A simple system for classic casework

Today's techniques and tools make old-time craftsmanship easier than ever to achieve.

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  • Casework basics

    If you typically build furniture with sheet-goods carcasses, it's hard to imagine a world before plywood and MDF. There was one, though, filled with sturdy, lightweight furniture made of framed panels. Such assemblies shrink or swell with the seasons without splitting or their joints pulling apart. Other frame-and-panel furniture advantages still hold true today:

    • The technique offers design flexibility. For example, by extending the frame stiles 2" below the rails on each side panel for a project, such as the one shown, you raise the height of your nightstand or end table. Or make the stiles square and longer, and you've created legs for an end table.

    Even when using plywood panels, frame-and-panel furniture weighs less than comparable cases made from 34 " plywood or MDF with hardwood trim or a frame attached.

  • A technique for fine furniture projects

    • The frame-and-panel technique works as well for fine-furniture projects, such as the mission-style nightstand illustrated in the first slide, as it does for the pine-and-perforated-panel tool stand shown in the photo.
    • Solid wood frames hide plywood edges, so you can skip the face frame or edge banding.

    To help you create your own frame-and-panel furniture, we'll look at the elements that make this technique work: panels; frame joinery; frame widths; carcase-assembly tips; and methods for installing tops, bottoms, and backs.

  • Produce the perfect panel

    Panels do more than just fill the space between stiles and rails. Structurally, they help keep the frame from racking. They also contribute to a project's style, whether with a raised profile or with their grain pattern.

    For best appearance, panels should be taller than they are wide for a vertical look. You can do that even on horizontal projects using center stiles between the panels, as shown on the chest. Here are three common panel types.

  • Creating flat panels

    Flat panels give furniture a clean, simple look. You can create flat panels from solid wood, but veneered plywood costs less (and its edges will be hidden by the frame). Where both sides of a panel will be visible, glue together two sheets of 18 "-thick veneered plywood to make a panel with two good sides.

    Pros: Veneered plywood panels require no special tools, bits, or joinery to create. Plywood expands less than solid wood, so gluing it into the frame adds strength. Also, it's faster because you don't need to edge-glue and flatten a solid-wood panel. Other panel options include perforated hardboard, glass, or acrylic sheets.

    Cons: Because most 14 " plywood measures about 116 " thinner than that, as shown above, cutting frame grooves tight enough to hold the panel firmly requires trial-and-error fitting.

  • Raised panels add classic contours

    Add dimension and shape to your frame-and-panel furniture with raised panels. To form the profile, use a panel-raising bit to rout 34 "-thick solid-wood panels. Profile options include ogees, coves, rounded bevels, and chamfered Shaker styles. To avoid tear-out and burns, rout the ends first and then the edges in multiple shallow passes. If you’ll paint the panel, use MDF to save money.

    Pros: Raised panels add shadow lines. Rail-and-stile and panel-raising bit combinations let you customize the look. Unlike back-cut raised panels, you can vary the edge thickness to fit wider frame grooves or use stock slightly thinner than 34 ".

    Cons: Gluing up solid wood for panels adds time and steps to a project. Specialty router bits cost more than cutting sheets on a tablesaw.

  • Back-cut for flush fitting panels

    As back-cutting panel-raising bits shape a profile on the front face, another cutter removes material from the back to leave a 14 "-thick tongue in most cases. Unlike the raised panel with a flat back, the faces of these panels rest flush with the frame faces.

    Pros: The flush back looks more attractive where that face is visible. The bit automatically determines a consistent panel-tongue thickness cut after cut, even when you vary the profile slightly. The back-cutter adds little to the price over a comparable bit without a cutter.

    Cons: Controlling the edge thickness requires adjusting the shims that come with most bits. This profile works best on solid-wood panels. Removing both faces of an MDF panel eliminates most of its strength. These bits lack a bearing necessary for cutting arch-top panels.

  • Frame joints vary by strength and style

    Now it's time to choose a frame joint that both suits your project style and stands up to stress. For furniture that's moved frequently or roughly, join frame parts with haunched-mortise-and-tenons or dowels rather than cope-and-stick joints. You'll also need heavy-duty joints for frames holding panels made of heavy materials, such as MDF.

  • Stub-tenon-and-groove joints

    You could make these on a router table, but they're easier on a tablesaw with a general-purpose blade or dado set. First cut a slightly off-center groove on one edge; then flip the stile or rail end for end and make a second cut to widen the groove. Adjust the fence and repeat to fit your panel thickness. Next, saw tenons to match the grooves.

    Pros: Groove widths can be varied to suit odd plywood thicknesses. Nothing beats these joints for simplicity.

    Cons: Saw blades don't always cut flat-bottom grooves. Short stub tenons have less glue joint area than regular tenons.

  • Dowel joints

    Make these strong, simple joints with only a drill and inexpensive doweling jig. Then rout the panel grooves using a straight bit on a router table, making full-length grooves on the rails, and stopped cuts on the stiles.

    Pros: Dowels reinforce easy-to-make butt-jointed corners faster than making time-consuming mortises.

    Cons: Stopped grooves require extra attention to cut and square off with a chisel. Dowel holes must align exactly for tight joints and square frames. Groove width is limited by your selection of straight-bit diameters.

  • Haunched-mortise-and-tenon joints

    These start out much like the stub-tenon-and-groove joint, but you'll extend a tenon to fit a mortise in the groove of the mating part. A tenon haunch fills the groove at the end of the mortised part.

    Pros: The added tenon length and glue surface area combine for a super-strong joint that resists racking.

    Cons: Cutting and hand-fitting four mortises and four tenons for each panel adds considerable work.

  • Cope-and-stick joints

    With a rail-and-stile bit set shown, one bit routs the "stick" profile along one edge of each frame piece. The coping bit cuts a mating profile into the rail ends.

    Pros: More than just a corner joint, this system adds a decorative profile to the rail and stile edges. Some bits stack one profile on the other, but we prefer the two-piece bit sets that let you make both cuts with the front face down.

    Cons: Allow time to fine-tune the bit heights. The groove width can't narrow to accommodate thin plywood panels.

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