Making Raised Panel Doors with a Router

I recently had to make a couple of raised panel doors for a project I was building. I had never done it before so I thought I would share what I learned. Maybe it will help someone else or at the very least help them not make as many mistakes as I did.

Equipment needed:

  1. A router 1 and 1 half hp or better, with a variable speed control. If your router does not have a variable speed control you can buy a variable speed control module that goes in line with the power cord and they are not very expensive.

  2. A good router table.

  3. A set of raised panel door router bits.

These next features are not absolutely necessary but will make the job easier.

A router that has a one half inch collet and micro height adjustment.

Choosing a router bit set

First, a note about raised panel bits. What is so confusing about these bits is, first of all, you have to decide what profile design you want around the inside of the door frame. I picked an ogee profile but there are other profiles such as roundover, bevel, cove, etc. or even no profile at all. Then you need to decide if you want a one-piece set where you use shims to adjust the bit height or a two-piece set. I chose a two piece set because it was simpler to adjust. I imagine that once you have the one-piece version adjusted you may not have to do it again, but I am not sure because I have never used that type before. Next you have to decide on a panel bit. There are different profiles for these bits as well. Usually there are matched profiles for the rail and stile bits but you could get creative and pick a different profile for the panel. When you have decided on a profile you need to decide if you want a router bit with an undercutter. The undercutter works as follows: The stile bit cuts a groove in the rails and stiles. The panel will fit into this groove. Because the groove is slightly inset from the back face of the rail or stile, the panel will not be flush with the back face of the rail and stiles and the front face of the panel will be raised slightly above the front face of the rails and stiles. An undercutter panel bit will cut a rabbet on the back of the panel so that both faces of the panel will be flush with the front and back faces of the rail and stiles. This feature did not matter to me because I wanted the panel face to be higher, that is, to be truly a raised panel.

If you want a standard panel door where a piece of one-quarter inch plywood or something similar is used for the panel, then a panel bit is not required.

I bought a three-piece matched set with an ogee profile and with one-half inch shank plus a setup block from MLCS Woodworking. The setup block was $9.95 and worth every penny. One side of the block works for setting the height of the cope cut and the other side is for the stile cut.

  1. Coping sled for the router table.

This is explained later in the article.

The anatomy of a raised panel door

Most raised panel doors consist of five parts. There are two stiles, two rails and a panel. The rail and stiles form a picture frame and the panel is like the picture in the center of the frame. In woodworking or at least in cabinet making the term stile, spelled s-t-i-l-e, refers to the vertical sides of the frame and the rails are the horizontal pieces. The rails always connect to the stiles. Usually the stiles run the entire length of the door height and the rails butt up against the stiles. These positions can be altered, of course, so that the rails run the entire width of the door and the stiles butt into the rails.

Note: Another name you will often hear is Cope and Stick. Stick refers to the stiles and Cope is the name for the rails.

In most cases there will be a small profile cut around the inside of the frame. This could be a simple small bevel or cove. In my case I wanted an ogee profile. This profile resembles a lazy S. There will be another but usually larger profile cut around the outside edges of the panel with the panel bit.

Door Construction

The first thing is to figure out the size of the door. To do this we need to know how we want the door to hang. There are two ways. An inset door fits inside the opening and a overlap door overlaps the frame. If the door is going to overlap we need to decide by how much. I chose the latter with a one half inch over lap all around.

The opening for my door was 16 inches wide and 18 inches tall. So with the overlap the door dimensions are 17 inches wide and 19 inches tall.

Selecting the Wood

The next thing to do when making a panel or raised panel door is selecting the wood. Whether you are going to mill the wood yourself or buy it already milled, pick absolutely flat stock with no cup, twist or bow. If the stock is not perfectly square and flat the finished door will not be either. Straight grained wood is best for the rails and styles and if all four pieces come from the same board, the frame of the door will be matched in color and grain. Flat-sawn or plain-sawn wood with cathedral arches often are attractive for the panels.

After I milled the boards for the rails and stiles to thickness I ripped the boards to two and one quarter inch width. This width is typical for rails and stiles but other widths are acceptable as well.

Door size calculation

Next we need to determine the length of the styles and rails as well as the size of the panel.

Here is the formula for rail length: width of the opening plus the overlap minus the width of the two stiles plus the depth of the groove for the panel.

Note: The groove for the panel is also the depth of the mortise for the rails.

In my case the width of the opening is sixteen inches. The overlap is one half inch on both sides so we add one inch to equal seventeen inches total. Now we subtract the width of both stiles. In this case the stiles are each two and one quarter of an inch. So two and one quarter plus two and one quarter equals four and one half inches Total length equals seventeen inches minus four and one half inches equals twelve and one half inches.

