Cabinets 1: Frameless Kitchen Cabinets

Building a set of kitchen cabinets is a project that requires woodworking skills. Building kitchen cabinets, considered part of a modern home decor, is the ultimate test of a finish carpenter's skill. The cabinet builder should be well versed in taking and relaying accurate measurements, in the operation of shop tools, such as the table saw, router and using a circular saw, both freehand and with a guide.

The face frame, used the classic Amerock hinges mounted on the face frame. Some hinges inset into the cabinet door giving a 3/8" thick overlap, others allowed the full thickness of the kitchen cabinet doors to overlap the frame. The concealed pin hinges were popular for awhile, making the cabinet doors flush with the frame. The doors were held shut with spring and roller catches. Finally, the magnetic catch emerged. Hinge design further evolved into a self-closing style, including artistic shapes and colors that forced everyone to re-do their kitchen cabinets. Our globe got smaller and European hinges came onto the marketplace. The design of these hinges revolutionized the kitchen cabinet industry. Frameless European kitchen cabinets were born. Cabinet doors could be easily adjusted three ways, drawers rolled easily on steel drawer slides, and there was no face frame to contend with.

The kitchen cabinet style today relies on the design and shape of the cabinet doors themselves rather than the framing of the doors and fancy hinges. Most doors were rather plain, one piece, made from solid core plywood instead of the veneer and multicore ply we have today. Their hinges were visible adding to the decor and ambiance. Today we see no hinges from the outside, no face frame, just the kitchen cabinet doors overlapping the sides of the modules they come in. Mass production has come to the kitchen cabinet industry. You can buy a set of kitchen cabinets in a box and assemble them yourself. In the old days carpenters used to come into a home and build the kitchen cabinets in place. Now a millwork shop will send out an estimator, measure your kitchen and design the cabinets to fit. They are still in modules, but fit your particular space, taste and budget.

The difficult thing for the do-it-yourselfer in building kitchen cabinets is making the cabinet doors and drawer fronts. Most shops make their own raised panel doors of oak and exotic woods or MDF (Medium Density Fibreboard) routed out to look like a raised panel door and painted with lacquer. One can purchase these fine doors and build kitchen cabinets to suit the size of the doors or buy the router bits to make your own. The router bits come in 1/2" shanks, so a 1/2" router is necessary to run them. These are expensive bits, but saves the cost of store built cabinet doors.

With the European kitchen cabinets came the multicore plywoods and fiberboards, melamine being the most popular. Since the kitchen cabinets are made in modules, every cabinet door has its own gable on which the doors are attached. The gables, shelves, tops and bottoms are usually 5/8" melamine. Melamine with its hard finish does not take glue well. I prefer to dado my kitchen cabinet shelves for two reasons: support for the shelf and to remove the melamine surface to enable glue to stick. I also use course drywall screws to hold the cabinet shelf in the dado, as well as the parts together. Basically, a set of kitchen cabinets today consists of a series of modules or boxes comprising two gables, the sides, a top and bottom and shelves. The base cabinet, the one with the formica counter top, usually doesn't need a solid back as does the wall or upper kitchen cabinets, which depend on the back for support through screws on the wall. The base cabinet has a ledger strip under the counter top, which attaches to the wall. Since the base kitchen cabinet has a counter top, it doesn't require a solid top such as the wall cabinet. For the base we use strips, again to save on the cost of material and have a fastening surface for the counter top. These modules, fastened together, form our set of kitchen cabinets.

Plans of a cabinet frame showing rails, shelf, gable, slide, drawer rail, back rail and base with a detail of the dado for the shelf.

The base cabinet module, as shown, is intended to use a standard formica counter top of 25 1/2" wide, with splash, so the width of the cabinet gable is 23 3/4". For a 24" counter top, homemade or without a splash, the gable should be adjusted accordingly. The parts are cut out on a table saw and assembled according to your pre-determined plan. I use #6x1-1/2" drywall screws and glue. Pre-drill and countersink for the screws.

On the kitchen cabinet gables, layout the position of the drawers, shelves and cut out the kick space. The edges of the gables and cabinet shelves are covered with a white melamine tape which is "ironed on" to activate the glue. I slide the hot iron along the taped edge, followed by a small melamine block to press the hot tape down onto the melamine front edge. It dries almost instantly, the excess tape is removed from the sides with the use of a sharp utility knife or tool specially made for this purpose and sanded lightly with 120 grit paper on a sanding block.

The kitchen cabinet drawer slides come in matched pairs, with one for the drawer and one for the cabinet gable. They are marked LH and RH for left and right hand. The kitchen cabinet drawer mounts install on the bottom of the cabinet drawer with the roller at the back. The cabinet gable mount slide is shown in this drawing. The end with the roller goes to the front and is flush with the outside of the cabinet gable and rests on top of the rail. Screw these in position using # 6 x 5/8" screws, 3 per slide. Make sure they are installed square across the cabinet gable.

