Cabinet Terminology: Framed, Frameless, Inset & Overlay

By Karen Warner

When remodeling a kitchen, there may be new words you come across and certain aspects of cabinet construction can seem a little confusing until you understand them better. Here we’ll clarify the terms framed, frameless, inset, and overlay and what they mean in relation to cabinet construction and appearance.

What design and construction choices you ultimately make will depend on which style you prefer to look at, as well as your budget. There is no right or wrong decision, but it’s good to understand these concepts so you feel comfortable during the selection process.

To begin, all cabinets fall into one of two categories in terms of construction: framed or frameless.


American cabinet makers have traditionally made framed cabinets. With face frame construction, the frame provides strength to the cabinet, and the hinges and doors attach directly to the frame. With framed cabinets you have many design options: full overlay, partial overlay, and inset (more on these terms below).


Frameless Cabinets
Frameless Cabinets by Showplace Cabinetry

European manufacturers pioneered frameless cabinet construction, and it has become increasingly popular in the US. Rather than the strength of the cabinet coming from a face frame, frameless cabinets get their sturdiness and stability from thicker box construction. Also, with no frame to work around, the interior storage space of each cabinet is maximized. With frameless (also called “full-access”) cabinets, the doors are full-overlay with very slim margins between the doors and drawer fronts. The hidden hinges attach to the sides of the cabinet. For more information on these distinct styles, check out our article explaining the pros and cons of framed vs frameless cabinets.

When using the terms inset and overlay, we’re talking about how the doors and cabinet box look.


Custom Inset Cabinets
Custom Inset Cabinets by Dean Cabinetry

For a very classic look that celebrates the heritage of fine craftsmanship, inset doors are set inside a cabinet’s face frame. This frame can be either beaded or non-beaded, with slight spacing outlining the door and drawer fronts. This look, and the precision carpentry that creates it, come at a premium price point. The hinges can be either hidden or visible.
Inset cabinets can fit with well traditional, transitional, and even in more streamlined modern spaces, depending on the door style and details chosen. However, with the expansion and contraction of wood, the spaces around the doors may grow or shrink over the course of the year, so some adjustment may be necessary. By controlling humidity levels in a home, this expansion and contraction will be minimized. Also, the storage space available with inset cabinets is slightly less than with other kinds of cabinets.


Custom Full Overlay Cabinets
Custom Full Overlay Cabinets by Dean Cabinetry

In contrast to the way inset doors and drawer fronts sit flush with the frame when closed, with overlay styles the doors and drawer fronts sit on top of and over-lay the face frames or cabinet box edges. “Full-overlay” cabinets leave very little of the cabinet frame or box exposed and have become very popular because of this continuous, more modern look.

Frameless cabinets are always full-overlay, while framed cabinets can be either full overlay, inset (see above), or partial overlay. In “partial overlay” (also called “traditional overlay” and “standard overlay”) cabinets, the doors and drawer fronts are smaller than with “full overlay” and, therefore, leave more of the face frames visible. The storage space available with framed full overlay and partial overlay cabinets is the same.

Beautiful, functional kitchens can be created with all kinds of cabinet styles. Hopefully you’re feeling more comfortable with some of the cabinet terminology involved in planning your new space, and we’ll be happy to help guide you!