Making Doors

There are numerous ways to put a door together, but after trying many of them I have settled on one way to make most of my doors and frame and panels.  The joint I use on my doors and frames is called a partial miter, open bridle mortise and tenon.  It may have some other name, but I have not seen one for it.  The open bridle joinery is easily and efficiently cut with hand tools and the mitered part comes from an old molding joint.  The miter saves the hassle of stop-cutting a rabbet or a groove in the frame member and allows you to mold the inner edge with a molding plane without messing up any joinery.  While I skip this last step of molding the edge, I do have a preference for this joint.

The best reason I have for using this joint has to be how it changes the appearance of a door or frame and panel.  The small miter on the inside corner “softens” the joinery and draws your eye away from all the straight lines of the door.


Cutting Stock to Size

First of all, I rip, crosscut and plane the stock to size.  Frame pieces are about 3/4″ thick; stiles 1 3/4″ to 2″ wide with the top rail 1/8″ narrower and the bottom rail 1/8″ wider (Frame pieces for a back panel assembly are considerably larger in width).  I determine lengths of frame pieces by measuring the height and widths of the opening they are going into then add 1/8″.  This extra length is cleaned off after glue up and during the fitting process.  I determine which is the face side and which is the groove or rabbet side, then I can mark out the joints for cutting.


Marking Out

I clamp two frame pieces, either the rails or stiles, together with a small C-clamp to save a bit of time while marking out.  This way I can mark two ends at once.  Rather than measuring out each joint, mark this baseline onto your stiles directly from the rails, and vice versa.  This helps to ensure the squareness of the finished frame and may also help you avoid a layout error by eliminating measurements.



How Much Miter

Next, I determine how much of the frame will be mitered.  The mitered portion of the frame is determined by how deep your groove or rabbet is.  This dimension should be slightly deeper than the groove.  Typically, a 1/4″ deep panel groove will require a 5/16″ miter.  For a rabbeted frame, the mitered portion matches the depth of the rabbet.

Once you have determined the size of the mitered portion of the frame, scribe a line on the groove side of the frame piece, this distance from the pencil line.  I call this the joinery line, as it is the base of the mortise and tenons.  No cutting, with the exception of the miters a little later, will take place beyond this line, so you need to carry it all the way around your stock with a square and scratch awl.  Remember to use a light touch with the scratch awl, as you do need to eventually remove these lines.


Using a Mortise Gauge

Marking out the lines for the mortise and tenons comes next.  Using the chisel you are going to remove the waste with, set the movable points of a mortise gauge, typically 5/16″ on a 3/4″ thick frame.  Set the fence of the gauge to center the points on the stock.  The easy way to do this is by pressing the points into the stock, flip the gauge to the other side and make another mark with the points, if you have set the fence correctly the points will be right on one another, it not split the difference and try again.

Never mark beyond your joinery line and always use the face side of the piece you are marking as the reference for the gauge.


Cutting the Mortise

I use a hand brace, backsaw and a mortise chisel to cut the mortises.  I bore through with the brace and bit just above the base of the mortise.  The bit I use is just a tad smaller than the mortise.  Then I cut to the waste side of my lines with the backsaw.  Most of the waste will usually drop right out when I get to the bottom of the joint.

One thing I started doing recently with my backsaw is to cut against the grain.  This means tipping the stock towards you rather than away as you normally would.  It helps your backsaw, which has crosscut teeth, cut more efficiently in the ripping mode which is what it’s doing cutting a tenon or mortise.  You could also re-cut the teeth on your saw into rip teeth, but then your saw is useless for cross cutting and I don’t want to maintain two saws when one will suffice.

Next, I chop out the small amount of waste remaining with a mortise chisel and clean up the sides of the mortises, if needed, with a paring chisel.


Cutting the Tenons

I use a back saw to cut the tenons, the same saw to cut both the shoulders and the cheeks.  On the cheeks, I cut against the grain, as mentioned above, after the shoulders are cut on a bench hook.  Next, I use a shoulder rabbet plane to clean up the tenons until they fit the mortises.  Don’t mess with the shoulders of the joint at this point.


