The Power of Frame and Panel Joinery

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.
This plain cupboard shows off the frame-and-panel format. No need for wide boards; you can fill your spaces with more framing and more panels.

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.

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