Lessons/Guides – Classic Frame & Panel Door

FEW DESIGN ELEMENTS are as simple, beautiful or enduring as the frame-and-panel (Fig. A).Woodworkers have been using this type of construction for centuries to build doors, wall paneling and cases. It’s a classic solution for dealing with an unavoidable problem: the seasonal expansion and contraction of a large panel. It’s also a great way to display a prized plank of figured stock.

Frame-and-panel is a very flexible design. By changing the shape and proportions of the panel or the frame, the design can be easily adapted to fit almost any style of furniture or architecture. Panels can be beveled or flat, rectangular or arched; the edges of the frame can be shaped with a decorative molding called a “sticking,” (Fig. B) or left square.

The main idea, though, is that the solid – wood panel isn’t glued in place: it’s free to float in grooves all the way around the frame. As a panel shrinks in width in winter, it’s free to with draw in the stile’s grooves. As it expands in summer, there should be enough room in the grooves so the panel doesn’t bottom out and force the frame apart (Fig. C).

I’ll show you how I build a very traditional frame and panel door – one which will withstand years of use. It has mortise and tenon joints, a sticking which is mitered at the corners, and a rectangular raised panel.

Why mortise and tenon?

There’s more than one way to build a frame and panel door. Today, most woodworkers use a pair of cope-and-stick router bits, which allow you to quickly and easily construct a kitchen full of doors. One bit shapes the decorative sticking profile and the panel groove; the second bit cuts the tenon and copes the ends of the rails to match the sticking. However, most of these bits create a short, stubby tenon (equal to the depth of the panel groove) which has only a small surface area for glue. Cope-and-stick joints are fine for lightweight doors, but I believe that large doors with solid-wood panels require more robust joinery.
For strength and longevity, it’s tough to be at traditional mortise and tenon joints (Photo 1).Unlike coped joints, deep mortises and long tenons provide mechanical interlock and plenty of surface area for glue. When I build traditional furniture that’s intended to last for generations, I always use mortise and tenon joints for the doors.
Here’s the joint I’ll be making. It provides a rigid mechanical inter-lock and plenty of surface area for glue. Note how the molding, or “sticking” is mitered, and how the joint is cut to accomodate the miter.

Mill the stock

When selecting stock for the stiles and rails, I choose straight-grained material that is free of knots, dramatic figure or run out (where the grain runs at a significant angle to the board’s faces). I’ve found that straight-grained stock works best because it provides greater strength for the door and resists warping.1 save figured stock for door panels.
Stile and rail stock must be flat, true and square. If your boards are warped or twisted, the completed door will also be twisted and will never close properly.1 avoid surfaced two sides (S2S) stock because there’s a good chance that it’s not perfectly flat. Instead, I use rough stock and flatten one face of each board on my jointer before planing it to thickness. For most doors, I make the stiles and rails 13/16″ to 7/8″ thick. I always mill a couple of extra pieces as well, choosing an inexpensive wood such as poplar to serve as test pieces when setting up the mortiser and tablesaw. After planing, I joint one edge of each piece and rip it to width.
The final step is to cut the stock to length. I leave the stiles about an inch longer than the height of the door. The extra length provides “ears” which allow for easy disassembly of the framework after dry fitting. I’ll trim the ears after door is glued up, making the edge of each rail perfectly flush with the end of each stile.
The length of the rails is a critical dimension because it determines the width of the door. I calculate the rails’ length during the layout process in the next step.

Layout

Accurate layout is the key to ensuring that the joints fit precisely (Fig. D). I start by marking the overall height of the door on both ends of one stile; this is the most important dimension because it determines if the door will fit the opening. I work inward to mark smaller dimensions, beginning with the width of each rail. Next, I determine the width of the sticking from a sample piece and mark this on the stile. This line indicates where the sticking will be mitered.

Finally, I mark the haunch at the end of the stile. As a rule of thumb, I make the haunch 3/8″ on a cabinet door. The area between the sticking’s miter reference line and the haunch becomes the mortise. To ensure that the stiles match, I clamp the two together and transfer the layout to the mating stile to create a mirror image (Photo 2).
Begin by drawing the mortise and sticking layout lines on one stile, then clamp the stiles together and transfer the lines. The stiles are extra-long to aid in assembly; they’ll be cut to length later.

