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.

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 beat 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.

Mill the stock

When selecting stock for the stiles and rails, I choose straight-grained material that is free of knots, dramatic figure or runout (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. I 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. I 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.

For more information on making traditional arched-top doors, go to 5

www.AmericanWoodworker.com/tombstonedoors ..

Here's the joint I'll be making. It provides a rigid mechanical interlock 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.

Scribe the mortise from each face to perfectly center it on the stile.

Cut the ends of each mortise first, then stagger a hole in between. Finally, center the bit on the remaining waste.


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).

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).

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 miter-

ing; 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.

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.

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.

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.

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