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Raised Panel Door Tools and Techniques

Raised panel doors have long been a hallmark of fine cabinetry. Unfortunately, many hobbyists and weekend woodworkers think that making cabinet doors requires years of woodworking experience. In fact, that's not the case at all. Below, we'll take a look at some of the tools and techniques that make building perfect frame-and-panel doors a process that anyone with a few basic woodworking skills can enjoy.

You'll see just how easy the process can be as we walk you through the process of making a classic arched-top raised panel door. When you're ready to get started making your own frame and panel doors, you'll find all of the best-quality door making tools, equipment and supplies at Rockler.

How Raised Panel Doors "Work"

Raised panel doors are an example of frame and panel construction, a method developed hundreds of years ago to combat the effects of moisture on solid wood used in cabinetry and furniture making. In a frame and panel construction, a large panel is fitted into a groove in the interior edge of a more dimensionally stable frame made of narrow strips of wood. The panel is sized slightly smaller than actual dimension that the grooved frame will accommodate, and simply rests in the groove without being physically attached to the frame. Since the panel is given a little "room to move" and isn't physically attached to the frame, it is free to expand and contract with seasonal changes in humidity without affecting the stable shape and size of the frame.

Tools for Fast, Accurate Frames

For any frame and panel construction project, the first and most important task is to mill the parts of a sturdy, flat and square frame. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, and a variety of joinery methods that can be used for the all-important joints of the frame. For frame and panel cabinet doors, where joint stresses are usually light to moderate, the most popular choice is the fast and easy-to-master "cope and stick" method. The method works out especially well for larger projects, like making a set of kitchen cabinet doors.

In cope and stick joinery, the frame is held together by a joint between the edge of the "stiles" (the vertical members of the frame) and the ends of the "rails" (the horizontal members of the frame). The "sticking" - the panel groove and the decorative profile on the interior edge of the frame - is matched by a special cut in the end of the rail called a "cope." To complete the joint, the two matching profiles are simply glued and clamped together. The strength of the joint relies on a near-perfect match between the cope and the sticking, which is achieved by using router bits designed especially for the purpose.

Stile and Rail Router Bits

Stile and rail router bits are available in a variety of designs and configurations. The "matched set" of stile and rail bits is among the most popular and easy to use. The sets are comprised of two router bits that are "matched" to produce an exact fit between the sticking profile and cope. Matched sets of stile and rail router bits are available in a variety of profiles, including ogee, bead edge, round edge and traditional. The most important consideration, however, is to look for a bit set that's manufactured to precision standards with cutters machined from quality carbide.

Stile and rail router bits are designed to be used strictly on a router table. The performance of the bits, in fact, depends to a large degree on the quality of the router table and on the availability of a few key accessories. To produce the perfectly square and level router cuts required in cope and stick joinery, the table needs, at minimum, to be flat, well supported, have a straight and reliable fence, and an accurate miter gauge. Beyond that, a few related pieces of equipment can go a long way in making the process smooth and successful:

The Rockler Rail Coping Jig

Getting a cope cut that's square and consistent in height over the length of the cut is extremely important. Using a miter gauge to cope rails is an option, but care should be taken. A miter gauge set at an angle that's even slightly off 90 degrees will cause incorrectly cut rail ends and make square, close-fitting joints virtually impossible. And if the rails aren't kept perfectly flat on the surface of the router table, the result is a cope that's out of level or at the wrong height. The result is a joint that's twisted or isn't flush.

The Rockler Rail Coping Jig really helps out, both in producing a square cut and in keeping the rail flat during the cut. The jig is pre-set at a 90 degree angle - you'd really have to try to make a cope that isn't square. The jig clamps the rail securely in place (with the flip of a lever) so there's no chance that the stock will wander backwards out of the cut during the operation. With the rail clamped flat against the surface of the jig, getting a cut that's perfectly level and at exactly the right height is just a matter of keeping the jig flat against the surface of the table during the cut, an operation that the jig's ergonomic, "hand-plane" design makes easy and natural. The replaceable hardwood backer completes the package by virtually eliminating the problem of tear-out when the coping bit exits the cut.