Marking the Miters

Now I mark the miters and the portion of the frame to be removed that allows the miters to come together.  I use a pencil to mark the miters (45 degrees) from the penciled baseline to the joinery line on the face and back of my stock.  I use a small sliding T-bevel to do this.  For a rabbeted frame you only have to mark the face side.

I set a marking gauge equal to the mitered portion of the frame and mark the portion of the frame to be removed, on both sides for a paneled frame and only on the front for a rabbeted frame.  This scribed line should start where the point of the gauge intersects the marked miter (at the joinery line) and stop at the end grain of the frame piece.


Cutting the Miters

I cut off this marked section of wood on the tenon piece down to the tenon shoulder, but leave the extra on the mortise piece for now.  I plow the panel groove 1/4″ deep and 5/16″ wide or cut my rabbet on the back side at this point.  After I have plowed the groove, I cut off the extra wood on the mortise piece.  The reason I leave the extra on the mortise piece is that the depth stop of my plow plane, a Stanley 45, needs this for a reference.  On the tenon piece the extra wood is just in the way.

Next, I pare the shoulders of the mortise piece to the marked line(s).  Make sure to be extra careful to maintain squareness when removing this waste.  It is very important to the final fit of the joint.

I rough out the miters next, on both the tenon and the mortise piece with a backsaw and a chisel but leave the line for final fitting.


Fitting the joint

Final paring of the miter on the mortise pieces comes next.  I do this freehand due to its small size, but you could use a miter block.  A miter block is just a piece of wood that clamps onto your stock to guide a chisel.

I clean up the shoulder of the tenons at this point with a shoulder rabbet plane and after I am pleased with the fit I pare the miter carefully to fit against the miter on the mortise piece.  With a bit of careful paring the miters and the mortise and tenons should all close up together.  But do not fret if things are not as they should be as it is easy to make adjustments.


Making Adjustments

All corrections to an ill fitting joint should be made to the tenon piece.  For the simple reason that corrections are harder to make on the mortise piece.  Loose miters are easily fixed by trimming back the shoulders of the tenon.  Shoulders and tenons that don’t quite close up just need a bit of trimming on the miters.

Make sure to keep things square and don’t forget to keep an eye on the tenon in the mortise as well because everything has to close up at the same time.  And don’t worry, like most things, it’s easier to do than write about.

Work slowly with sharp tools and everything will be right on the money.  Making corrections does have a price.  Heavy corrections will make the door smaller than planned and could also put it out of square.  This is my reason for making doors and frames oversize.  I always have an allowance for fitting and corrections.


Making Panels

I keep my panels pretty simple.  Generally, panels are 3/8″ thick and I just rabbet the edges to fit the groove in the frame.  I chamfer all corners and edges of the panel and I place the flat side out.


Sizing and Fitting Panels

I have a pretty easy way to size panels.  Like everyone, I have a lot of narrow, thin scraps lying around and I put them to good use by cutting one of them to fit into the groove of a dry assembled door or frame.  This eliminates measurements and by cutting the piece that sets the width a bit short you can account for room needed for seasonal movement of the panel.  I tend to leave a gap between the panel and the frame of about 3/16″ for seasonal changes and for ease of assembly I usually leave a bit of room in the length of a panel.

When cutting the rabbets that thin down the edges of the panels I use a Mullet block to gauge the thickness of the remaining wood.  A Mullet block is just a small piece of wood with grooves plowed in it that match the cutters in my plow plane.  This way I don’t have to keep measuring to get the thickness right.  Once the panel slides evenly in the appropriate groove in the Mullet block I can stop planing the edge.  I know that the panel will fit the frame it is going into.


Glue Up

Glue up is simple.  After dry clamping to check the fits, take things apart and butter the joints with glue.  Pull everything together with pipe clamps, then C-clamp (5″ clamps for pressure) the corners with blocks the same size as the joint to spread the clamping pressure.  At this point I remove the pipe clamps, but I like to leave the C-clamps overnight.

