Choosing Cabinetry Part 1: Cabinetry Box Construction, Framed Vs. Frameless

When deciding on cabinetry for your home, the options can seem overwhelming. In this series we will break down your options and tell you how to get the best for your budget.

Photo by Christa Grover on Pexels.com

When remodeling, whether a kitchen, bath, or even a home office, cabinetry is an important component. Since this one of the most functional portions of your project, it is a great starting point for your material selection. In fact, we would recommend that you start here and build the rest of your design off of your cabinet selection. Your storage and the way it is laid out, especially in the kitchen, will make or break the function of your space. You can have a pretty space, but if it doesn’t function for your life, you will have nothing but regrets.


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Another reason to start with the cabinetry selection is your project budget. The cabinets and labor are usually the two largest portions of your budget, especially in a kitchen remodel. If you are looking to keep your budget in check, selecting a quality cabinet without all the fancy bells and whistles may be your best bet. If you have a little more budget to play with, you may opt for a cabinet line that has a lot of options and that lets you really customize your space. Because design options may be limited or expanded due to your choice in cabinetry, it is best to make this decision up front and work from there. Your designer can give you a good idea of what you can afford and steer you in the right direction.

To start with, you must understand the different ways in which cabinetry is constructed. There are two main ways, framed and frameless.



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Framed Cabinetry

Framed Open Cabinet
Framed Open Cabinet

Framed cabinetry is what you will find most often in the U.S. It is called framed because the front of the cabinet is a frame (face frame), then the rest of the cabinet box sits behind that frame. Let’s talk a little about the different parts of a framed cabinet and what to expect.

Face Frame

The face frame serves as the front structure of the cabinet. This is what the doors are attached to. Because the face frame is required to make the cabinet structurally sound, it is usually made of 3/4″ solid hardwood and is joined together by dowels or pocket screws. In some larger cabinets, you will often see a center stile, or vertical center support piece. Although, some higher quality cabinets are able to go without this stile to give you full access to the cabinet.

Cabinet Sides

The cabinet sides are usually attached using a dado joint along the back side of the face frame. Depending on the quality of the cabinet, the sides will be made from a furniture grade particle board (furniture board) or a plywood and will about 3/8″ thick. These will then be covered by a printed wood-look or solid color laminate (coated paper) or a wood veneer. You will not see cabinet sides be made of solid wood due to the tendency of wood to warp at these dimensions.

Another feature of a framed cabinet is that the sides will be inset back from the frame (see below). This is done to cover the raw edges of the cabinet top, bottom, and sides. This will also allow a wood veneer “skin” or panel to be placed on ends that are exposed without needing to upgrade any sides that will be hidden. This is common to do on less expensive cabinets. On better quality cabinets, it is common to have the cabinet that will have an exposed side built with an already flush and finished side or even a decorative panel to match your door.

Cabinet Side Inset
Cabinet Side Inset

Cabinet Top and Bottom

The top and bottom of the cabinet will also be dadoed into the sides of the cabinet. It is not uncommon for base cabinets to be built without a top as this will be covered by your countertop. You might see a support, or I-beam, instead of a top on base cabinets for structural support. In lower quality cabinets, sometimes a plastic corner block will be used instead. The top, bottom, and I-beams are usually made with a furniture board or plywood about 1/2″ thick. The top and bottom typically will match the color of the cabinet interior, while the I-beam will be left unfinished.


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Toekick

Another thing you will find on the bottom of your base and tall cabinets is a toekick. This hollow box is under the bottom floor of your cabinet and is hollow. The purpose of the toekick is to raise the cabinet off of the ground providing room for the door to clear your toes when opened. It is also an area for your toes when standing close to the counter facing the cabinets. This will usually be an unfinished area of the cabinet, but is meant to be covered with a toeboard after installation to provide a seamless look.

Cabinet Back

The cabinet back can be made a couple of different ways. You usually will see either a hang rail or a full supportive back panel. With a hang rail, you will see an, usually solid, piece of wood running along the top and bottom of the back of your cabinet. This is what will be used to attach the cabinet to your wall and will support the weight of your cabinet. You will also usually have a thin MDF board or plywood sandwiched between your hang rail and the back of your cabinet. This will give your cabinet a finished interior and prevent you from seeing your wall inside the cabinet once installed.

If your cabinet is built with a full supportive back panel, you will have a full piece of plywood as your back panel. This will allow your cabinet to be secured in any of the areas of the back panel as necessary. Typically, the back will be left unfinished, while the inside will match the cabinet interior.

With either back panel or hang rail, the support (3/8″ to 1/2″ thick) will typically be secured using a rabbet joint. Depending on the manufacturer, all joints will either be glued, stapled, screwed, or a combination of techniques.