Router Bit Set Up Jigs

Setting the height of the stile and rail bits is a crucial step. A good set of stile and rail bits makes perfectly matching cuts, and there's no opportunity to "fudge" the joint in one direction or another once the cuts are made. If the height of the sticking profile bit and the coping aren't set correctly, the surfaces of the stiles and rails won't be flush when joint is assembled. Rockler Router Bit Set-Up Jigs make setting the height of stile and rail bits almost impossible to get wrong. Each set up jig is cut at the optimum height with exactly matching sticking and cope profiles. You just adjust the height of the bit until it matches the profile of the jig and you're ready to start cutting.

Cathedral and Arched Door Templates

Cathedral and arched-top doors are the "top of the line" when it comes to raised panel doors. But many intermediate woodworkers consider them out of their league. The truth is, making doors with curved top rails and panels is no more difficult than making any other type of door - provided you have the right equipment. Rockler's Cathedral Door Templates and Arched Door Templates make cutting perfectly shaped arched rails and cathedral style rails and panel quick and easy. Each set comes with matched rail and panel templates that cover a range of common cabinet door widths.

Feather Boards

Keeping the stock flat against the surface of the router table and up tight against the router table fence while cutting the sticking profile is of primary importance. "Feather boards" apply gentle even pressure on the stock while you are making sticking profile cuts, leaving you free to concentrate on moving the stiles and rails through the cut at the slow, even rate necessary to produce a clean edge. Feather boards are nothing new - they've been around for a very long time. But certain improvements over the years have made them easier to use and set up. The feather boards available as an accessory for Rockler Router Table Packages, for example, are designed to attach and adjust to the perfect position in a few seconds.

Perfect Panels

In many ways making the panel is the least challenging part of raised panel door construction. The panel is really just a passenger in the door frame, and doesn't really contribute to the structural strength of the door. The main challenge in the panel-making process is to create a smooth edge profile that's exactly the right thickness to fit snugly in the panel groove. To do that, you need a quality raised panel router bit. Here, you have a few options:

Vertical Raised Panel Bits

Vertical raised panel bits are a good option for smaller router / router table set-ups. Because the panel is run vertically along the router table fence, the bit has a small cut radius compared to a horizontal bit. The small cut diameter of the bit makes it a safer tool for routers under 1-1/2 HP, and routers with no speed adjustment feature. These bits will cut a perfectly smooth profile and a panel that fits the panel groove perfectly, although they may take a little more practice to set up than some other types of panel-raising bits.

Horizontal Raised Panel Bits

Horizontal raised panel bits have the added feature of a pilot bearing to guide the router cut along the edge of the panel. This is a necessary feature for arched and cathedral style door-making. Horizontal bits require a more powerful router and slower operating speeds because of their large cut diameter.

Horizontal Raised Panel Bits with Back Cutters

This is as good as raised panel router bits get. The back cutter on these router bits rabbets the back edge of the panel, which makes for a perfect panel-to-groove fit every time. The back cutter also allows you to use stock for the panel that is the same thickness as the frame stock, while still placing the panel on the same plane as the surface of the frame.

Space Balls Stop Panel Rattle

"Panel Rattle" happens when changes in humidity cause a door panel to shrink down to loose fit in the panel groove. Space Balls are 1/4' diameter rubber balls designed to be installed in the panel groove before glue-up. The compressed rubber expands and contracts along with seasonal changes in humidity, keeping door panels centered and rattle-free year round.

Assembly Tips for Flat Doors

You have your perfectly machined stiles and rails ready to go. The panel profile is perfectly smooth and fits in the groove just right. You're home free, right? Not exactly. Assembly can be the make-or-break point of the entire process. For a door to end up flat, it has to be glued up flat - it's that simple. For the glue-up procedure, a perfectly flat surface is essential. But even if your workbench is dead-on flat, it won't matter unless your clamps follow through. Jet Parallel Clamps and Rockler Sure-Foot Clamps are both designed to stay upright and to maintain the consistent work-surface-to-clamp-surface distance that keeps your doors flat during assembly.

Putting Theory into Practice

Now that you have an idea of the tools and techniques that go into successful raised panel door construction, the next step is to see them in practice. That's what we'll do on the next page, where we'll go through the steps in making an arched-top raised panel door.

Related skillbuilder: An Arched-Top Raised Panel Door in 10 Steps