Frame and Panel Door

Making Doors and Drawers

For many woodworkers, building the doors and drawers for cabinets is the best part of a cabinetry project—and for good reasons. More than any other feature, doors and drawers determine the look of the cabinetry. From a technical standpoint, building doors and drawers involves a variety of interesting building techniques, joinery, and tools. It challenges the builder to do his or her very best work for both appearance and durability. Doors and drawers need to be built to withstand daily opening and closing—not to mention the occasional toddler using them as a swing or chin-up bar. Doors can range from simple plywood doors, often referred to as flush doors, to frame and panel doors with flat or raised panels, with styles from traditional to contemporary to creative custom work with inlays, carving, or exotic wood. For the woodworker, drawers are more than just a good place to store stuff. Perfect for mastering the classic dovetail joint, they offer opportunities to learn, practice, and show off joinery prowess.

Frame and Panel Door


Name a cabinet’s parts, and you’re sure to include doors—one of woodworking’s elemental structures. Cabinet doors come in every shape and form and they can be made a hundred different ways. This story features a popular form and a foolproof method: Using a router table equipped with stile and rail cutters to create a frame and panel door.

The Door

A frame and panel structure creates a stable solid-wood door (see Door Structure, right). Vertical stiles and horizontal rails form a rigid frame with minimal seasonal movement. The panel floats inside the frame, housed in grooves, so its seasonal movement is hidden, especially if the panel is stained and finished before it’s installed.

Usually, the stiles and rails are the same width, but making the bottom rail 1/4-in. to 1/2-in. wider subtly balances the door. Doors look best when the stiles and rails are made from straight-grained stock. This provides an orderly appearance and focuses attention on the panel. Using straight-grained stock also minimizes the door frame’s seasonal movement. Panels look best when they’re thoughtfully constructed, either to show striking figure or cohesive grain pattens.

Door Structure

A typical cabinet door consists of vertical stiles and horizontal rails that surround a panel. The panel is housed in grooves cut in the stiles and rails. The panel can be flat, as shown here, or have a raised center, with the edges tapered to fit in the grooves. Raised panels are enormously popular, but it’s hard to top the understated elegance of a flat panel with pleasing grain or figure.

Figure A: Profiles

Stile and Rail Cutters are available in a variety of decorative profiles.

Figure B: The Cutters

The rail bit is used to make end grain cuts on the rails. It creates a tongue with a profile and a rabbet.

The stile bit is used to make edge grain cuts on both the stiles and rails. It creates a mirror-image groove and profile.

Figure C: Door Width Calculations

Because the joints overlap, the sum of the parts (the two stile widths plus the rail’s length) is larger than the overall width of the door. Measure the depth of the groove to determine the overlap—it’s usually 3/8-in. per joint. Add the extra length to the rail. Once you’ve determined the correct part sizes to make the door exactly fit the opening, add an additional 1/8-in. to the width of each stile and rail.

The Cutters

Stile and rail cutters create a decorative version of the tongue and groove joint (Fig. A). They’re available as a single reversible bit or in dedicated sets. Reversible bits usually cost less; dedicated sets are more convenient to use. Dedicated sets include separate bits for the end grain and the edge grain (Fig. B). All cuts are made with the face of the workpiece against the table. Reversible bits have to be disassembled and reassembled between cutting operations. Also, some cuts are made with the workpiece face-side-up; others are made face-side-down.

Prepare Your Stock

For inset doors, plan to make your door the same dimensions as the door opening (for lipped and overlay doors, add the lip/ overlay widths). Consider the overlapping joints when you calculate the door’s width (Figure C). Determining the door’s length is easy: Just cut the stiles to the length of the door opening. Door panels are housed on all four sides in the frame’s groove, so include the overlaps when you calculate both the panel’s width and height.

Include extra test pieces when you rip your stile and rail stock (Photo 1). Once the pieces are cut to length and width, mark their back sides. Use these marks to correctly orient the pieces for routing.
56 I flow to Make Kitei.)en Cabinets
Rip all the stiles and rails 1/8-in. oversize in width. Then cut all the pieces to final length. The extra width allows a second routing pass on the edge grain, if the initial pass causes tearout.

