How to Build Upper Cabinets with Face Frames

CEO Khai Intela
Are you looking for some extra storage space in your kitchen, laundry room, bathroom, or garage? Building your own upper cabinets can be a rewarding project that allows you to customize the cabinets to fit...

Are you looking for some extra storage space in your kitchen, laundry room, bathroom, or garage? Building your own upper cabinets can be a rewarding project that allows you to customize the cabinets to fit your space and needs. In this article, we will guide you through the process of building simple upper cabinets with face frames.

Shara opening DIY upper cabinet door to show adjustable shelving inside Shara opening DIY upper cabinet door to show adjustable shelving inside

Upper cabinets provide a practical and stylish solution for storing items above countertops. While there are some general guidelines to follow when building upper cabinets, such as installing them at least 18" above countertops, there are also many ways to customize them to fit your space and personal preference.

Standard Sizing for Upper Cabinets

The general rule of thumb for upper cabinets is to install them at least 18" above countertops, which are typically 36" off the floor. This means that the bottom of upper cabinets is usually 54" off the floor. Depending on your ceiling height, you can adjust the height of the cabinets accordingly. For example, if your ceilings are 96" tall, your upper cabinets could be up to 42" tall. Keep in mind that if you plan to add trim, such as crown molding, the cabinet boxes should be slightly shorter to allow room for that.

Diagram showing basic cabinet layout with space between upper cabinets and countertop and max cabinet height

The standard depth for upper cabinets is 12", but 14" has become more common in recent years. A depth of 13" is a good middle ground option. Cabinets above refrigerators and microwaves are often deeper, as they are considered specialty cabinets. When determining the depth, it is important to consider whether you are using inset or overlay doors.

If you are using overlay doors, which lay over the front of the face frame, you will need to account for the door thickness in the overall cabinet depth. In this case, you can make your overlay cabinet boxes slightly shallower than your inset cabinet boxes, ensuring that the overall depth remains consistent.

Diagram of upper cabinet showing overall depth with overlay door

Upper cabinets come in a variety of widths, providing flexibility to fit your specific space. If you are purchasing premade cabinets, they are available in standard width options such as 12", 15", 18", 21", 24", 30", and 36". However, if you are building your own cabinets, you can customize the width to your exact needs.

Diagram of upper cabinet showing cabinet width dimension

Face Frame vs. Frameless Cabinets

Cabinets can be made with or without face frames. In the United States, face frame cabinets are more common, while frameless cabinets are popular in other parts of the world. The main difference between these two types of cabinets is the presence of an extra frame on the front of face frame cabinets.

Diagram of frameless upper cabinet vs face frame upper cabinet

In this article, we will focus on building cabinets with face frames. However, if you are interested in learning how to build frameless cabinets, you can check out this tutorial as well.

What to Consider Before Building Upper Cabinets

Before you start building your upper cabinets, it's helpful to do some pre-planning to avoid common challenges during assembly and installation. Here are a few things to consider:

Creating Built-In Filler Strips

Built-in filler strips are spacers used to fill gaps between cabinets or create clearance space. Planning ahead can save you time and effort later on. Instead of adding these filler strips after the cabinets are built, you can incorporate them into the face frame during construction. For example, if you are installing two cabinets side by side and one cabinet will be against a wall, you can use a wider piece on the face frame to create an overhang on the wall side. This effectively builds a filler strip right into the face frame.

Shara Woodshop Diaries nailing face frame onto front of upper cabinet with overhang on left side

Inset vs Overlay Doors

When building upper cabinets, you have the option to choose between inset or overlay doors. Inset doors are set inside the face frame, while overlay doors lay over the front of the face frame. It's important to decide on the amount of overlay you want before building, as it determines the size of the cabinet pieces and the type of hinges to use.

