Rail and Stile Doors
Door construction has evolved over time and the frame and panel door has become the way to accommodate seasonal wood movement while providing a rigid frame to keep the free-floating panel flat.
Traditional doors, made with tenons may still be the most appropriate when building high end furniture or intricate jewellery boxes, but when faced with a whole kitchen full of doors to make, turning to the router table makes sense. Using a rail and stile bit set will allow you to make the frame elements for the door with repeatable accuracy, while the raised panel bit will allow you to make the field panels from solid stock. These bits must be used in a router table with a solid fence.
Coping rail ends
Routing edge profiles
Raising the panel
Unsupported material will chip out
Frame and panel
Cross slide sled
What You Need
The router table you use can be anything from a basic shop-made table to a top of the line precision router table (freud.ca, kregtool.com), but it needs to meet three conditions.
The bits you’ll need to make doors on the router table offer several options as well. These are available in two forms, either a reversible bit, or set of matched cutters. With the reversible bit, the cutters and bearings are stacked on a shaft in one configuration for the cross grain cuts on the rails, and then reassembled in another configuration for the remaining cuts. After making the first cuts, the user must remove the cutters, reassemble them with the proper shims and then tighten the nut. As the name suggests, a matched set has been manufactured from the start to function as a pair. Modern router bits are all ground on CNC machines and this ensures that they are a perfect match for each other. I find that the additional messing about that the reversible bits require not to be worth the marginal savings to be had when purchasing these over a matched set.
When selecting a bit to raise the panel, you will be faced with several options as well. Panel raising bits can be either horizontal or vertical. Horizontal panel raising bits tend to be large in diameter, roughly three inches across, and these must be used with a multi speed router. As the bit diameter increases, the surface speed of the carbide cutting edges increases as well and when the bit exceeds the optimum value, the bit will heat up and the wood will burn. The panel is routed face down on the router table. Using jigs it is possible to create arched panels with this type of panel raising bit. Some sets, like the Craftex Blue Tornado R917 (busybeetools.com) combine a pair of matched rail and stile cutters and a horizontal panel raising bit.
A vertical panel raising bit can rout the same profile as the other type but the panel is run vertically along a fence instead. If you do not have a variable speed router, then this type of bit will still allow you to make raised panel doors with your existing tools. The bits are available individually, or as a complete set with the two matched rail and stile cutters and a raised panel cutter. Some of the more expensive horizontal panel raisers have a back cutter to create a tongue of the correct thickness as the panel is shaped.
Rout the End Grain First
A rail and stile door requires precise joinery to look good and to function properly. Flat, square and straight stock is essential. Use a jointer, thickness planer and table saw to prepare your stock. Lay out all of your pieces and select the best faces, the ones you want to face forward, and mark an ‘X’ on the back of all pieces. This ‘X’ should be facing up, towards you, for all operations. Set up the end grain cutter in the router. To make it easier to remember that this is the first bit you use, take a permanent felt tip marker and write the number ‘1’ on it. To make it easier to recall if it is the rail or stile that gets routed first, remember that R comes before S in the alphabet. And to keep it straight in your head as to which pieces are the rails and which the stiles, remember, the rails go horizontally, like the rails on a balcony. Set up the bit so the bearing is flush with the face of the fence. Raise the bit to make the cut; the shoulder should be about twice as thick as the lip. Do not cut all the way into the back up board or you will lose the advantage of a zero clearance support. When you have the final height set, make the cut into the backer.
Do not use a mitre gauge in combination with a fence for this operation. The mitre gauge will register 90º to a slot in the table but since most fences can be locked down anywhere, they will never be parallel to the mitre slots. Instead use a cross slide sled. To made a cross cut sled cut a piece of ¾” plywood to about 10″ x 10″. This piece must be perfectly square. Screw a handle to the piece diagonally from below using brass screws. Wax the underside and the edge that runs on the fence to help it slide easier. Use this as the cross sled to stabilize the rails for the narrow end grain cut.
Rout the Long Grain Next
Remove the end grain cutter from the router and replace it with the long grain cutter. Use one of the pieces that you just routed to set the height of the bit. Place the piece face down on the table and the top of the groove cutter should line up with the top edge of the tongue. Rout a test piece to check the fit. When routing the stile, use two feather boards, place one on the fence to hold the material to the table, and place another on the table to hold the stock to the fence. This ensures an accurate and chatter (ripple) free cut the full length of the piece. Adjust the bit until the two pieces form an ideal fit; any very minor imperfections can be sanded out later. Rout all of the stile pieces.
Mill the Panel
The center of the door is typically made of a panel of solid wood glued from narrower stock. In general you want to avoid using a solid plank for the panel to avoid excessive seasonal movement. The size of the panel should be the size of the opening on the door plus the length needed for the tongues on each side. Cut the panels slightly undersize, about ⅛” in both directions to allow for some movement. Set up the panel-raising bit in the router table and adjust the fence to make the cut in several passes. Move the bit out of the fence a little more for each successive cut and make all of the end grain cuts first; the log grain passes will clean up any tear-out.
If your panel raising bit doesn’t have a back cutter, then use a slot cutter or cove bit to rout the back edge of the panel to bring the tongue to the correct thickness. Sand and finish the center panel before assembling the door. Finishing the center panel after the door has been assembled will leave a small, unfinished border visible as the panel floats freely within the frame to accommodate any seasonal movement of the wood.
Rail and Stile or Cope and Stick
Look through woodworking catalogues for these bits and you may find yourself confused. They are referred to as Rail and Stile bits and Cope and Stick bits. This is primarily a regional difference between American and Canadian markets. Historically, American craftsmen used frame and panel construction to make doors stable using hand planes. The profile was cut on the stiles using hand planes and then the rails were cut (coped) to match. To add a decorative element to the door, the panel was often embellished with an applied moulding (stick) around its perimeter. In other words, one bit two names.