Canadian Woodworking

Room divider

Author: Michael Kampen
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: August September 2006

This screen is an ideal solution for dividing a large room into smaller units, isolating a computer or play area from a main room, or blocking excessive light. It’s also a great way to hide a messy area in your living or family room.


  • Canadian Woodworking Member Exclusive Giveaways Nov 2023

My divider is made from walnut, vertical grain western hemlock, and cherry. You could make it using a single species, or combination of woods, to suit your décor.

Think It Through

Before you begin construction, give careful consideration to the selection of wood and joinery, as they will contribute greatly to the success of your project. On the most basic level, this is an exercise in frame and panel construction much like any cabinet door. The major difference is that each of the three panels is almost six feet tall, with nine individual panels. As you can imagine, it creates some unique construction issues.

The panels are decorative and provide little structural integrity, unlike the walnut frame. Each panel has two stiles that are 68 3⁄16″ long. These long stiles require that you select rough 4/4 (1″) stock that is both straight and reasonably flat and defect free, or stock that is quite a bit oversize (say, 1-1/2″) to allow you to mill it flat.

Another critical factor to consider is the method of joining all of the pieces together. Ideally, you want to make assembly as easy as possible. Gluing up these panels can be daunting as it involves 21 separate pieces. Once the glue hits the wood, the clock is ticking and the pressure is on. Everything you can do during the joinery stage to make the glue-up go smoothly is time well spent. There are a number of different joinery options you could use; each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Whatever method you choose must accomplish two things: it has to provide the strength to hold the panel together over the long term, and it must be easy and quick to assemble due to the number of pieces involved. The method you choose will depend somewhat on the tools you have. Most of the common methods will provide the structural integrity, but some may be far more complicated to assemble.

Various Joinery Options

Using a rail and stile bit set would help to align the pieces front to back, and provide enough glue surface for a strong joint. However, once the glue hits the wood, you will have to align and square the rails manually. This will add to the assembly time and it is almost certain that the rails won’t be perfectly aligned. Biscuits are another option that provide the front to back alignment, and to a limited extent will help align the rails, but now you have twenty additional biscuits to contend with, as well as the need to get the right amount of glue into 40 slots per panel, adding to your assembly time. Dowels would provide more positive alignment of the rails, but you would need to use 2 dowels per joint, so with 40 dowels, you now have 80 holes to glue and 61 pieces to juggle during assembly. Perhaps the most practical method would be to use pocket holes. This would eliminate any complex joinery, but would require the routing of a lot of stopped grooves in the stiles (to accommodate the individual panels). It would also leave the rear of the screen with exposed pocket holes, which would have to be filled with special plugs, if the screen were to be seen from both sides when in use.

Mortise and Tenon: The Better Choice

After looking at all of these options and the limitations of each one, I chose to use mortise and tenon joinery. M&T offers some distinct advantages over the other methods. The parts are automatically aligned from front to back as well as top to bottom. That means there is one less thing to pay attention to during the glue-up. Additionally, the tenons are 3/4″ long, which is twice what a rail and stile set will produce, resulting in a stronger panel. Using mortise and tenon joinery results in the minimum number of parts and the minimum number of holes you will need to glue. Finally, since there are no exposed screws, the panel is equally attractive from the front and the back, making it more versatile in use. By handing off the alignment duties to the joinery I was able to use PVA glue during assembly, which has an open time of around five minutes. If you were using one of the other methods I would strongly recommend using glue like Titebond 3, which has a longer open time.

The Stiles and Rails - Mortises

  • Mill the lumber for the six stiles (D). These are the longest parts and will require the best of your lumber. After the stiles have been milled and cut to the final dimensions set the six pieces aside.
  • Prepare enough stock for all thirty rails (A, B, C). To ensure the alignment of all parts, accurate stock preparation is essential. Mill all of your stock in one session.
  • Select the best face on each of the stiles and mark the good side with chalk.
  • Lay out the locations of the mortises on the stiles. Because there are three different sizes of rails (top, middle and bottom) the two stiles will be ‘handed’, that is, there will be a left hand and a right hand version.
  • Cut the mortises. I used a router with a spiral bit and the Leigh Mortise and Tenon Jig to cut the mortises.
  • After cutting the mortises, use a 1/4″ slot cutter in combination with a fence to cut a stopped groove between the top and bottom mortises to house the panels.