Check for squareness by measuring the diagonals with a folding rule or a stick made for this purpose.  I am not concerned about the measurement only that the diagonals are the same length.  Usually out of square is not a problem, as the joinery tends to collect itself during clamp up. If there is a slight misalignment pushing together the corners of the larger of the diagonals will usually correct the problem.


In Conclusion

You can see from looking at the finished joint, as your eye moves up or across the frame members, when you get to the corner, the joinery forces you to shift what you are looking at.  To my eye this “soft” corner is much more appealing to look at than the typical square corner joinery.


Arch Top Doors

Like a lot of people, I shied away from putting curves on my work for a long time.  I thought they would be too much work and generally not worth the effort, but I finally dove in and put some gentle curves on one of my cabinets.  I found that placing a gentle curve along the tops of doors softens the rectilinear lines I am partial to and added a lot to my work.


Curve the Cabinet First

Start by making a cabinet with an arch in the door opening.  The arch should be no more than 5/16″ over 30″, 3/8″ or so in larger cabinets.  My goal is a subtle arch that’s flatter in the center and gets tighter at the ends.  You could use a much more exaggerated curve and this technique will still work, I just prefer mild curves.  For a simple way to get a clean curve see the Carcase Joinery chapter about making curves from patterns.

There is one major difference in the construction of arch top doors compared to simple square doors.  In a cabinet with two doors with an arch, the center stiles are longer than the hinge side stiles and a curved rail connects them.  While this could get confusing, I have a simple way to lay out and cut the joinery.  Just what joinery you use is not critical, but I use the same open bridle mortise and tenon for all my doors.


Cutting Out Stock

When making the frame pieces, leave the stiles about 1/4″ too long and cut the bottom rails to length + 1/8″.  The top rail is where you account for the differences in the length of the stiles.  While the top rails are also left 1/8″ long they have to be wider than the finished size by the amount of arch as well.  For example, 2″ frame + 5/16″ arch = 2 5/16″ rough size for the curved rail.

With some careful selection of wood you should be able to find some grain that follows your curve.  If you don’t have curved grain, use quarter sawn stock.  Flat sawn stock might stand out too much.


Marking Out

To make things easier, all joinery is left square and length measurements for the rails and stiles are mostly eliminated by using the cabinet to directly mark the parts.

First mark the centerline of the opening, both top and bottom.  Place the stiles into the cabinet, just behind the arch, at the appropriate location for each and mark the curve directly onto them, but don’t cut them off at this point.  This curved line is your reference for laying out the joinery.  Carry the marked curve onto the inside edge of each stile with a square and mark out the joint from this line.


Cutting the joints

Even though I use the same joinery for square doors, with arch top doors there is an additional step involved.  Before marking out the joinery on the rails, I remove a short section of the lower edge, cutting 3/4″ or so beyond the tenon shoulder.  It is removed only from the end of the top rail that is attached to the center stile.  The amount I remove is equal to the amount of curve I put into the cabinet.

Removing this short section accounts for the difference in length between the hinge and center stiles and allows me to fit all the joinery without the curve getting in the way.  After I have removed this section of the rail, I mark out and finish fitting all the joinery.

Once the joinery fits, but prior to glue up, I shape the curve on the inside edge of the top rail with a spokeshave.  To make sure that it matches the curve on the cabinet, I just place the curve pattern that determined the arch in the cabinet onto the rail at the appropriate location to mark it.  Leave the outer part of the top rail square until after glue up.

Cutting a rabbet for glass or a groove for a panel is usually not a problem, as the curves I use are very subtle, and in the short length of the rail, the edge you are working with actually has very little curve.  Grooves are plowed with a Stanley 45 and rabbets are cut with a rabbet plane.  I don’t worry about the base of the groove being curved as it does not show, but sometimes I do have to curve a rabbet and this is easily done with a bullnose rabbet plane.

