Plywood Face Frames

Here's some creative and innovative thinking about ways to build cabinet face frames out of plywood. February 26, 2007

I'm in the process of designing the details on an unusual mix of cabinetry for a mid-50s modern lower level. The overall look is contemporary, streamlined, face frame cabinetry. We'll be doing slab doors, etc. We're thinking about sapele/sapelli because of its ribbon-like graining. We also are thinking about running grains horizontally throughout the cabinetry, to emphasize the horizontal lines of the 1950s house.

Since we're thinking about slab doors/drawer fronts, we'd probably use plywood (or MDF core, actually) for the doors. I'm thinking the grain match, as well as construction, would be better using the ply/MDF core for the face frame. However, I've never seen it done - the concept seems odd, but wondering about any downsides. What we would probably do is on the facing edges is run a veneer instead of edgebanding to keep the horizontal graining intact.

I don't want to do a veneer face on a substrate because of the extra labor and the lack of a veneer press (we do veneer application in small amounts only at this point). The widths of some of these cabinets will be 8 feet.

Some of these cabinets will be low and wide, some will be tall and narrow, one will be tall and wide, so using solid wood "cross grained" on the stiles seems like it would be a labor/logistical nightmare.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this? I've designed the overall look, now hammering out how we're going to build it.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor S:
I've seen "face frames" of plywood before, but they were a solid sheet with the openings routed out. They looked great (not my style) from a purely grain matching point of view. The doors/draw fronts were matched, inset, with a 3/8" radius on the corners to match where the router cut the openings.

From contributor M:
I have a very efficient and quick system for using plywood for face frames, but to use it, you have to believe that you can rely on contact cement to bond wood veneer over the frames. If you can't make that leap of faith, then forget it. It has worked impeccably for me.

Take a full 4x8 sheet of a high quality multi-ply plywood like baltic birch and one 4x8 sheet of 10 mil paper-backed wood veneer of the species of your choice. Spray the back of the veneer sheet with a contact cement which stays tacky after spraying (like DAP methylene chloride base). Turn the veneer over and roll it down onto the plywood sheet. Do not spray the contact cement onto the plywood. Trim the edges of the veneer to the edges of the plywood and rip the plywood into the various widths for your face frame. Cut the rippings to length for your face frame.

Now peel off the veneer pieces and put your face frames together with the plywood pieces using whatever method you choose. I just shoot the pieces together with corrugated fasteners. Fasteners will not show when the cabinet is done. Lightly belt sand the face frame joints to get them flush, and, as you are ready for them, spray contact cement onto the face frame faces and edges just before you gun nail them to your cabinet boxes.

Finally, take the veneer pieces which match the members of each face frame and stick and roll them over each face frame member to cover all fasteners and leave a perfectly veneered face frame on your cabinet. Cover the plywood edges with PVC or wood veneer edging which also has been sprayed with contact cement. You can easily flush trim the edging at the front surface of the face frame with a sharp wide chisel pushed along flat on the face frame. It doesn't scratch the veneer.

One other thing: If you pre-finish the veneer while it is stuck to the 4x8 sheets of plywood before being ripped, you will end up with a pre-finished cabinet face which eliminates all finishing after the cabinet is assembled. You no longer have a problem getting overspray onto the melamine or pre-finished plywood interiors.

From contributor F:
Thanks for sharing the information Contributor M! I'd have to say that you probably have one of the most unique approaches to face frame cabinetry. I'd imagine that this method minimizes the amount of finish sanding afterwards. How do you handle trimming on the plywood edgebanding on the interior side of the stiles?

From contributor M:
I typically use 15/16" wide PVC edgebanding and simply apply it flush with the back edge of the plywood stiles and rails at the cabinet interiors, trimming off all the excess at the front (face) edge. If a stile or rail is flush with a partition or shelf at the interior (as at an upper cabinet bottom), I place the tape flush at the face and let the extra 3/16" or so hang over onto the shelf or partition. This hides the joint between the face frame and the shelf or partition.

As I understand from my readings at WOODWEB, the latest accepted solution for eliminating the problem of finish overspray onto cabinet interiors when spraying the face frames is to spray the face frames off the cabinets, then to attach them to the cabinets using a "blind" system which eliminates fasteners from showing on the pre-finished faces. These systems usually involve pocket screws from the back side or dadoing in the cabinet members into the face frame and gluing. These systems, though they seem quite ingenious, seem to me to involve a lot of work and time, which my system doesn't.

The main objection to my system is that veneered face frames strike many as somewhat fragile compared to solid stock wood, and as somewhat cheap appearing. To the first objection I would say that it hasn't panned out in my customers' experiences, probably mainly due to the fact that I mainly use overlay solid-stock frame doors. These stand 3/4" to 1" proud of the face frames, effectively acting as face guards for the cabinets.

To the second objection, that of appearance, I would say that the composition of the face frames is only obvious before the cabinets are fully installed. After that, there is no difference in appearance between good grade plain-sliced veneer and solid wood.

I have never had a customer specifically object to my choice of materials. They mainly accept that the job is well constructed and durable based on seeing the job of the person who referred them to me. I only get jobs from referrals; I never advertise.

From contributor F:
To contributor M: This is a very interesting method. You have a good point regarding plywood face frame versus solid wood stock: once the doors are on, the face frames are pretty safe from damage. The grain matching would probably be easier as well.

My original question should have been more properly worded: How do you handle trimming where the rail meets the stile in an efficient manner?

Can you edgeband all the exposed edges of the stiles, gang clamp them together with the edgebanding facing upwards, score through the edgebanding using a rail piece over the stiles and then pick off the edgebanding where the rail and stile will overlap?

From contributor M:
I think you are talking about "pre-edgebanding" the face frame stock before the face frame is assembled. I've also done this in the 8' lengths before the face frame stock is cut for length and it works except for two small problems.

First, you will have to mask off the edgebanding so you don't get contact cement overspray on it when you spray the assembled face frame prior to attaching to the cabinet box. You can also put your masking tape on in advance when you edgeband, scoring through both the tape and edgebanding for your joints.

Secondly, by putting on the edgebanding first, before you apply your face veneers after the face frame is attached to the cabinet, you will have made all the stiles and rails slightly wider than the face veneers. This can be remedied by a little hand sanding at the edges. But I have found that it is better for durability to have the PVC overlap the edge of the wood veneer rather than visa versa. But either will work.

By the way, there's no problem with the outside plywood edges showing since they are covered either by pre-finished veneer on the finish ends, or by a raised panel door finished end. There's no need to miter anything.