Screws for Joining Face Frames Together

A cabinet installer finds his crews are snapping the occasional screw when connecting adjoining face frames in the field. Here's a discussion of installation methods, clamps, and fastening hardware. December 27, 2007

We have been running into a problem finding the right kind of installation screws. We are a semi-custom box installation company. In new houses, we primarily hang 1 3/4 face frame cabinets, mostly maple and some cherry, with full overlay doors.

We've have been using 3" pan/washer head self tapping with a star drive for hanging the cabs to the wall (no problems here). My guys like the star drive because they hold the screw better when trying to stretch into the tops of the cabs and into tight corners. They stay on the drive better than square drives without using your other hand for support.

The supplier has provided us with a 3" bugle head star drive for the face frame to face frame (problems). The problem is that we are getting snapped screws when we suck the cabs together. When we go with a larger, beefier screw, we are getting split face frames.

Right now we are resorting to using Deck-mate screws. They really don't break, but they do pop a lot of face frames, and the cost is extremely high.

We pre-drill through one face frame with a bit a little bigger than the diameter of the actual screw, so we can make adjustments to the flushness of the face frames when we drive them to the other face frame. We don't clamp the face frames prior to screwing together because my installers like the ability to flex the face frames with their hands (thumbs) when they drive them home. I've done it this way as well and you can really get a nice, flush fit. We hang right out of the box and keep the doors on the cabinets.

We hang a lot of cabinets, so speed is a major factor (clamping face frames or using rubber hammers to line things up is not an option). Also, we have tried shorter screws (2 1/2), but they don't have the "suck" power we need. Input on the types of cordless drills and/or drivers used will help as well. What screws are you using? We would like to keep both types of screws with the same drive pattern - square, star, etc.

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor M:
I use a #8 2 1/2" square drive, but my cabinets have a 1 1/2" stile. The screw that I use has a small groove at the tip, like a self-drilling metal screw. I get my screws from McFeeley's. They have every screw in square drive. You say that you use a star drive, but I don't think you can find a large variety of screws, as with square drive. The screws that you use might not be good enough if they are snapping off. I think the problem is that you are not using clamps, which I use, and I think you should. But if you work with hardwood like cherry or maple, it's not going to pull together very easily, even if you have strong hands! I pre-drill the first cabinet with a 5/32" bit, then drive my screw. I've been doing this for a long time and I never had any problem with splits or screws. If using clamps and hammer/mallet is not an option, then why are you installing cabinets?

From contributor K:

One... you could get a set of Pony Cabinet Claw face-frame clamps. They also make one for frameless.

Two... being that they are face frame cabinets, instead of connecting with the face frame, you could also use cabinet connectors that rest behind the stile. Or, use a decorative screw with washer. No chance of cracking the face frame.

From contributor D:
Set the clutch/torque on your drill.

From contributor A:
You aren't saving any time at all by not removing the doors and clamping the boxes together. This would be much quicker than dealing with broken screws partially in and the face frames not sucked together yet. Come on, it's not a matter of being so fast that you can't spend the time to do it right. Stop taking the lazy way out and expecting there to be some miracle solution that nobody else has yet to figure out. Every other installer doesn't take off the doors and clamp the frames together because they like being on the jobsite so much they hate to finish up and leave. For truly good results, you have to do it right. I would bet money that by holding the frames by hand and trying to screw them together they don't look anywhere neat enough to be acceptable to most.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I personally hung cabinets for 10 years in houses all the way up to 2+M homes. I have always used the prop stick method and I have found that to be the fastest and best method for me. I included the method to provide you with some additional information.

However, being just a master installer for years and working for someone else's company, I didn't care who made my screws and how much they cost, or where they got them from. I would ask the old cabinet shop where I worked, but the guy retired and died a few years back. I have a feeling that the problem lies not with the method but with the screw and maybe a few over-aggressive installers. But I would love to take the screw out of the equation.

I seldom had popped face frames and snapped screws, but once in a great while it did happen. I have used the pony clamps and rubber mallet method to line face frames up after removing 150+ doors and drawer boxes. I just know that for me, using prop sticks, pre-drilling through one face frame, allowed me to get a much better fit than any clamping method, and cut my installation time by at least a third. Especially now with most of the modern cabinet designs having staggered heights and depths - half the boxes don't line up face frame to face frame anyway. How do you do those?

