World’s Simplest Face Frame
Traditionally, face frames are built using both vertical pieces (stiles) and horizontal pieces (rails). Not so with this project, which has only stiles. This makes things a lot easier.
Cut your stiles to finished width and length, and finish-sand or plane them. If you’re handy with a block plane, it’s wise to cut your stiles about 1?32″ long and trim them flush to the case at the top and bottom after affixing them to the carcase. If you’re not so confident, just take extra care in cutting your stiles to length.
Attach the stiles to the carcase using glue and clamps. Nails aren’t necessary here. Make an effort to ensure the long edge of each stile is perfectly flush with its mating side piece; otherwise the opening for your door will not be square.
To complete the opening for the cabinet’s door, you need to attach the additional 1/2″-thick top and bottom pieces that have the decorative cove cut milled on them, which is easy to do.
As you study the cutting list below, you’ll notice that the outside top and bottom are different widths – the top is 1/2″ wider than the bottom. That’s not a mistake. It’s actually a clever way to create a notch in the back edge of the outside top piece (cutting stopped notches is no fun). Let me tell you what you’re going to do to that top piece: First you’re going to rout the cove detail on three edges of both the top and bottom.
The best way to do this operation is on a router table that’s set up with a 5/8″ cove bit, though you can do it hand-held in a pinch. Either way, make sure you rout the detail on the ends first, then come back and rout the long edge. This will clean up a good deal of splintering that occurs when you exit the cuts on the ends.
Next take only the top piece to the table saw and rip the back edge off the board so it’s 7-3/4″ wide. Take the fall-off strip and rip it so it’s 1/2″ wide. Crosscut 1″ off each end of that falloff piece and reglue each end to the back edge of the top piece, making sure the cove detail matches. Voilà! You have an instant stopped notch in your top.
Attaching the top and bottom pieces to the carcase is easy if your case is square and your joints are flush. Before you attach the top and bottom, check their fit against the carcase itself. You want a tight joint at the front and the sides. If you don’t get a seamless fit with only hand pressure, you’ll need to tweak the carcase until you do. Relying on your clamps to close an imperfect joint is asking for trouble.
Sometimes this process takes a bit of detective work to figure out what’s wrong. For example, the top of my carcase had an inexplicable but slight bulge in the center, so the top piece would rock back and forth on it. A sharp block plane made short work of the problem. As you remove material, try to stay away from the edges of the carcase. That’s where you can create problems that will show in the finished piece.
When satisfied with the fit of the top and bottom pieces, apply a liberal amount of glue to the carcase and position the top and bottom in place. When you’ve got them where you want them, nail them in place through the inside of the cabinet. Use only a couple of nails in each; their job is to hold the top in place as you clamp it. Apply clamps around the cabinet to secure the top and bottom to the carcase and check for gaps.
The Stub-tenon Door
Because this is a light-duty door, we can build what’s called a “stub-tenon” door. Essentially, it’s a traditional mortise-and-tenon door that uses short (some would say “stubby”) tenons that are only 1/2″ long. A bigger traditional door would use tenons at least 1″ long. The advantage to these short tenons is they allow you to build the door without having to cut mortises in the stiles. The 1/4″-wide x 1/2″-deep groove you cut for the door’s panel also serves as the mortise for the tenons on the rails.
While stub-tenon doors are a good trick, the real trick to making perfect doors is to learn about “horns.” What are horns? Again, take a look at the cutting list and you’ll notice that the stiles are 1” longer than they need to be to fit in the door’s opening. And both the rails and stiles are 1/8″ wider than called for in the drawing.
This extra length and width create what look like horns on the assembled door. These horns allow you to make a door that is slightly oversized when compared to the hole in the cabinet.
Once the door is assembled, rip and crosscut it square to fit perfectly in the door opening. There is no easier way to fit a door.
So let’s build the door. Cut your stiles, rails and panel to the sizes listed in the cutting list. Now mill the 1/4″-wide x 1/2″-deep groove in one long edge of the rails and stiles. The best way to do this is with a rip blade set to make a 1/2″-deep cut. A rip blade is best because the top of its teeth are flat, so the bottom of your groove also will be flat. Crosscut teeth will leave “V”-shaped channels in the bottom of the groove. Position your saw’s rip fence so there’s a 1/4″-wide gap between the teeth and the rip fence.
Cut the groove first with one face of your work against the fence, then turn it around and make the cut with the other face against the fence. This method ensures that the groove is perfectly centered on your rails and stiles. If there happens to be a thin scrap hanging in the middle (as shown in the photo above center), you can adjust the fence and make a third pass to eliminate it.
Next get your rails and prepare to cut the tenons on the ends. These tenons are made by cutting a rabbet on both faces of the board. Two rabbets make a tenon, as shown in the photo above right.
Set up your dado stack with an accessory fence just like you did when you cut the rabbets on the side pieces. Bury the dado stack in the accessory fence so that you’re making a cut that is exactly 1/2″ wide x 1/4″ deep.
Use your miter gauge to guide your rails across the spinning dado stack. Make a couple of test cuts on scrap that is the same thickness as your door stock. Test the fit of your scrap tenon in the grooves you cut in the rails. Fine-tune your fence setup and cut the tenons on the ends of both rails.
Now fetch your 1/2″-thick panel. To fit this panel in the grooves in the rails and stiles you must first cut a rabbet that is 1/2″ wide x 1/4″ deep on the panel’s four back edges. Coincidentally (OK, it’s not really a coincidence), this is the same setup you just used to make your tenons.
