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What is Frame and Panel?

David Larson
David Larson

Frame and panel is a woodworking technique used in the building of cabinet doors, wall coverings such as wainscot, and furniture such as cedar chests. Typically, frame and panel construction employs five pieces: two rails or horizontal frame sections, two stiles or vertical frame sections, and a panel, a raised or flat piece that fills the center of the frame. Decorative modifications are often made to the panel and the top rail for aesthetics. Rail and stile joinery may employ any one of a number of connecting techniques, depending on the requirements of construction and the inclination of the builder.

For large frame and panel construction projects requiring additional strength such as a large door, the use of muntins, or mid-rails and mid-stiles, which subdivide what would otherwise be a large single panel, is common. The rail and stile pieces are of larger dimension than the panel and are consequently stronger. This subdivision of panel size and the use of additional, stronger frame pieces enhance the overall strength of the project.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Panels are generally fitted to the joined frame pieces using either a rabbet or a groove. The rabbet is a notch cut into the inside of the frame with a router or table saw and into which the panel is fastened after the frame is assembled. The groove is an incision into the inside center of the frame, cut with either a router or a table saw with a dado blade, into which the panel is inserted during assembly.

Panels may be flat or raised and may have decorative molding applied. These options are not integral to the strength of the panel, but are chosen for aesthetics. Flat panels, often of plywood, present a flat surface to the outside of the project and are flush with the outside edge of the notch or groove. Raised panels, often of solid stock, may be formed with a variety of designs such as a simple chamfer, an ogee, or cove, all typically formed with a router or, occasionally, a table saw.

Whether inserted in a groove or a rabbet, the panel is cut smaller than the available opening, generally allowing a space of 1/4 inch (about 0.6 cm). Depending on temperature and humidity variations as well as the original moisture content of the wood used in the project, the panel will expand when the temperature or humidity increases. Without provision for expansion, the project can warp or crack. Many builders insert a patented small rubber sphere or piece of cork in the groove or rabbet to prevent rattling as doors are opened or closed.

Woodworking techniques for frame and panel construction have evolved a number of options for connecting the rail and stile. Cope and stick is made with special router bits that make mirror-image patterns on the edges of the rail and stile to be joined. This an easy join, but not noted for strength, which is why most frame and panel construction requiring strength uses some form of mortise and tenon.

These joints may vary in design and incorporate dowels and biscuits, but are similar in function and are chosen by the preference of the person doing the cabinet making. After the panel, either plywood or solid stock, is fitted in the rabbet or groove, decorative molding may be applied. This molding is generally fastened to the face of the panel where it joins the frame.

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