From contributor M:
It's not just a screw problem; it's the way you are installing. It seems to me that you are in a big rush to complete those jobs. If production work is what you want, then production quality is what you get! I've been there. I now take my time, take doors off, clamp my cabinets. I don't cut corners. If you want to use clamps but don't like how long it takes to use them, try the Kwikclamp from Bessey. It is very easy to use and remove. Very light and strong. They claim that it puts 300lbs of pressure, and I take their word for it.

From contributor S:
Favorite screw is often a personal choice. I have no trouble (well, not too much) with Phillips head screws, Torx or Robertson. McFeely is kind of high, but good too, as are Hafele. We tend to use plain old Grabber or Hilti bugle heads with a Phillips drive. They have local stores and will deliver to the jobsite at a moment's notice in a pinch. If you have a taste for a more special screw, then you have to bite the bullet and pay the premium and make sure that you have enough inventory not to run out in the middle of a job.

What screw gun? We use them all - 12, 14, 18, 24 volt, and almost every make too - Milwaukee, Makita, Ridgid, Panny, Dewalt. I kind of like my Panisonic - light and fast recharge (seems a little slow on rpms, maybe). A lot of guys are using those damn Makita impact drivers (I can't stand the racket, but they are getting the job done).

Clamp/no clamp? Clamp is generally better for true alignment and snug up, but if you are getting a good fit up without them, more power to ya.

The screws snapping could be a couple of things. Cheap screws is always my first gripe. Too much screw for the job. The pre-drill should go through the first layer to stop from pushing the second layer, and if you are not clamping, it should start into the second layer to help with alignment. Back in the old days (err, umm, so I hear) guys would lube their screws and nails with beeswax, paraffin or even a bar of soap. I have some of all three in my toolbox covered in all sorts of nasty stuff, and I do use them once in awhile, but I think the pilot and countersink with the proper length screw is the magic trick.

If you are using screws provided to you, then you have to dance with the one you brought. Being set up enough to be able to use any fastener thrown at you makes you a better installer in the eyes of the guy paying the bills.

From contributor J:
I install my cabinets using the same methods the questioner described. I didn't read in total detail about the drilling method, but I pre-drill the cabinet before hoisting up using the 3/16" bit used for hardware. My personal choice for screws is a square drive washer head with the washer portion not being the dominant part of the profile. The actual head of the screw is almost as big as the washer. These screws also have a sort of antiqued color, which when asked, I tell the customer that they are furniture grade screws.

My opinion is that bugle head screws should never be used anywhere in cabinet installation. Bugle heads are a prescription for disaster when connecting boxes, as well as attaching those boxes to the wall. Ever noticed the shape of those wedges used for splitting firewood? Bugle heads are strikingly similar to those splitting wedges. I have found that using a connecting screw about 3/4 to 1" longer than the stile they are going through is more than enough to pull boxes together. My screws come from Deerwood as well as Pan American. Occasionally one breaks, but all in all, both are very decent products.

Decent cabinets should not require much effort when aligning face frame. I have to beat face frames out for alignment on one or so for every 75 to 100 boxes completed.

From contributor E:
We do a lot of installation and assembly work, and while I am the boss now, I have over ten years of fieldwork behind me. One of my former employers stuck to using slotted zinc-plated wood screws. Prior to that, they were using blued-steel. The blued-steel were very good quality, but overall, it was stone knives and bear skins in comparison to what is out there today. We do a lot of work with hardwood, and self-tapping fine thread screws are a godsend.

As another poster stated, the best results come from proper application. This means picking the right type of hardware and being able and willing to pay the price for that hardware to insure minimal problems and that the job is done right. I have tried many suppliers, but these days it is mostly McFeely's and Hafele. The quality from the others is just too dicey.

As far as drivers, I was a Bosch man for many years, but the ones we are always fighting over in the shop are the Festool and the new mini Bosch driver with the Lithium-Ion batteries.

From contributor G:
We also drill a 3/16" hole and then drill 1/8" into the second face frame. Takes hardly any time and we never break a screw. There is still room for adjusting to line up the face frame.

From contributor C:
Clamp the face frames tight and you will never snap a screw.