over and see how they fit. Then you can run them over the jointer to get them perfect. Obviously, fit them before you paint them, in case there is a problem.

NOTE: In the summer, make your doors perfect size and in the winter make them a bit smaller, so when summer comes along, they don't expand so much they bind.

On the shaker doors, if you have a cope and bead setup, all you have to do is use the backside of your door as the front. That way, you won't have to do a special setup. Use 1/2" MDF for the panels and run them through your panel shaper to get the right size tongue to fit your groove. If 1/4" MDF works for your slot, you can use that. I find it is usually a little thicker than my slot and I also think 1/2" will actually add stiffness to the door. Oh yeah - doors must be flat or they won't sit inside the frame flush all the way around.

For fitting the drawers, I usually make a 3/32" shim and set the drawer on the hole on top of the shim and screw it in from the rear. That way, you are assured that it will be centered. Keep your similar drawers labeled so you don't get the wrong one in the wrong spot, which may show up as an uneven margin.

From contributor T:
Everything must be square. I use story poles when building cabinets and I spend as long as it takes to get them dead accurate. On the poles is the case, face-frame, door/drawer front and the 3/32" gap. I make my doors exact width but add 1/16" top and bottom in case they need to be squared (also to smooth the edge at the joints).

I also check the face frame for squareness at glue-up, usually by measuring the diagonals. For hinges and drawer slides, I make spacers flush to the face frame. Then just pretend it's frameless. When you're installing and an opening is a bit out of square, you can bash shims under the appropriate spot to bring it back square.

I highly recommend story poles.

From contributor F:
Now there's a term I haven't heard for a while - story pole/story rod/story stick! When I started, that was how everyone did their layouts. I did them that way for years until I started drafting with Autocad for my layout and bench drawings. If my computer ever broke, I'd go right back to the old story pole. You can set the accuracy in Autocad to .0000, if you want to. I swear, since I started using Autocad to figure my jobs, there are zero mistakes as long as my field measurements were good.

I want to add that it's not so much that your cabinets, openings and doors must be square to do inset doors, as it is that in order to make your door 1/16" smaller than the net opening and still be able to fine tune the fit without losing your dimension, they must be square. Otherwise, you need to order or build your doors quite a bit oversize.

From contributor A:
This is basically the only cabinetry we do - inset beaded face frame. Our basic construction schedule is similar to the others. Build or order doors the same as the RO (rough opening). Then build them or open your UPS box and cut them down to the appropriate size. To fit them, use a jointer or edge sander if you own one. Make a bunch of 3/32" shims to set the margins. The key to the whole thing is not the doors, your drawings, or what you ate for lunch. If the face frames are not square, you are making this your next career. Check them with a framing square, a piece of plywood, or measure diagonally. Make sure that you do not rack the face frames when you apply them to the box.

From contributor C:
Here's one trick I can share. When you are fitting an inset door, don't waste your time shimming the door up and over 3/32 on two sides and then scribing 3/32 on the other two sides. Instead, fit the door to one corner of the opening and set it in there with no shims, fitting tight along the bottom and one side. Then scribe the other two sides with a 3/16 gauge block. Having a 3/16 gap on two sides is the same as a 3/32 gap on four sides, only it's easier to hold in the opening while fitting. Same goes if you have double doors or stacked drawer fronts without dividers. Add up your gaps and gauge it all on one side. For example, if you had a base cabinet with four stacked drawer fronts, don't stack one front, shims, another front, shims, etc. Instead, rip down your fronts so that when they are stacked tight in the opening, you have 3/16 on one side and 15/32 at the top.

From contributor R:
Story pole, shmorey pole. The job I'm on right now has only 2.5mm reveal with the doors being beaded themselves, so there's no trimming them. Not leaving more to chance than I can, I figured what's the cost of a sheet or two of particleboard versus a disaster? I cut pieces of PB for each opening so I know the opening is right when I assemble the face frames.

From the original questioner:
Thanks a lot for the help. I knew there would be tricks and tip on this. It looks like I need to be a little more careful on this one. I will be starting construction next week, so I think now I'll be able to sleep over the weekend.

From contributor M:
One thing hasn't been mentioned... Yes, it's easier to make the face frame if it's not beaded, but that gives you exactly zero fudge factor if the door is even slightly racked.

From contributor B:
All of you are dead on right. I make my own doors and what I find equally critical is that the door remains flat, and that the face frame, even though square, remains in one flat plane. Trying to true up a door that wants to be inset or proud of the frame in one corner can be a real pain in the %#*.

From contributor M:
One small trick I didn't mention above... If you have a wide belt, you can take some of the rack out of a door by taping a thin shim under the offending corner and sending it through. In essence, you're sanding a thin wedge off the face of the door.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor G:
The important thing is to think through your steps and write them down - especially if there are more than 1 in the shop. Otherwise you can't solve problems as you never know how something was done. The more people in a shop the more important this is.

In reply to racked doors - we were having this problem with alder 5 pc doors and we solved it by face jointing the stock before making frames or gluing up raised panels. This gives us flat doors -even the tall ones.