Why Build Face Frame?

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Reasons the face-frame tradition survives. September 9, 2004

Why would anyone build face frame cabs anymore, except for a traditional look requested by the customer?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor S:
Didn't you read one of the latest editions of Kitchen & Bath Design News? They had a survey which showed that nearly 80% of the respondents preferred face frame cabinets, whether for remodeling or new home construction.

From contributor W:
You will get many answers from both camps on this question. Both cabinet styles have their advantages and disadvantages.

To get to the root of the answer you have to look at the beginnings of frameless cabinets. They were conceived in Europe as a way to make cabinets cheap and fast while using less material.

Face frame cabinets borrow their design from furniture. Not necessarily cheap or fast, but built to last. It is no coincidence that kitchen cabinets of the highest quality are full inset face frame cabinets.

From the original questioner:

Yes, I realize the beginnings of frameless came when after WWII when lumber was expensive and in short supply.

Myself, I like the look of either, but for storage and accessibility frameless seems more obliging.

From contributor A:
The survey in Kitchen & Bath Design News was for the trade and those 80% don't know or don't have the machinery to build frameless. If you ask a customer about his/her old kitchen and how it was made, they don't have a clue. They just hate those rails in the middle of cabinets.

From contributor G:
Frameless vs. face frame does not indicate style but construction methods. We build almost all frameless, and most of it is traditional styling.

If face frames were done correctly, there might be a reason to use them. In my market, the competition makes boxes with 5/8" particle board stapled together. Drawer boxes and slides are butt jointed with staples, with cheap epoxy coated runners. Face frames are face nailed. Cabinets are sent to the jobsite for finishing by the painter.

You can have that, or a nice pre-finished cabinet using frameless construction, nice interior materials, either ball bearing or self closing undermount slides.

Face frame cabinets may have originally developed from furniture techniques, but they are far from that now (unless you count the cheap import furniture).

I would agree that beaded inset cabinets are the best, but they aren't very efficient in the use of space. If that is not an issue, and neither is money, then it would be the way to go.

From the original questioner:
I'm inclined to agree with contributor A as to customer preference/knowledge. They probably don't know or care about construction techniques. I'm thinking today's market (90% anyway) is concerned first with storage/accessibility, second with price and timely delivery (or visa versa). I'm not sure that adhering to a traditional look for the sake of tradition matters much. If it does, so be it. Seems like a subjective issue, and if they have done some homework and both agree (hubby and wife) that traditional is the look they want, then good deal.

They can both look awesome (face or Euro), and in reality who would want to make a kitchen that lasts for 100 years? It won't matter 10 - maybe 20 years from now anyway. Of course, we all want to be appreciated for quality, but with all of the changes we face in the future.

From contributor E:
You can actually have both. I recently designed and am now building a flush inset beaded face frame kitchen using Euro style hardware, and without those ghastly face frame plates! If you keep the inside of the frames flush with the sides and partitions you can use a 32mm drilling pattern inside the box for hinges and drawer slides. It is a very clean look. The customer is happy because they get the classical look they wanted and I'm happy because I don't have to suffer through the cursed non-adjustable butt hinges. And I'm getting good money for my efforts. A compromise that works.

From contributor D:
As more and more people are using granite slab counters on their cabs, there is a bigger concern that the cabs underneath will hold up for a longer period of time. One of the big selling points for stone and manmade solid surfaces is their durability. The countertop durability is pointless if the cabs are only good for 10 years. In the last two years about 80% of my cabinets are getting stone tops. Some of the stone fabricators in my area are pushing face frame cabinets.

From a purely engineering perspective, face frames are more structurally durable. Would you build a house with no shear support on one wall? 2mm edgebanding can also be quite vulnerable to damage compared to 3/4" hardwood face frames.

Any quality of joinery, materials and hardware can be used on face frame cabinets that is used on frameless. I've seen both types built well and poorly. FF cabs can also be pre-finished. With face frames you can use doors and drawer fronts with finger pulls if the customer does not want knobs and pulls sticking out.

The negatives of face frames is that they are more time consuming to make, therefore more expensive. I charge 15% more for frames and still do about 80% with frames. The other drawback is less space inside due to rails between drawers. I offset some of this by building taller boxes with lower toe kicks.

Many folks will fight against one type or the other as there seems to be a marketing battle that the type they build is superior. The preference seems to be regional, probably depending on the success of the marketing in that area.

From contributor T:
I disagree that homeowners don't know what they want. They might not know how it was built, but they know what they want it to look like.

Starting in the early 90s, homeowners gradually became more proactive in the design process. They have internet access and scads of design magazines available to them. Most of my clients already have pictures from the internet or clipped from magazines when we have our first meeting. Many of them are also educating themselves on the pluses and minuses of different construction methods.

From the original questioner:
Of course, customers are more aware of the look they want, and by default, bits of functionality/accessibility due to mags, Inet, showrooms, but they still crave someone to put it all together for them. I do believe that they don't care about joinery/construction. Our job is to give them design and function, whatever the cost. And good quality boxes. Hopefully more money for more work or we may as well do it for nothing.

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

Comment from contributor B:
The comment by the original questioner "...in reality who would want to make a kitchen that lasts for 100 years?" really bothers me. We live in a 'throw away' society that condones, if not urges, the use of short cuts, cheap materials, and faster methods over building something that lasts and that you can be proud of. I personally would like everything I create to last at least 100 years. What better way to show good craftmanship than to have your great grandchildren still enjoy its use? If you build it right and build it to last, no one except a fool would want to replace it.

Comment from contributor J:
With respect to the "only last 10 or 20 Years" remark, my experience is that people are so mobile these days that they don't often stay in a house any longer than that and someone else will change them anyway. My experience is also that my customers are upgrading their baths and kitchen when it goes out of date in 15 or 20 years. Second, the houses built in the last 60 years won't last 100 years so why increase cost by building cabinets for any longer period?