From chests to cupboards to cradles, frame and panel joinery opens a whole new world of possibilities.
My first how-to woodworking forays in the late 1970s were badly aimed. Starting out by reading about cabinetmaking, I was in way over my head. Wood selection, grain orientation, bookmatching; so much of what I was reading was aimed at advanced woodworkers. But I was a beginner. I backed up somehow and started learning about cutting the joints. The dovetail ruled supreme at the time. It was as if it was a marker for quality.
Life often throws us curveballs, mine was the onslaught of “green woodworking” books by Drew Langsner, Jennie Alexander and Roy Underhill. These books (and people) saved my woodworking career. I segued into chairmaking and other pursuits based on stock riven or split from freshly felled logs. Along the way, I learned the all-important and versatile mortise-and-tenon joint. And with it, the composition that allows me to build most anything I might want or need—the frame and panel.
Five pieces of wood, the rectangular frame has two vertical “stiles” and two horizontal “rails” joined at the corners by mortise-and- tenon joints. The inner edges of this frame are grooved to receive the beveled edge of the panel. With this format, I’ve built chests and boxes, cupboards (and the doors for them), cradles, chests of drawers, chairs, and my shop (I skipped the panels there, but Old World timber frames often have panels in the form of plastering, brickwork, etc.).
I’ve not done it, but you could outfit the interior of a church with frame-and-panel work—the pews and pulpits in historic English churches were made by local joiners.
Mine are almost always oak that I’ve riven, hewed and planed from green wood. You don’t have to start there, but it’s more fun if you do. Once you have the stock prepared, lay out the joinery. I use an awl, a square and a mortise gauge.
My stock is usually about an inch thick. I set the mortise gauge according to the width of my mortise chisel, usually 5/16″. I line my mortise chisel flush at the edge of the stile. I lean on it to make a mark then move the chisel over one chisel-width. This time I lean more heavily, making a clear impression on the wood. This is the mark to use for setting the mortise gauge; no ruler needed. Line up the pins of the gauge with this chisel-strike and mark the limits of both the mortises and tenons with this setting.
There are lots of approaches to chopping mortises. Try one repeatedly and stick with it for several dozen mortises. Then experiment with others. Repetition is really the key. I chop a V-notch right in the middle of the mortise’s length, and keep extending that both deeper and longer. Check that your chisel is parallel to the outer face of the stile. It’s easiest if that means plumb, rather than having the stock tilted on the bench. For a cupboard door, the mortises don’t extend to the top and bottom ends, but are stepped in a bit so there’s no exposed joint when you cut the stiles to their final length.
I cut tenon shoulders with a backsaw, and split the cheeks off with a chisel. This is easy because I know my stock will split reliably. Sawn stock might require that you saw all the parts of your tenon. I angle the front shoulder a bit, undercutting it so it snugs up nice and tight to the mortised piece when I assemble.
The panel fits in grooves cut into the frame’s inner edges. I use a plow plane to make these grooves. If you don’t have a plow, you could cut the grooves with a narrow chisel. In that case, deeply score the groove’s position with a marking gauge and then use the chisel bevel down to carefully pare the groove. Patience required.
Once you have a plow plane, your life will get simpler. The plow plane features a fence to guide it along its path. The fence is adjustable, some by wooden screws, some by captured wedges. The iron I use is only 3/16″ wide. I line this groove up in the midst of the 5/16″ joints I cut. I start this plane at the far end of my stock and work backwards as I work forwards.
Light shavings and sharp irons are key. I make the groove about 1/2″ deep. I extend it beyond the mortises so it reaches full depth throughout.
Beveling the panel is easy. This isn’t raised-panel territory. The inside face is beveled and the outer face is flat (mine are usually carved). I use a hatchet to rough out the long shallow bevel. You can substitute a scrub plane and/or a drawknife if hewing is too daunting. I follow the hatchet with a smooth plane. My bevels fair down almost to nothing to fit the narrow grooves.
A test assembly is imperative; adjustments are made. Once the frame will close up around the panel, pin the joints. In my world, mortise-and-tenon joints must be drawbored. Once you can make the frame and panel, nothing can stop you. Go.
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