One thing to consider if you are working with glass is the ability of your glass supplier to cut curves.  Most of the time curved glass must be special ordered.  Glass cut on an angle (i.e. not square) works just fine with the subtle curves I use and the way that I mount glass in a door.  The following section of this chapter goes over how I mount glass in more detail.  After your rabbet or groove is cut, you are ready to glue things together.


Glue Up and Fitting

During glue up you can see why you leave the top rail square.  It provides a square surface to clamp up.  The hardest part of gluing up a door with a curve is determining if the door is square or not.  The method I use most often is to measure the diagonals; if they match everything is square.  But on a door with a curved rail you can no longer trust the diagonals because one stile is longer than the other.  So instead of measuring the diagonals, I just place a try square on the inside edge of the bottom rail to check for square.  There are no clamps to get in your way at this location.


Shaping and Fitting the Door

After glue up, I first fit the hinge and bottom side of the door to the cabinet.  Then I place my door into the cabinet, just behind the arch of the opening, to mark the curve directly onto the upper edge of the door.  By marking the curve this way, you ensure the doors are a perfect match to the arched opening.

After using a bow saw to cut the curve, I use spokeshaves and planes to shape the door to the cabinet.  I always leave things a bit snug until I have a final fit for the hinges.

Don’t be too concerned about repeatedly removing and installing doors.  If you want that just right fit you will have to do so.  I always aim to get a fit with a gap equal to a business card on the top, bottom and hinge side and a gap of 2 or 3 cards where two doors come together or one door meets the side of a cabinet.  For more on fitting doors look to the end of this chapter.


Doors with Glass

Whenever I make doors with glass, the glass is always set in relatively deep rabbets in the frame, and held in place with beveled strips of wood on the back side of the door.  The strips are fastened to the shoulder of the rabbet with brass escutcheon pins.  Should the glass need to be replaced, the strips easily pop off and can be reused.

Holding glass in this way is nothing new.  It’s an old technique that works because it’s simple and practical, and it looks good whether the door is open or closed.

With glass front cabinets, the focus is not on the furniture, but what’s inside it.  Before you begin making the cabinet, think about how a glass front will affect the design and construction.  Everything is now visible, so the layout and fit of the joints on the inside of the cabinet are as important as those on the outside.


Choosing Wood and Glass

Standard window glass is only 3/32″ thick.  I buy it cut to order at a local glass shop.  When safety is a factor (when the glass will be near the floor in a household with children, for example), I use tempered glass.

Glass weighs about three times as much as wood.  But the weight of a simple door glazed with 3/32″ glass is roughly the same as that of a similar wood panel door.

Glass has a slight green tinge.  The effect is more noticeable as the thickness of the glass increases, and it can alter the color of the wood behind it.  Sometimes the effect can be pleasing, and sometimes not.  Test it by looking at wood samples through the glass you intend to use.


Making Door Frames

When sizing the cabinet door-frames, keep in mind that the clear front affects the apparent widths of the frame pieces.  The same size frame you’d use for a wood panel can look too heavy with glass.  When I make a typical cabinet door, the frame pieces are about 5/8″ to 3/4″ thick, depending on the thickness of the glass.  I make the rails and stiles about 1 3/4″ wide with the top rail 1/8″ narrower.  The rabbet depth is two-thirds the thickness of the frame.  The joinery I use on my doors is described in the first part of this chapter so there isn’t much sense in going over it again.


Installing the Glass

When the doors are made, but not finished, I take them to the glass shop to have the glass cut.  Sometimes though I only take measurements or make patterns and this has worked as well.  A good slip fit is desirable for the glass, if it’s loose in the frame, it may rattle when you open and close the door.  There’s no need to allow for movement in either the wood or the glass.

If the glass is too snug in the frame, adjust the fit with a rabbet plane.  If the glass is a little small, you can shim out the rabbets with thin slivers of wood.  Nothing will show once the beveled strips are in place.