The last step of the stile layout is to mark the mortise’s width. A 3/8″ wide mortise works well with frames that are 7/8″ thick; if the frames are thinner, I use 1/4″ or 5/16″ mortises. I center the mortise on the stock in order to ensure that the stiles and rails are going to be flush after assembly; a small error in centering the mortise will result in offset joints. To help ensure accuracy in setting up the mortising machine, I scribe the mortise from each face with a marking gauge (Photo 3).
Scribe the mortise from each face to perfectly center it on the stile.


There is really no need to mark the rails. Instead, I simply cut them to length prior to cutting the tenons. To determine the rail length (Fig. E), I subtract the width of the stiles from the overall width of the door, and then I add the sticking width (times two) plus the tenon length (times two). Keep in mind that the sticking at each mortise is removed from the stile after mitering; that’s why it is necessary to add the extra length to the rails.

As a rule of thumb, I make the tenon length three-fourths of the stile width. This ensures a strong mechanical interlock and lots of surface area for glue.

Cut the mortises first

I typically cut the mortises first, then cut the tenons to fit. It’s easier to adjust a tenon’s thickness by taking a fine shaving with the dado set or a rabbet plane than it is to change the width of the mortise.
I cut the mortises with a hollow chisel mortiser (Photo 4), but you can also cut them with a router and a straight bit or simply drill a series of holes and square the mortise with a chisel. What’s most important is that the mortise is centered and its walls are perpendicular, parallel and smooth.
Cut the ends of each mortise first, then stagger a hole in between. Finally, center the bit on the remaining waste.

When setting up the mortiser, I add three numbers to calculate how deep to cut: 1) the length of the tenon, 2) the width of the sticking, and 3) another 1/16″, to ensure that the tenon doesn’t bottom out during assembly and to make room for excess glue.

Cut the tenons to fit

To cut the tenons, I use a stacking dado set and guide the workpiece with the miter gauge (Photo 5). I cut the same amount from both sides to center the tenon on the rail. The tablesaw’s fence serves as a stop to limit the tenon’s length. I cut a tenon on the test stock first and gradually raise the dado set until the test tenon fits snug in the mortise(Photo 6).
Cut the tenon on a test piece with a dado set. Remove equal amounts from each face to center the tenon. Clamp a board to the fence for protection.

Test the tenon. For a strong joint, this should be a snug fit. If you need a mallet to assemble the joint, the tenon is too thick.

To gauge the fit of the tenon, I slide it into the mortise with hand pressure alone. If I were to need a mallet to insert the tenon,I know that the tenon is too thick and that it may split the stile. Once the tenons fit properly, I cut the haunches.

Shape the sticking profile

The next step is to shape the sticking profile on the inside edges of both the stiles and rails (Photo 7).1 always shape the sticking profile in two passes to avoid unsightly tearout; the first pass is a light scoring cut and the second pass is to the full depth of the profile. I also shape a test piece for setting up the tablesaw to cut the miters.
Shape the sticking profile the full length of all the rails and stiles, plus a test piece.


Rout the panel grooves

The final step before mitering is to cut the panel grooves. For a 7/8″ thick frame, I make mydoorpanels5/8″ thick with a 1/4″ thick edge. The panel is positioned in the frame so that the panel’s face is flush with the faces of the stiles and rails after assembly (Fig. F).This configuration requires a 1/4″ wide groove located 5/8″fromthe face of the frame stock.

I cut the grooves 5/16″deep. The panel edge fits 1/4″ into the grooves, leaving 1116″oneach side of the panel for seasonal expansion.
I cut the grooves on the router table (Photo 8). Like the sticking cut, I make the grooving cut in two passes to avoid tearout. lf the sticking is less than 5/16″wide, it’s important to stop the groove between the mortises to avoid an unsightly gap at the top and bottom edges of the door.
Rout the panel grooves 5/16″deepwith a slotting cutter.

Miter the sticking

The sticking is mitered twice on each stile and rail. The first step is to tilt the tablesaw blade to 45°. For the greatest accuracy, I miter the ends of two pieces of test stock and position them within the legs of a square. A gap in the miter is twice the error (Photo 9).
To miter the sticking, tilt the tablesaw blade 45°, attach a backing board to the miter gauge, and make two test cuts. Butt the pieces together. A gap is twice the error of the blade’s tilt.

