Frame & Panel Construction

By David J. Marks

Frame and panel construction is a time honored technique that has been used in woodworking for making everything from wall paneling to doors to furniture.

The basic construction involves making a frame, which typically is joined with mortises and tenons, and before assembling the frame, cutting either a groove or a rabbet to hold the panel.

The panel is generally solid wood, although panels can be made from plywood, glass, or metal. Using this type of construction with solid wood panels is an excellent way to control wood movement. Keep in mind that as a general rule, wood can expand and contract across the width of the grain as much as an eighth of an inch on a twelve inch wide board, due to seasonal changes in humidity. Housing a solid wood panel inside of a frame that has a groove or rabbet that’s been cut a little wider than the panel, will give the panel room to “float” inside the frame. Some other guidelines to keep in mind are wood selection and proportions.

It’s usually a good idea to use very straight grained wood for the frames. The frames will be more likely to stay flat and from a design aspect they will direct your eye to the panels. When it comes to the panels, these can be thought of as the “artwork” that is being framed. I like to use figured wood for the panels. In regards to proportions, it’s always wise to make a full scale drawing and study it for awhile. Make some adjustments and give yourself some time to make a mock up or prototype if needed.

Sometimes I’ll use a frame and panel construction for the back of a cabinet, especially display cabinets with glass doors. It’s a real nice touch to look thru the glass door and see a beautiful raised panel or nicely figured wood in the back of the cabinet. Usually I’ll cut a rabbet along the back of the cabinet with a router before I glue it up and then after it has been glued up I’ll use a sharp chisel to square up the corners. Once the back frame and panel assemble has been glued and cured, I’ll trim it to fit with a hand plane and then glue and clamp it into the rabbet in the back of the cabinet. The frame adds a lot of strength and helps to square the cabinet.