Fitting the Strips

The beveled strips are sized so that when they’re installed, they will stand slightly proud of the frame and are a little narrower than the rabbet.  The strips are not rectangular in section, they bevel about 5 to 8 degrees.  This makes them less visible from the outside.

I rip the strips from long scraps of the same wood as the frame.  I plane all four sides on a small vise mounted bench I built for handling small pieces.  It has a small stop made from a brass screw (brass because it will cause less damage to an errant plane iron than steel) and a light fence tacked on to hold the strips for planing.  Then I lightly chamfer all the edges with a small spokeshave.

When the finish on the door is dry, set the glass in the rabbet, and fit the strips.

First, fit the top and bottom and then the sides.  I cut them a little long with a backsaw and then pare them to fit with a chisel.  Because of the bevel the side pieces are cut at a slight angle.  The best way to fit them is by paring away a little at a time.  Once the strips are fitted, I lightly file the ends to match the chamfers on the edges.


Fastening the Strips

I use #18 escutcheon pins, 5/8″ long to hold the strips in place.  I like the look of the brass head, and the pins make a secure fastening.

With the strips fitted in place, I mark the locations for the escutcheon pins every 4″ or 5″.  I remove the strips and drill the shank holes for a push fit.  Use a #53 or #54 drill, depending on the wood.  Check the fit in a piece of scrap to be sure.  I drill the holes at right angles to the bevel and clean up both sides of the hole by turning a small countersink, a few times by hand.

I put the escutcheon pins partway in the shank holes in the strips and put the strips back in place on the glass.  Holding the strip firmly in place, I lightly tap each pin to mark the frame for the pilot holes.  After removing the strips and the glass, I use the marks in the frame as centers for drilling the pilot holes.  I use a #55 drill for a hammer fit, and I drill at about 5 degrees off the perpendicular, the amount of the bevel.

Everything is ready for final assembly, but first I finish both the strips and the inside of the door with paste wax.


Final Assembly

Before installing the glass, I clean it one last time.  I put it back in the frame, put the strips in place and protect the glass with a piece of cardboard cut from a cereal box.  I set the escutcheon pins with a 3 oz Warrington hammer.  It’s light and narrow, perfect for such work.  Don’t try to drive the pins in one blow-take it slowly.  Be careful not to hit the strips, or they will be marred by the hammer.

If an escutcheon pin goes into the frame too easily because the diameter of the pilot hole is a little too big or too deep, you can tighten it up by bending the pin.  Just hit it with the narrow end of a Warrington hammer to put in a slight curve.  When you put the pin back in the pilot hole, it’ll snug up nicely.


Fitting Doors

Once you are done with a door you need to mount it on the cabinet.  I find the easiest way to do this is by first fitting the bottom edge, and then plane the hinge side to fit flush against the carcase.  Fit the top edge and finally the handle side last.  At this stage, leave the door snug in the opening; final fitting comes after you have mounted the hinges.

Next, I mortise in the hinges on the door.  The hinges are lined up with the inner edge of the rails.  I only put one screw into each hinge, in case I need to make adjustments.  By offsetting the remaining pilot holes you can move a hinge in or out on the door, that is if you didn’t go ahead and drill all the holes first.


Gaps and Setbacks of Doors

One thing to consider at this point is how much gap you want around the doors.  I never trust my hinges to set this dimension.  They usually have too much space between the leaves and this creates too large of a gap for my taste.  I always try to get a very small gap on the hinge side of a door, equal to the thickness of a business card.  If needed, just set the hinges slightly deeper in their mortises to compensate.

Once the hinges are on the door, set the door into the opening and mark the mortise locations on the carcase.  Whenever I mount doors into a carcase, I always set them back by about 1/16″.  This is more pleasing to the eye than setting them flush with the carcase, and it can help disguise minor variations between the door, the cabinet and your mounting of the hinges.  Once again, use only one screw at each hinge for now.


Final Fitting

If you were careful in your mounting of the hinges and the planing of the door, it should open and close, but still be snug.  Plane off the tight spots, and try to leave a space equal to the gap on the hinge side along the top and bottom and 2 or 3 business cards along the carcase or door it butts up against.  And, yes, you will be taking the door on and off numerous times to get the right fit.