The kitchen cabinet base unit is supported on the floor, the base is scribed, if needed, to fit the floor and screwed into the wall studs along the back rails.

Drawing of cabinet frame for wall cabinet showing front and side views with measurements.The wall or upper kitchen cabinet is screwed into the wall studs through its back near the top and the bottom. The cabinet modules are screwed together, in place, with 1-1/8" screws, special for this purpose. I just start a 1-1/4" screw, back it out, then pinch off the point with pliers. I pre-drill and use a countersink bit before screwing in any screws. The distance between the top of the cabinet counter and the bottom of the wall cabinet is 18" for an 8' ceiling, leaving a 12" space at the top.

The formica counter top is installed after the kitchen cabinets are in place. Lay the formica top in place scribing to fit along the wall and the ends, if necessary. Screw up into the counter top from below, through the top rails. Watch the length of screw so it won't penetrate the top surface of the formica.

The hinge for this type of kitchen cabinet is the European Blum brand 5/8" overlap 100° hinge (see it at It is drilled into the cabinet door with a 1-3/8" Forstner bit (see it at, to a depth of 7/16" deep. I use a drill press to prevent the bit from going through the face of the cabinet door. Before drilling, mark the door with the center of the hinge at 3" from the top and bottom of the cabinet door and 13/16" in from the edge, and centerpoint with an awl.

Drawing of how a European hinge is installed with measurements.Notice that the cabinet hinge comes in two parts, the mounting plate and the hinge itself. I like to mount the hinge and plate together on the cabinet door, then mount the door onto the inside of the cabinet gable after the modules are installed, securely. When making the cabinet doors for a double door kitchen cabinet, be sure to allow space between the doors. I allow 1/16" between the cabinet doors and on each end of the doors. The height of the cabinet doors allow for the door and a drawer sharing the same rail and flush to the bottom of the cabinet's kick space. Allow 1/16" for the space between doors and drawers. The hinges on the kitchen cabinet doors are adjustable, so leave enough room for adjustment.

Diagram of drawer detail showing drawer front, back of drawer, gable, sides, rabbet, roller, slide and bottom.

The cabinet drawer boxes can be made of 1/2" or 5/8" melamine or plywood. The sides are rabbeted to receive the front and backs, which are the same size. The outside width of the cabinet drawer must be 1" less than the opening between the cabinet gables, to allow for the drawer slides. You'll notice that one slide mounted on the cabinet drawer is flat on top and the other side has a rounded top which grabs the roller. There is a bit of adjustment with this design, better to be a bit too wide on the 1/2" gap rather than too tight. I'm talking a maximum of 1/16". At 1/2" on each side the cabinet drawer will slide nicely. The bottom is simply screwed to the sides, back and front since the slide supports the bottom anyway. For melamine, since glue won't hold too well, except at the raw edges, I prefer to screw the box together. I use # 6 x 1 1/2" drywall screws. With plywood, glue and nails work well. Install the melamine tape on the top edges of the drawer box. Don't fasten the cabinet drawer front onto the drawer box yet, install the drawer first.

Insert the kitchen cabinet drawer box into the slides. Tip the cabinet drawer down to engage the roller and lift up again and slide the box in.

Tip: If the cabinet drawer box fits too tightly in the slides remove one slide from the drawer itself, and remove a sliver of melamine along the side of the cabinet drawer with the table saw blade set up about 5/8" to 3/4". Replace the slide again.

Start by drilling 3/16" holes through the front of the kitchen cabinet drawer box in the center of the front and near the sides. With the cabinet drawer fronts, line them up with the cabinet doors below. Clamp the cabinet drawer front into place with the drawer open with the use of spring clamps or c-clamps. Don't mark the surface of the cabinet front. From the inside of the box, screw through the two holes into the cabinet front. Careful with the length of screws, you don't want to go through the face of the cabinet front. Remove the clamps and slide the cabinet door in. When happy with the position, install the pulls by drilling with the same bit through the face of the cabinet front as well as the box front to match the spacing of the holes in the drawer pulls. Most times the pulls come with a 3/4" machine screw as well as a longer one. You may have to cut off the screw to fit the length having to go through the two pieces or buy a longer screw to fit.

Tip: When cutting a machine screw to length, thread on a proper size nut first, cut the screw and back off the nut, which cleans the threads in the process.

Drill and attach the pulls onto the kitchen cabinet doors.

Tip: When drilling through a finished cabinet frame, as when installing door pulls, hold a scrap block of plywood on the inside to prevent the drill from chipping the wood as it goes through the other side.

The next article will continue with how to build a face frame kitchen cabinet. I'll discuss how the home handyman can make a few different styles of kitchen cabinet doors, as well. Also, have a look at my plans for building kitchen cabinets and china cabinets for more ideas.


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