I adjust the height of the blade by making a cut on a test piece that has a sticking profile. When properly adjusted, the tip of the saw kerf precisely matches the sticking’s width (Photo 10).
Adjust the blade’s height so that the tips of its teeth cut to the top of the sticking profile on the test piece.

Next, I attach a new backing board to the miter gauge and saw a kerf in it. Then I mark a fine line from the tip of the kerf to the top of the backing board (Photo 11). This line will serve as a reference to align the stock when cutting the miters.
Mark the backing board attached to the miter gauge. Draw a reference line from the corner of the kerf. Continue the line over the top of the backing board.

To cut the miters on the rail, I simply align the shoulder of the rail with the reference line on the backing board (Photo 12). To cut the miters on the stile, I align the sticking layout lines with the reference line (Photo 13).
Miter the rail’s sticking by aligning the tenon’s shoulder with the reference line.

Miter the stile by aligning its miter reference line with the reference line on the backing board.

Remove the excess sticking

The last step before assembly is to remove the excess sticking at each mortise. I adjust a marking gauge to the width of the sticking and scribe a line on the back of the stile as a reference mark (Photo 14). The inside edge of the sticking works as a reference mark on the face of the stile. You can use a bandsaw (Photo 15) or a hand-saw to remove most of the sticking, then finish the job with a chisel (Photo 16)
Set a marking gauge to the width of the sticking and scribe a line on the stile’s back, behind the mortise.

Remove the waste by sawing close to the sticking’s edge or the scribed line, depending on which end of the stile you’re cutting. Guide the cut with a fence.

Pare the remaining waste. Go down to the sticking’s inside edge on the front and the scribe mark on the back.

Shape the panel

Next, I dry assemble the framework and measure for the panel (Photo 17). I size the panel 1/2″ wider and longer than the opening in the frame. This allows for the panel to fit 1/4″ into the groove around the perimeter, leaving a 1/16″ clearance.
Measure for the panel. Overlap the rule 1/2″ to allow for a 1/16″ clearance between the bottom of the grooves and the panel.

Like tabletops, drawer fronts and chest lids, door panels are a show sur-face.1 use one wide board for a door panel and look through my stash for stock with dramatic, showy figure. When making a matching pair of doors I’m careful to select matched stock for the panels.
Once I’ve flattened the panel and milled it to size, it’s ready for shaping. Traditional door panels have a beveled edge which creates a raised field, or center. There are a variety of router bit profiles to choose from to make a beveled edge (Fig. G).When using these bits, be sure that your router is securely mounted in the table. Make certain that the bit is secure in the collet (Photo 18). Large horizontal panel-raising bits require a powerful router with variable speed. You may want to choose a vertical bit if your router has less than 3 hp. I prefer using a router table with a large top in order to support the panel (Photo 19), and use a barrier guard to keep my fingers out of harm’s way. This guard, which I designed, sits right on top of the workpiece, ensuring an even cut.

Lock the panel-raising bit securely in the router collet. Dial the, router down to the appropriate speed for the bit’s diameter.

Rout the panel. Use a barrier guard to shield your hands from the bit.

Removing a lot of material requires taking a number of passes. I bevel the panel edges for a snug, but not tight, fit in the frame’s groove (Fig. H).A snug fit allows the panel to float with seasonal changes in humidity while preventing the panel from rattling in the groove each time the door is opened.

Assembly

Before assembly, I smooth all the surfaces ‘of the panel and the inside edges of the frame; these areas will not be easily accessible after assembly. It’s a good idea to finish the panel before assembly, especially if the finish includes a stain or dye. An unfinished surface will be exposed the first time the panel contracts during the dry winter months.
When clamping, I always work on a flat surface in order to avoid gluing a twist into a door (Photo 20). I apply the glues paringly and carefully to avoid excess glue reaching the panel and gluing it in place. Once the glue has dried, I trim off the ears at the tablesaw.
Clamp the assembly on a flat surface to prevent it from twisting. Saw the stiles to final length to make the outside corners flush.

The final step before mitering is to cut the panel grooves. For a 7/8″ thick frame, I make mydoorpanels5/8″ thick with a 1/4″ thick edge. The panel is positioned in the frame so that the panel’s face is flush with the faces of the stiles and rails after assembly (). I apply the glues paringly and carefully to avoid excess glue reaching the panel and gluing it in place. Once the glue has dried, I trim off the ears at the tablesaw.

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