Now finish-sand your door parts and dry-fit the door. You’ll notice how the stiles extend past the rails. These are the horns I told you about earlier. The tenons must close tightly with only minimal clamping pressure. If you are straining to close the joint you are almost certainly twisting your door so it’s not flat. Take the joint apart and investigate the problem. Usually there’s gunk that’s preventing a good fit, or the tenon is too long for the depth of the groove.
Once you have a seamless door frame clamped up, take the whole thing apart and glue the tenons in the grooves. (Never glue a solid-wood panel in place in a door. It has to expand and contract with changes in humidity.)
After about 45 minutes, remove the clamps from the door. Measure your door opening and temporarily screw the hinges to the carcase. Now true one stile of your assembled door by running it over the jointer. Rip the door to its finished width on your table saw, trimming evenly from the left and right stile. Then crosscut it to the correct length. Test the fit in the door’s opening and fine-tune things until the door has a perfectly consistent gap all around. You can use a table saw to do this, but I prefer a hand plane because I mess things up in a much slower fashion than with a power tool. Once your door fits, you can tweak its position in its opening if you use the hinges we recommend in the Supplies box below. Add the knob of your choice and a catch (the magnetic ones are the easiest to install).
More Notches in Your Back
As I designed this project, I tried different ways to make it so the back was not one piece of 17-1/2″-wide solid wood. The solutions were more complex than I liked or they didn’t look right, so I decided to stick with the original wide back.
To make this work, I first had to calculate how much the back would expand and contract in a typical Midwestern environment (which has some pretty radical humidity fluctuations, I can tell you). Using the formulas in R. Bruce Hoadley’s “Understanding Wood” (Taunton Press), I figured out how much movement to expect. According to Hoadley’s formulas, the panel will expand about 1/8″ when the humidity fluctuates between 8 percent and 14 percent. This is a reasonable range to expect in our climate.
So now you need to measure the space between the two rabbets on the backside of your assembled carcase. It should measure 17″. So the lower part of the back piece should measure 16-7/8″ wide. That’s simple enough. The real difficulty comes when dealing with the curvy top part of the back. It’s 17-1/2″ wide. That extra width overhangs the top of the cabinet. Once again this means you have to create a stopped notch on the two long edges of the back.
The simplest procedure is to use the same trick you used for creating the notch on the top piece: Gluing small pieces on the back to make a notch. And that’s a fine way to do it as long as you pay close attention to matching the grain. This is a very visible part of the cabinet.
Make your back piece a bit wider to start with: 18″ is about right. Rip two strips off each long edge so the back ends up 16-7/8″ wide. Keep track of which edge each strip came from because that will make it easier to match the grain when regluing the blocks in place. Now take those narrow strips and crosscut 5″ off the top of each. Reglue these blocks to the back.
After the glue dries, mark the curvy shape on the back and cut to that line. A band saw, scroll saw or coping saw will do. Just make sure it’s a fine-tooth blade. Clean up the rough saw-cut edges with sandpaper, files or a spokeshave. Then drill the 1-1/4″-diameter hanging hole in the location shown in the drawing. Finish-sand your back.
Attaching the back is easy if you pay attention to the issue of wood movement. The back is attached by screwing through it into the top and bottom pieces. You want to secure the back in the center of the cabinet so it expands equally on either side. Here’s how to do that: Drill six screw holes in the back, three along the top and three along the bottom. The middle hole should be a standard round clearance hole. But the holes to the left and right should be elongated left-to-right. It’s these elongated holes that allow the back to expand and contract with changes in humidity.
I’ve seen people make a template to rout perfect elongated ovals. Then they make the countersink using a template and a chamfer bit. This is not necessary. All you really need to worry about is allowing the shaft of the screw to pivot as the back moves. The screw’s head can remain basically in the same place.
Here’s how I make elongated holes: Drill a standard clearance hole for your screw that allows the screw’s shaft and threads to pass through without biting into the wood. Next, angle your drill 45° one way and drill out a bit of one side of your clearance hole. Then angle the drill 45° the other way and drill out the other side of your hole. Finally, come back with your countersinking bit and countersink your clearance hole. Once done, then you can screw the back to the case using some #8 x 1″-long screws.
Before you apply a finish to this project, take a few minutes to break the sharp edges with #120-grit sandpaper. This will make your project more enjoyable to touch and less likely to get damaged. Now remove the back and door.
Because cherry darkens nicely with age, I prefer not to add much coloring. In any case, staining cherry can be difficult because it blotches.
But new cherry with a clear finish looks a bit anemic until it gets a couple of years of coloring, so I like to help the process along. Begin by wiping on a coat of boiled linseed oil that’s thinned down to a water-like consistency with paint thinner. Wait about 30 minutes and wipe off the excess. Then take your project outside and let it bask in the warm sun for an afternoon or two. This will jump-start the coloring process.
After a couple of days of letting the oil cure, you can add a protective top coat. The simplest finish for this is a wiping varnish – essentially a thinned-down off-the-shelf varnish.
If you want to hang this project like the Shakers did, you’ll need to build and hang a board with Shaker-style pegs. The length of the board is up to you and the scale of your room. We’ve included a supplier of cherry Shaker pegs below.
The last trick is to find a place in your home that really shows off the proportions and workmanship of this fine piece. You don’t want this project to ever languish in the background. WM
Christopher Schwarz is editor of this magazine.