A framed cabinet has a solid wood frame on the front, called a face frame. The face frame is usually made of solid hardwood and of the same wood species as the cabinet doors. Each frame is composed of both vertical (“stiles”) and horizontal (“rails”) members. The hinges for the doors and drawer glides for the drawers are attached to the face frame.
The existence of the face frame gives the cabinet extra strength. The face frame helps the cabinet to resist racking. Racking of the cabinet is the act of twisting or pulling the cabinet out of its normal square condition. Racking is usually caused by improper installation of the cabinets when the cabinet is screwed to an uneven wall or mounted on a sloping floor. Wall cabinets that are wider than 36" also benefit from the existence of the face frame. Because the wall cabinet is suspended, the face frame gives the front of the cabinet extra strength to prevent sagging.
A framed cabinet can have several different 'looks'. This is due to the many ways in which the doors can be hinged to the face frame. The doors can be mounted so that they are flush with the front of the face frame. This is an inset door. A door that is partially within the door opening is a 'lipped' door. Most framed cabinets produced today are overlay cabinets. This is an arrangement where the door and drawer front are completely over - or on top of - the face frame. The overlay can vary from a 1⁄2" to a full overlay. A 1⁄2" overlay cabinet would have doors and drawer fronts that measure 1" larger in height and width than the door or drawer opening. The 1" would be split 1⁄2" on each side and top & bottom. A full overlay door covers almost the entire front of the cabinet. The face frame is still there, but you can't see very much of it. These technical details give the different types of cabinets very different looks or styles.
A frameless cabinet has no wood frame on the front of the cabinet. Frameless cabinets (sometimes called full-overlay, full access or European cabinets) were developed in Europe at the end of World War II and have been produced in this country for over fifty years. The main advantage of frameless construction is that it allows greater accessibility into the cabinet and better use of the available space. With no face frame to close down the opening, door opening widths and heights are larger. Drawers are also larger with frameless cabinets.
Extra care is taken with the design and installation of frameless cabinets. Because there is no face frame, the doors and drawers must be sized to cover the full width of the cabinet. This type of door arrangement is called full overlay. Clearance of adjoining appliances, doors and drawers must be taken into account when the cabinets are laid out.
The lack of a face frame may make the cabinet more susceptible to 'racking' when improperly installed. Racking is the twisting out of square a cabinet will experience when installed directly to an uneven wall or sloping floor. An experienced cabinet installer will be able to install the cabinets level and square with the use of shims behind and below the cabinet. Floor leveling systems, which use adjustable legs, are also available.
*Adapted from Kitchenet: The Kitchen & Bath Network