Different Overlays/Cabinet Construction

Many of our clients (even some professionals in the industry) are confused about cabinet construction and overlays. We want to clear up the confusion, once and for all! Armed with this knowledge, you will be able to better understand the style, quality, and cost differences between different cabinets you see. 

Very simply, we’re asking 2 questions: 

Does the cabinet have a face frame? 

And how much of this face frame is covered by our cabinet door? 

Does the cabinet have a face frame? 

Determining Cabinet Construction

We have 2 options in terms of cabinet construction: Framed or Frameless. Asking this first question helps us determine which one we’re looking at. If we answer, “Yes”, it does have a face frame, then it’s a Framed cabinet. If we answer, “No”, it does NOT have a face frame, then it’s a Frameless cabinet. Easy enough, right?

But, wait, what exactly is a face frame? Imagine in your mind a wooden picture frame applied on top of a canvas or piece of glass. A cabinet face frame is similar. It’s a frame applied to the front of your cabinet box, usually about an inch and a half wide. It serves to provide stability and structure to the cabinetry. 

You can identify this by noticing the fact that this front frame is both thicker than and separate from the sides of the cabinet.

So, what if there is no face frame? If your cabinet does not have a face frame, then you are looking at a frameless cabinet. You may hear this referred to as Full-Access or European style cabinets. These are both referring to what we call Frameless construction.

You can identify these because the “face” of the cabinet (the part covered by the door when it’s closed) is thinner, usually ⅝” – ¾” wide. And this “face” portion is simply the edge of the plywood or melamine that forms the side of the cabinetry. This edge, or face, is covered with a very thin strip of edge banding that matches the color and texture of the cabinet. 

So, face frame = framed. No face frame = frameless. Simple.

How much of the face frame is covered by the cabinet door? 

Determining Cabinet Overlay

Two styles of overlay dominate most of the mid-high end market, which is where we do most of our design work: Full-overlay and Inset. 

However, other alternatives do exist, usually associated with less expensive, cheaper-looking cabinetry, such as Partial or Marginal overlay. We don’t prefer them or display them in our design studio, so we won’t discuss them in detail. In short, these cheaper options have smaller doors, revealing more of the cabinet face frame. This leads to huge spaces between adjacent cabinets, which we don’t prefer.

If you’ve determined that your cabinet is frameless, then it will also be full-overlay. Only cabinets with a face frame have the option to be either full-overlay or inset.

So, the question is how much of the face frame is covered by the door? 

Look at the cabinet from the front. Does the door sit on top of and cover most (¼” or less from door to edge of cabinet) or basically all of the face frame? If so, this is a Full-overlay cabinet? 

Or, does the door not overlay the frame at all, but rather sit inside, flush with the frame? If so, this is an Inset cabinet.

So, if a cabinet is frameless, it’s always full-overlay. And if it’s framed and the door covers most of the frame, then it’s full-overlay. If the cabinet door sits inside the frame then it is inset.

Why does it matter?

Framed construction is usually utilized in traditional to transitional, and infrequently in contemporary or modern design. Conversely, frameless construction is used almost exclusively in contemporary and modern design, and less frequently in transitional or traditional design. 

Framed construction is often seen as superior in durability because the frame provides rigidity and support to ensure long-term stability. Installers also love that framed cabinets are easier to install because they don’t “rack” – a term in the construction industry that refers to a box getting out of square. 

Frameless cabinetry from a great manufacturer, though, is built with thick, durable materials and joined together with methods that negate these risks. Homeowners love frameless cabinetry because the removal of the face frame increases storage space in each and every cabinet. If we add up this increased storage space through an entire kitchen, it can make a big difference.

More than anything, though, which style clients choose is based on style preferences. Usually, our clients gravitate toward the look of one of these overlays and we proceed in that direction.

Is there a cost difference between the various options?

In short, yes. Framed full-overlay is typically 15-20% less than Framed inset. And Frameless is typically 5-10% more than Framed full-overlay.

What causes this difference in price? Frameless cabinets cost slightly more because the rigidity of the cabinet has to be provided by the sides, top, and bottom, without the support of a face frame. So, the sides have to be made of thicker and stronger materials, and therefore cost more to build. 

Framed Inset cabinets cost more primarily because of the increased labor costs. Because the door sits inside the frame, there is a gap between the door and face frame. That gap needs to be as small as possible and as consistent as possible, which means that each door and drawer needs to be fitted to it’s specific door frame, and sanded over and over to fit perfectly. This process takes time and effort, and so it increases the cost.


Understanding cabinet construction and overlay styles can give you a big jump on the kitchen design process! And, it will increase your confidence as you explore inspiration pictures online and look at cabinetry in various showrooms.

Hopefully, this guide will help you in your journey toward a beautiful new kitchen!