Once you have the fit you are after, go ahead and drill pilot holes and install the rest of your screws.  Be sure to check the fit again, as fastening all the screws can sometimes mess with your fit.


Fixing Problems

Everyone who has ever made and mounted a door has sometimes run into the problem of a door that does not fit right, either the door or the carcase is not flat.  There is a way to fix this, or at least to conceal it from sight.  If found early enough, you can taper the stile on the hinge side of the door.  This taper, depending on which end it is on, will bring the handle side of the door in line with the carcase or door it butts up against.  If you still need some adjustment, taper the handle side to fit prior to mounting the handle.



I install a small riser in each door opening to support the doors when closed.  Risers are pieces of wood, 1/4″ x 1/4″ x 3/8″L mortised into the cabinet bottom on the catch side.  The block goes in end grain up and leave about 1/16″ sticking out.  After the glue dries it’s filed down until its height equals the gap between the carcase and the door.  When the riser is filed down to the correct height, carefully chamfer the exposed edges with a chisel.  The door rests lightly on the riser and opens and closes easily.


Door Stops

I first learned about pressure bars to hold doors closed and act as stops while I was at school.  Pressure bars give a nice feel to an opening and closing door as there is no click or grab, just a slight tension, that is more than enough to hold the door closed.  Pressure bars are very simple to install above a door and are made of only three parts; a screw, a spring and a small block of wood.

A pressure bar pivots on the screw and uses the spring to apply pressure to hold down the door against the riser.  A rabbet cut into the bar acts as a stop.  The shape of the bar is not all that critical.  Leave enough wood to cut the stop into the bar and to drill a small hole for the screw and spring.


Making the Bar

I start with a small block, about 3/8″ square by 1 1/2″L.  Next I divide it up into thirds.  At the back I thin it down to 1/8″.  The center third or stop portion is left full thickness and at the front section I thin it down to 3/16″ and file off the leading edge to shape a small ramp that the door rides against as it closes.  The ramp only goes back 1/4″, and just behind this ramp I relieve some of the thickness to create a ridge that pushes down on the door when the bar is installed.  Drill a shallow hole on the underside of the ramp to hold a small spring and drill and countersink a hole in the back section for a #2 screw.

I don’t mess with the stop portion until after the mortise is cut.


Cutting the Mortise

I close the door and mark the inside edge onto the cabinet.  To locate and size the mortise, I place the pressure bar about an inch away from the handle side of the door.  The leading edge of the stop portion is just outside the line I marked for the inner edge of the door in the closed position.  Next, I scribe around the bar and this scribed line is my mark to cut the mortise.

The bar should slide in and out of the mortise easily.  By the screw pivot it should be the same depth as the bar is thick, but at the front there should be room for the bar to move into the mortise as the door closes.  Drill a shallow hole at the front of the mortise to hold the spring.  This hole should line up with the spring hole in the pressure bar.

After the mortise is cut, I place the bar into the mortise without the screw or spring and close the door.  Because the stop portion of the bar was located proud of the line of the inside edge of the door, all I have to do to get just the fit I want is to slowly pare away the stop portion until the door closes all the way.


Mounting the Bar

Once I have the fit of the door I want, I fasten the bar into the mortise with a #2 screw.  The hole through the bar should be slightly reamed out to allow the bar to pivot on the screw.  Adjust feel of the door by clipping the spring shorter or by deepening the spring hole in the mortise.

Door Pulls

I always seem to leave pulls until last.  Maybe it’s because I haven’t decided what I am going to use until now.  One way to make interesting and original door pulls quickly, and with little sweat, is to buy commercially available knobs and modify them.

I take very ordinary round wooden knobs and use a rasp to knock off the sides to create an oval shape.  Then I file around the base to make a simple bevel.  I clean these up with files and sandpaper.  Sometimes I shorten the tenon and use a screw from the inside for extra strength.