The router bit I used to cut the groove and ogee profile cuts three eighths inch deep. So we add three eighths inch for both styles that equals three quarters of an inch that we add to our twelve and one half inch number for a total of thirteen and one quarter inches total length of each rail.

The length of the stiles equals the height of the opening plus one half inch over lap at the top and one half inch over lap at the bottom.

In this case the height of the opening is eighteen inches plus one half inch plus one half inch for the overlaps equals nineteen inches.

The width of the center panel equals the length of the rails minus one quarter of an inch. This difference allows for seasonal expansion or contraction across the grain of the panel due to climate conditions.

To get the height of the panel we take the length of the stiles minus the width of both rails plus the depth of the groove.

There is no need to cut the panel short because the wood will not expand or contract with the grain but I cut my panel one eighth inch smaller to ease assembly.

Now that I have all of my final dimensions I was ready to mill and cut my stock. I milled, cut and glued up my panels first. After I sanded the panels so they were smooth and flat I milled and cut the rails and stiles.

Note: I do the panels first before I mill and cut the other parts because sometimes my glue ups do not come out flat, though I have gotten better over time. Like everything else this too takes practice.

Ready for the Router

Now it is time to go to the router table. I did a lot of reading and listening to videos before I started my doors and it seems most woodworkers agree to do the cope cuts first. I wondered why, so I did a couple of test cuts. First I made the cope cut on the end of the rails as recommended. Then I cut the groove and profile with the stile bit and then did the cope cut. In my practice cuts, I learned that if I cut the groove and profile first, then when I made the cope cut it tended to splinter the wood even when using a backer block. So always make the cope cuts first.

Note: The cope cut is made on the end of the rails and requires a coping sled.

The Coping Sled.

There are many types of coping sleds. I bought the Woodpecker coping sled. You can see it on-line at: woodpeck.com
The Woodpecker coping sled does not use the miter slot on the router table. It has a guide that slides along the router table fence. I do not think it matters which type you use but Charles Neil makes a good point about the Pinnacle coping sled that uses the miter track because it can also be used on the tablesaw for cross cutting.

The main point is you need to be able to hold the rail down firmly against a fence and the sled needs to be kept from twisting when making the coping cut, that is, a cut across the end grain. The sled and workpiece are kept square to the coping bit by using either a miter track or a guide running against the router table fence. When the router bit cuts into the end grain fibers, it grabs the workpiece and tries to pull it through. With the sled fixed in either a miter slot or tight against the fence, it can resist the twisting pull of the router bit. The coping cut must be perfect or it will not fit into the stile.

Cope cut description

The simplest way I can think of to describe a cope cut is to use a chamfer or bevel profile as an example. Say we cut the stile first. Then hold it up and imagine you are looking at it from the end. The first thing we would notice is a groove or dado cut along the edge of the board. This groove would be about a quarter of an inch high and a half inch deep. However it will not be in the center of the stile but rather it will start about an eighth of an inch from the bottom. Next we would see about a fifteen degree bevel starting just above the top edge of the groove and angling up and in toward the center of the board also one half inch. This bevel will not go up all the way to the top edge of the face of the style. It will stop about one sixteenth of an inch. Then a line will go straight up to the face of the style to resemble a tiny step.

Now for the rail to fit into the style we will need to cut it in reverse. This is called a cope cut. So we make the cut with our router and rail bit. Instead of looking at it from the end imagine we are looking at it from the side of the rail.

Starting at the bottom we will see a rabbit cut an eighth of an inch high and three eights of an inch deep. Then straight up a quarter of an inch and then a cut straight back into the end of the rail a three eights of an inch deep. This forms the tenon. This tenon will fit into the groove in the stile. Now starting just above the top of this tenon and a three eights of an inch back a bevel starts and runs up and out to the end of the rail and will stop a sixteenth of an inch below the face of the rail.

So when we put the rail and stile together this top one sixteenth of an inch will butt up to the tiny step on top of the stile. The bevel of the rail will slide over the top of the bevel of the stile and the tenon will slide into the groove in the style.

Notice the material we remove from the stile we leave in the end of the rail and vice versa.

Router setup.

After I have the rail bit in the router I raise up the bit until I think it is close. Then I take a straight edge. In my case I used a framing square. I hold the straight edge between the upper and lower cutter and against the shaft of the bit. Then I slide my router table fence up against the straight edge and lock it in place. I try to line the fence relatively parallel to the miter track but with my sled this is not important. Note: my coping bit does not have a guide bearing so that is why I use the shank of the bit as the reference point. Next I place the setup block on the sled and push the sled towards the bit. I raise or lower the bit as needed until the block slides between the top and bottom cutters. Then I lock the router height adjustment and make my first test cut. Note: for the test cut it is critical to use a piece of scrap the same width and thickness as the rail stock. Now I check the fit by inserting the test piece into the setup block on the opposite side used for setting the stile depth. I found I only needed to adjust the bit height about one-thirty-second of an inch and it was perfect.

