Trouble-Free Raised-Panel Doors

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This article is from Issue 21 of Woodcraft Magazine.

At one time, the raised-panel door represented a technological breakthrough in cabinetry. The five-piece door solves the movement-related problems inherent in a solid-plank, enabling woodworkers to build light, yet strong cases. The captured panel can still expand and contract, but now the movement is contained within a pair of vertical stiles and horizontal rails. The outer frame also helps keep thinner panels flat.

Traditionally, the rails are joined to the stiles using pegged, through-mortise and tenon joints. The problem is that cutting these joints can be a tedious and time-consuming process. Fortunately, there’s an easier way. By using a good rail-and-stile router bit set (see the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide), you can build good-looking doors in just a few hours. The stile bit, commonly referred to as a “sticking” bit, profiles the edge of your stock. The rail bit, also known as a “coping” bit, makes a complementary cut on the ends of the rail stock which enables them to mate into the edges of the stiles. Here’s the step-by-step process Steve Rigrish used to make the doors for his step-back cupboard (see page 22). With this information, you’ll be ready to give your kitchen or shop cabinets a complete face-lift.

1 Start Flat, Stay Flat

The secret to successful door making is working with dead flat stock—anything less will mean doors that won’t hang or close properly. Start by carefully choosing your material. Use 4/4 stock for the rails,  stiles,  and panels. Select the driest, straightest grain stock you can find, preferably quartersawn, and allow it to stabilize to your shop environment for a few days prior to milling. 

Use featherboards and push blocks to apply even pressure against the table and fence. Maintain a steady feed rate for the smoothest-possible cut.

For the straightest stiles and rails, dimension your stock carefully. First, rip the parts just ¼" wider than needed. (Ripping your stock to rough width first gives the wood an opportunity to move before you do any jointing or planing.) Now cut your rails and stiles to rough length. Since the rails are short, you may want to leave several of them together on a longer board to make jointing and planing steps safer and easier. 

After making the rough cuts, joint one face and thickness plane all of your material in one step. (When planing, remember to flip your stock end-for-end after each pass to maintain equilibrium.) Finally, triple-check your table saw blade and jointer fence for square, then joint an edge and rip to final width. 

You’re almost ready to start routing. Install the stile or “sticking” bit in your table-mounted router and use a straightedge to align the guide bearing flush with the fence. Adjust the bit height so that the fillet depth is 1/16"  and make a test edge cut as shown in Photo A. 

Inspect the groove before routing the rest of your rail and stile stock. The groove should be positioned between the front and back face so that neither side is too thin. Once you’re satisfied, rout the profile on all your stock. 

2 Crosscut Your Parts

It’s time to crosscut your parts to exact length. Whether you’re using a miter gauge or sled on a table saw, or using a miter saw, use a stop block to ensure parts of identical length. If the lengths are off by even a tiny bit, you’ll end up with doors that aren’t square.

To find the lengths of the stiles, simply measure the length of the opening and subtract the desired door gap/gaps (from 1/16 -3/32"). Determining the rail length requires a little math. First, measure the width of the opening, subtract the width of the two stiles, and then add the depth of the two panel grooves (the groove is usually  3/8" deep).

Rail length = opening width – (2) x stile width + (2) x panel groove depth

Now mark and cut the parts. It’s best to aim for a door width that matches the opening perfectly, and machine or hand-plane the frame to remove the extra material when final-fitting the doors.

When using a split fence, make sure the two halves are perfectly aligned so the stock doesn’t catch on the outfeed side and spoil your cut. Hold your stock down firmly as you make the pass.

3 Learning to Cope

To rout the coped ends, install the rail or  “coping” bit and align the guide bearing with the fence just as you did in the previous step. Use the profile you previously cut to rough-set the bit height. Make a test cut and adjust the bit height so that the faces are perfectly flush (Photo B). When routing the ends of the rails, use a backer board to prevent breakout. (See “A Simple and Safe Coping Sled” on the next page for a solid stock-gripping jig you can use instead of your miter gauge.). Feed the rail slowly while holding it firmly against the table, making sure the end of the rail is tight against the fence. 

A SIMPLE AND SAFE COPING SLED

This wide two-sided sled works with any router table and ensures a tear-out-free cope. To cope the rails, start with the unprofiled edge against the flat edge of the fence.  To cope the opposite end, flip the sled, fit the rail into the coped fence  edge as shown and slide the sled past the bit.

4 Make Your Panels

Just like your stiles and rails, the panels must be flat. Start by jointing and planing your panel stock to 11/16" thick. Before ripping the stock to width, you’ll need to think about seasonal movement. If you’re building these doors during drier winter months, allow roughly 3/16" for future expansion. During the humid summer months, cut the panels about 1/16" undersize. To determine the length of the panel, just subtract the width of the rails from the length of the stiles, and then add the depth of the grooves.

Rout the raised panel profile in 1/8" steps. Attach an auxiliary one-piece fence to span the wide opening between the split fence and shroud the bit.

Using a panel-raising bit included with the kit requires some common sense. Because of the bit’s large diameter, you’ll want to use a 3 to 3½ hp router, and slow it down to about 10,000 rpm. To start, align the guide bearing with the fence and raise the bit to take about a 1/8"cut. Now rout the cross-grain ends first, then rout the edges. Rout each panel before raising the bit (Photo C). You’ll need to take at least three passes, saving a light finishing cut of no more than 1/16" for the last run. The goal is a panel that fits snugly into the groove. 

5 Pulling It Together

Arrange your clamps on a flat surface so your glue-ups stay flat. Apply glue to the stub tenons on the rails as shown in Photo D, and a small amount in each end of the stiles. Be extra careful to keep glue out of the panel areas. Insert a rail into a stile, position the panel in place, then insert the second rail. Attach the remaining stile then press the assembly together. Make sure the outside rail/stile joints are flush. 

Carefully lay the assembled door onto your clamps. Center the clamp heads on the rails, then apply light pressure. (You may need a few taps with a rubber mallet to line the parts up.) Check for square by measuring the diagonals as shown in Photo E and tweak as necessary before tightening the clamps. Don’t apply too much pressure or you’ll risk flexing the stiles and possibly breaking them. Finally, use a straightedge to make sure the stiles are flat with the rails. If the rails are flexed, loosen the clamps a bit, push the parts flat and lightly retighten the clamps. Clean up any glue squeeze-out you can reach, and then let the assembly dry.

6 Finishing Up

Once dry, clean up any glue that you missed. Put the doors into the cabinet openings and determine how much material you need to remove to create even gaps or reveals. If you need to remove a lot of material, you can use the table saw and finish up with a hand plane. 

If your doors fit together tightly, you may want to plane a back-bevel on the leading edge as shown in Photo F to provide a little extra swing clearance.  

Apply your glue neatly and evenly. Aim for minimal squeeze-out to clean up. You’ll also minimize your risks of gluing the panel into the grooves.

Check your doors for square before you fully snug up the clamps. Check for flatness using a straightedge after you tighten them.

A well-tuned hand plane does a great job on final fitting and creating back-bevels, as well as evening up door faces at joints and door/opening locations.

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