Diagram of upper cabinets showing inset doors on left and overlay doors on right

If you are building cabinets with overlay doors, you will need to adjust the size of the cabinet boxes to accommodate the door thickness. In this case, the overlay cabinet boxes should be slightly shallower than the inset cabinet boxes. This ensures that when the door is added, the overall depth of the cabinet remains consistent.

How to Build Upper Cabinets with Face Frames

Now that you have a good understanding of the sizing, style, and customization options for upper cabinets, let's walk through the step-by-step process of building them:

Step 1: Cut Plywood to Size

Begin by cutting the plywood to the desired dimensions for the cabinet sides, top, and bottom panels. Rip the plywood into strips using a circular saw or a Kreg Rip Cut, and then cut the strips into the appropriate panel sizes. The specific measurements will depend on your cabinet size and design preferences.

Plywood cut diagram for upper cabinet assembly

Each cabinet box requires two side panels, a top and bottom panel, a top support strip, and a bottom support strip. The support strips should be the same length as the top and bottom panels. These strips will serve as the attachment points during installation. You can also use the remaining plywood pieces for shelving and additional support.

Step 2: Assemble Upper Cabinet Box

There are various ways to assemble an upper cabinet box, but using pocket holes and screws is a popular method. Drill pocket holes into the ends of the top and bottom panels, as well as the support strips. If you plan to attach the face frame using pocket holes, drill pocket holes along the front edges of the sides, bottom, and top panels before assembly.

Assemble the cabinet box by joining the panels together using pocket hole screws. The bottom panel should sit on top of the bottom support strip, but it won't be flush with the bottom of the sides. To ensure a tight fit, use a brad nailer to tack the bottom panel to the bottom support strip.

Shara Woodshop Diaries assembling upper cabinet box on workbench

Step 3: Assemble & Attach Upper Cabinet Face Frame

Once the cabinet box is assembled, measure the overall size of the front and cut 1x boards to make the face frame. Use 1x2 boards for the sides and 1x3 boards for the top and bottom pieces. You can also consider adding built-in filler strips if needed. Assemble the face frame using pocket holes and screws, or use wood glue and nails for attachment.

Next, attach the face frame to the front of the cabinet box. Ensure that the face frame completely covers the front of the cabinet and is slightly larger than the cabinet itself. This will help to hide any gaps during installation.

Shara Woodshop Diaries nailing face frame onto front of cabinets

Step 4: Add Adjustable Shelving

To create adjustable shelves within the cabinets, drill shelf pin holes along the sides of the cabinet box. This will allow you to easily add or reposition shelves later on. It's best to drill these holes before adding the back panel for easier access.

Step 5: Attach Back Panel

Measure the back side of the cabinet box and cut 1/4" plywood panels to cover it. These back panels provide additional strength and help to keep the cabinets square. Attach the panels using staples, screws, or brad nails, ensuring that the back panel is cut square and helps to align the cabinet box.

Step 6: Build & Install Cabinet Doors (optional)

If you prefer to have doors on your upper cabinets, you can build them according to your desired style. There are various resources available online that provide detailed instructions on determining the size of cabinet doors, building them, and installing concealed hinges.

Step 7: Finish, Install & Trim Upper Cabinets

Before installing the cabinets, finish them by puttying and sanding any nail holes or joints. Then, prime, caulk, and paint the cabinets to your desired color. Once the cabinets are ready, locate the wall studs and raise the cabinet box to the desired height. Ensure that the cabinets are level and securely screw them into the wall studs through the top and bottom supports. If installing multiple cabinets side by side, screw them together through the face frames.

Finally, install the cabinet doors using concealed hinges and add adjustable shelves to the cabinets using shelf pins. To complete the look, consider adding trim, such as 1x4 boards or crown molding, around the top of the cabinets.

Shara Woodshop Diaries installing cabinet door onto upper cabinets in laundry room

Now that you have learned how to build upper cabinets with face frames, you can confidently tackle this DIY project and enjoy the additional storage space in your home. Remember, building cabinets is all about creating a box that fits your needs and style. Happy building!