Note: Make sure the front face of the rails and stiles are always face down on the sled or router table. Always use a backer block or you will be sure to get a lot of tear out. I just use a piece of scrap about an inch wide and a foot long. This block goes up against the fence of the sled and the work piece goes up against this block.

One last thing to remember. When you remove the rail after the first cut just rotate it horizontally end for end so you keep the same face down.

Because I was making two doors I had four rails for a total of eight cuts.

After inspecting each piece and testing each cope joint with the setup block I was satisfied they were good so I moved on to the next step.

Cutting the groove and profile on the stiles and rails

First I put away the coping sled because it was no longer needed. Then I remove the coping bit and put in the stile bit. Stile bit is not really the proper name of this bit because this bit is used for cutting the groove and profile on both the stiles and rails.

After setting the bit height close I use the opposite side of the setup block to fine tune the bit height.

Then I use the straight edge again. I put the straight edge up against the bearing, moved the fence against the straight edge and locked it down. Although the bit has a bearing to guide the stock I still prefer to use the fence. This way I can clamp a feather board to the fence to hold the stock down on the table. The featherboard pressing down on the workpiece ensures a flat smooth cut at the perfect depth.

Now I use a piece of scrap the same thickness of the rails and stiles and make a test cut. Then I test fit with one of the rails I cut in the previous step. I adjust the bit height as necessary and recut until the scrap and rail faces are perfectly flat.

Then I place all the stiles and rails in a stack face down and cut each one.

Remember the rails and stiles are always cut face down.

Now is a good time to dry fit the rails and stiles and check that the door is the proper size.

Cutting the panels.

A couple of things need to be mentioned at this point.

First my panel bit is about three inches in diameter. So I had to remove the router bit plate ring completely so the bit would fit.

Second I reduced the router speed down to about fifteen thousand RPM for safety.

There is no setup block for this bit. So I made the cut in several passes. When I thought I was getting close I began to test fit the panel with the groove on the stile. The bit I used cuts the first three eights inch flat so it will slide into the groove. I wanted the panel to slide in easily but snugly and not flop around. By making very fine bit height adjustments and repeated passes I was able to accomplish this.

Dry fitting the door.

Next I assemble the whole door and lightly clamp it together. I want to make sure the door lays perfectly flat. Then check the joints to ensure the seams close completely and finally the panel can move a little side to side.

The Glue up.

The two most important things to keep in mind here is to have a flat surface to assemble on and a way to make sure the door is square.

Dry fit the door and check the joints and make sure the panel can move side to side. At this point I put a piece of tape on each corner of the stiles about an eighth of an inch above the inside profile of the rail. I use the tape to mark the end of my glue line.

Next I center the panel in the frame and mark the center with tape. I put the tape across the rail and on to the panel. Then with a sharp knife cut the tape at the inside edge of the rail. Do this to the top and bottom rails. It will speed up assembly after we apply glue. Now we are ready to disassemble the dry fit and apply glue.

Note: Make sure when applying the glue it does not get in the groove for the panel. The tape on the stiles will help prevent this.

I apply a light coat of glue on both ends of the rails and a liberal amount in the rabbet on the back of each rail. Then I put a coat of glue on the profile of the stile just where the rail will slide over. This is where the tape we put on the stiles earlier comes in play. It will prevent putting glue too far down on the styles or in the groove for the panel.

Next I place a drop of glue in the groove of the rails at the center line I marked with tape. This will keep the panel in the center and still allow the panel to expand or contract side to side. After I reassemble the parts I check the door for square with a framing square and adjust as necessary. If the ends of your rails are cut square it should not take much adjusting. After I make sure each rail is flush with the end of each style I apply the clamps.

I use one clamp at the top and one at the bottom and apply just enough pressure to close the joints.

Note: Use cauls, spelled c-a-u-l-s, or pressure blocks, just small blocks of wood between the clamps and the frame to prevent marring the door frame. Tighten the clamps in opposite directions to even out stress.

Finally make sure the door is laying perfectly flat and recheck the door for square. Let the glue dry for twenty four hours.

Note: If the joints are not perfectly flush, it is easy to feather them out with a sander. I could not get all four to be that way no matter how careful I was so I wound up doing a little sanding to make them perfect.

Submited by Darrel Vickers