Pros of Framed Cabinetry

  • Usually made using Imperial measurements (inches), in the U.S., so easier to layout and install for those of us in the states.
  • Strong, sturdy cabinet held square by the face frame and back panel or hang rail.
  • Provides better clearance for doors to operate next to protruding objects, such as walls and appliances without the need of fillers. Fillers or extended stiles may still be needed in some door styles.

Cons of Framed Cabinetry

  • The width of the face frame will reduce the opening of the cabinet by approximately 1 1/2″ in both width and height. Although the interior space of the cabinet will be about equal to a frameless built cabinet, this will result in slightly smaller interior components, such as drawers.
  • There will be a slight lip, usually less than 1/4″, on the bottom opening of your cabinets caused by the face frame sitting slightly higher than the cabinet floor. Though usually not an issue, this could hinder placing some items into your cabinet smoothly.
  • The doors will have a very slightly larger gap between them, even in a full overlay door style, versus a frameless cabinet. This is minimal and most are not able to tell the difference when the doors are closed.

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Frameless Cabinetry

Frameless Open Cabinet
Frameless Open Cabinet

While framed cabinetry is the standard in the U.S., frameless is gaining ground. It is becoming popular because of the more sleek appearance and, often times, more modern door styles to choose from. Frameless will also be called European, since it is very common in Europe, or full access cabinetry, since the opening dimensions are not reduced by the face frame. With this style you will find the frame missing and the structure of the cabinet relying on the top, bottom, back, and sides of the cabinet.

Cabinet Sides

The sides of a frameless cabinet will be a little thicker than a framed cabinet ranging from 1/2″ to 3/4″ thick. They will be made of the same materials, either a furniture board or plywood. This will be covered with a solid color or wood-look laminate, or a wood veneer. Because the edges of the sides will be exposed, they will be edge-banded in a matching or coordinating material. Since there is no face frame, the door hinges will be attached directly to the sides of the cabinet.

Cabinet Top and Bottom

The top and bottom of the cabinet will be made in the same material as the sides, although they are usually left unfinished or match the interior of the cabinet. Just like in framed construction, it is not uncommon to find an open top to your base cabinets, but a solid top will be found more often with frameless. An alternative to the solid top would be the use of stretcher rails. These rails are placed on the front and back edges of the top of a base cabinet to join the sides together. Joining techniques include pocket screws or specialty hardware, by themselves or with glue.


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Toekick

Another difference with frameless cabinetry is with the toekick area. The toekick can be built-in, just like with framed, can be a separate box, or adjustable legs. Some installers like the adjustable legs as they provide a way to level the base cabinet easily without shims. All of these options are meant to be covered with a finished toeboard.

Cabinet Back

The cabinet back of a frameless cabinet will usually be made the same way as in framed, although it is more common in lower end frameless cabinetry to not have a back. One thing that may be different is the way that it is installed. They could be installed the same as a framed cabinet, but it is not uncommon to have a hang rail or brackets that attach to the wall first, then the cabinet is hung and secured. This may allow you to have one long bracket installed across your wall for the cabinets to be secured to instead of needing to level and install each cabinet individually.

Pros of Frameless Cabinetry

  • Frameless cabinetry provides full access to the inside of your cabinet without the wasted space of the frame. While the interior dimensions of the box will be similar, this will make a difference in the width of interior components, such as drawers.
  • The bottom of your cabinet will not have a lip, usually caused by the frame in framed cabinets, allowing dishes to slide smoothly inside.
  • The cabinet doors will cover almost the entire cabinet with very little gaps making a more seamless look.
  • Can possibly be an easier install if the cabinet offers adjustable legs for leveling and a continuous hang rail.

Cons of Frameless Cabinetry

  • Usually built using Metric measurements. This may make it more difficult to plan and install the cabinets by the average installer. A lot of U.S. manufacturers are starting to build frameless cabinets using Imperial measurements, so make sure to verify prior to purchasing.
  • Good quality frameless cabinetry tend to be more expensive. You can easily find less expensive options, but to get the quality needed to withstand the weight and daily use of a kitchen or bath, you will probably pay more than with a similar framed cabinet.
  • Fillers will be a necessity for clearance around protruding areas, such as walls and appliances, in order for doors to operate properly.

We hope this overview of framed and frameless cabinets gave you enough information to make a decision when choosing cabinets for your next build or remodel. Make sure to subscribe or follow so you don’t miss next week. We will be covering the cabinet components as well as overall things to consider when choosing a cabinet in Choosing Cabinetry Part 2: Cabinet Component Construction. We will even have a practical discussion about how not to blow your budget on cabinets.


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