Set the rail bit’s height with a test rail installed on the sled. For 3/4-in.-thick stock, position the rabbet cutter to create a 3/16-in.-deep rabbet.

Make the End Grain Cuts First

Begin by routing the rails’ end grain. (To remember to rout the rails before the stiles, think of the alphabet: R comes before S.)

Install the rail bit and make a test cut. (Photos 2 through 4). On the test piece, check the profile’s top lip and bottom rabbet. For appearance and strength, the lip should measure at least 1/16-in. and the rabbet should measure at least 3/16-in. For maximum support, don’t cut into the jig’s backboard during your test cuts. Wait until the bit is set at the correct height.

Set the fence flush with the rail bit bearing. This assures a smooth cut, by allowing use of the fence to guide the sled that carries the rails.

Routing Sled for the Rails

Use this sled to make end grain cuts safely and easily. It holds narrow rails squarely and securely and tracks against the router table’s fence, which keeps your fingers out of harm’s way. It also supports the rails’ back edges, to prevent blowout.

After you’ve compleed the end grain cuts on the rails, install the stile cutter and rout the inside edges of both the stiles and rails (Photos 5 through 7).

Fit the Flat Panel

With solid-wood flat panels, starting thick and rabbeting is easier than planing the entire panel to exact thickness (Photo 8). If your door frames are 3/4-in.-thick, your panels must be thinner than 7/16-in., so they don’t protrude beyond the back of the frame.

Assemble the Door

Before you assemble the door (Photos 9 and 10), sand and finish the panel, including all the edges. Finishing prevents unsightly strips of unfinished wood from appearing in the winter, when the panel shrinks in width, due to seasonal movement. Finishing the panel’s edges seals the wood so glue can’t soak in and bind the panel to the frame.

Make a test cut to check your set up. Adjust the bit’s height and the fence, if necessary. Then rout the ends of all the rails—your marks on the back faces show when the rails are oriented correctly, face-side down.

Set the height of the stile bit by aligning its groove cutter with the tongue on one of your rails. Then reset the fence flush with the bearing.

Cut a test piece, using featherboards to hold it in position and a push stick to move it through.

Check the fit by installing one of the rails. The faces should be flush. Adjust the cutter height, if necessary, then rout all the inside edges. After routing, rip and joint the stiles and rails to final width.

Dealing with Tearout

Tearout can occur when you have to rout against the grain (above). First, thank your lucky stars for ripping the pieces oversize in width. Then rip the stile to remove the tearout (below) and rout again. The lighter cut is less likely to tear out.

Fitting Plywood Panels

The bane of using 1/4-in. plywood for door panels, of course, is that it’s often less than 1/4-in. thick. That means unsightly gaps or annoying rattling can result when it’s installed in 74-in.-wide grooves. Here are three ways to cope.

Solution 1: Wedge the panel from the back to eliminate gaps on the front. Trim the wedges flush to the frame.

Solution 2: Eliminate rattling by installing space balls to stabilize the panel.

Solution 3: Use adjustable stile and rail bits.

Glue the door together one joint at a time. As you go, make sure the outside edges of each joint are flush. First assemble one corner (1). Next, install the panel (2). You should never glue in a solid wood panel, because of seasonal movement, but it’s okay to glue in a plywood panel. Position the remaining rail (3) and then install the remaining stile (4).

Assure the door is flat and square. Tighten the clamps gently; stop as soon as the joints squeeze shut. Too much pressure will bow the door—make sure it remains flat on the clamp bars. Measure both diagonals. The door is square if the measurements are identical. You can draw an out-of-square door true by angling the clamps slightly (so they’re not quite parallel to the rails) and retightening them. Measure again—if the measurements are farther off than before, simply reinstall the clamps, angled the opposite way.

Minimize squeeze-out by carefully brushing glue onto the rail ends. Keep glue away from the groove so it doesn’t come in contact with the panel.

Spread the word. Share this post!