The Rails - Tenons

  • Mark the good face on each rail with a piece of chalk. This isn’t as critical if you’re cutting your mortises and tenons by hand, but most jigs require you to always keep the same reference face against the jig in order to keep the faces of both sides of the final joint flush with each other.
  • Cut a tenon on the end of each rail, and using the same router set up with the slot cutter, run a groove along the length of both sides of the rail. Note: I cut a double tenon on the bottom rails (C). You could choose to cut a single tenon.
  • Use a hand plane to chamfer the end of the tenons slightly; this will force the glue between the two surfaces as the tenon is inserted in the mortise (instead of just pushing it ahead of the tenon to the bottom of the mortise).
  • Mark the good face on each rail with a piece of chalk. Cut tenons on both ends of each rail. Use the same router set up with the slot cutter, and run a groove along the length of both edges of the rails.


The panels (E) are free floating to allow seasonal movement. The panels I used came from vertical grain western hemlock, with growth rings at 90º to the front and back of the panel, resulting in a very stable panel. If your panels are from flat sawn stock, you may want to allow a little additional space, depending on the pieces.

  • Re-saw the 27 individual panels (E) from thicker stock. The typical hobbyist’s band saw has a six-inch re-saw capacity, which is what determined the final size of these panels. If your equipment allows you greater capacity, you could adjust the number of panels and rails accordingly.
  • Once the stock for the panels is re-sawn, mill it to the final dimensions (as shown in the materials list).
  • Pre-finish each of the 27 panels. If they are finished after assembly, seasonal expansion and contraction will result in a line of unfinished wood showing on the top edge of the panel. To bring out the figure, I used two liberal coats of Watco Natural oil. Once this was dry I applied a couple of coats of Clapham’s beeswax. Applying the beeswax is easiest to do with the panels flat on a table, and it’s application has the added advantage of making any errant glue easy to remove, as it won’t adhere to the panels.

Assemble the Panels

Assembling the panels is the most challenging part of the project as there are so many pieces. Before you break out the glue, assemble the panel once to be sure that all of the pieces fit without gaps or unexpected problems.

  • Lay out the components of the panels on a large work surface in the same way they will be assembled.
  • Clamp one of the rails, mortises up, to your work bench. Then, using a glue bottle with a fine tip, run a bead of glue along the top edge of each side of the mortise. By the time you get to the last one, the glue will have run down and pooled in the bottom of the mortises, so before you insert the rails, use a small plastic glue spreader to pull the glue back up the sides.
  • Insert the rails into the mortises and then drop the panels in place.
  • Apply glue to the other stile in the same manner. Then, lay the partially assembled panel on its back and assemble the other stile. Doing this horizontally makes it less likely the glue will drip out of the upside down mortises onto the panel.

Assemble the Screen

  • After the panel has been assembled, clamp everything and check the diagonals.
  • After the glue has set, remove the clamps and sand the frame members through to 150 grit. Vacuum up any sanding dust that has gathered in the panels (and on the walnut) and apply two liberal coats of Watco Natural Oil to the frame.

Top it Off

The cherry that tops off the center section continues the slope established by the two outer panels and forms a peak at the center of the panel.

  • Mill some cherry for crown panels (F, G).
  • The two panels on the outer sections are sloped and then glued into the grooves on the top rails.
  • Glue U-shaped strips of walnut (H, I) onto the top edge of each of the cherry panels. The center panel will require two pieces, bevelled to meet at the peak. The ends of the walnut caps should be even with the outer edge of the panels where they are hinged, and they should extend ¾” past the two outer sides of the panels.
  • Glue the three sections to the groove on the top rail of the panels and stain in the same way as the rest of the screen.
  • With all of the construction finished, all that is left is to mount the six hinges and coat everything with a the beeswax finish.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


More Home Decor projects to consider
Username: Password: