Frame and panel construction using the "cope and stick" joinery method is a valuable skill for anyone interested in cabinetmaking. Along with being one of the easiest ways to make professional-looking cabinet doors, frame and panel construction is a reliable and versatile method for dealing with seasonal expansion and contraction of wood panels in general, and can be used to great advantage in a variety of situations.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of woodworking can have success with cope and stick joinery beginning with their first try, but there are a few tricks and tools that make the process easier. Below, we'll offer a few suggestions on one of the most important parts of the process - coping the rails. If you're new to frame and panel construction, you may want to read Rockler's article, "Raised Panel Door Tools and Techniques" first for a more complete look at the entire process.
Making quick and trouble-free work of a coping panel rails has a lot to do with choosing the right sequence. When you begin a frame and panel construction project, you have a choice: You can cut the profile and panel slot first and cope later, or you can cut everything to length, cope the ends of the rails and then shape the long grain. Which is best? Neither one is the way to go in every case. There are advantages to both methods, but the situation will sometimes dictate the best sequence.
If a frame and panel construction project calls for a large number of very short rails - making a number of very narrow doors, for example - you may decide to make the sticking (long grain) cuts before cutting the rail material to length. In cases like that, cutting all of the rails to length and coping them first would mean making a large number of sticking cuts on very short parts, which would be a lot of work and possibly a little nerve-wracking.
Making the cope cuts before cutting the profile, on the other hand, gives you more control over “blowout” (tearing and splintering that happens when the coping bit exits the cut). If you cope the rails first and use a backer block behind the material, you won’t get much in the way of blowout. And if you do get a small amount of tearing, the sticking cut will usually get rid of it.
If you end up in a situation where you need to cope parts after the long grain is shaped, there’s an easy way to minimize blowout problems. Just cope a piece of scrap so that it mates with the rail profile, and use that for a backer when you make your copes. Using a coping jig, like the Rockler Rail Coping Jig, makes the backer block method easy to implement. The flat backer block that comes with the jig attaches to the jig with two screws. Just unscrew the block, line up your custom-profiled backer with the edge of the jig, screw it in place, and you're ready to go.
For very short rails especially, the jig and custom backer together make a good system. The jig holds the rails securely in place while it guides them through the cut and makes coping rails faster, safer and more accurate, while the profiled backer all but eliminates coping blowout.