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Building Frame and Panel Cabinet Doors: Home Improvement Tips

Build Cabinet Doors, Cabinet Door

Building your own frame and panel cabinet doors can be a very enjoyable job. They appear to be complicated and others are impressed with your skill as a woodworker. In reality frame and panel cabinet doors are not all that difficult to build. With the right tools and a little know how, you can build your own frame and panel cabinet doors.

You will need a few special tools to build these doors. If you are a woodworker with at least basic skills you probably already have some of these tools. A good table saw is a must to build cabinet doors as with any wood working project. You will also need a good router. A 2 HP or larger router is best; you will need to extra power to spin the large cabinet door making bits. A router table to mount your router in is also necessary. The cabinet door making bits you will be using are just too large to safely handle freehand. Last item you need for safety sake is a coping sled to use on your router table when cutting the cope joints. Of course you will need a decent set of cabinet door making router bits. You may also want a random orbit sander to make the chore of sanding quicker.

Now that you have all of your tools collected we need to decide on a species of wood to build your frame and panel cabinet doors from. You will want to choose a wood that matches or compliments your cabinets. Often red oak is used but if your cabinets are older they may be built from birch. If you desire to use a hardwood that differs from your cabinets its not a problem, you will just want to reface your cabinets with a matching veneer. Other popular choices for your cabinet doors are maple, walnut, birch and even knotty pine. Whatever species you decide on you should look for straight grained stock when you go to the mill or lumber yard.

If you do not have a planer and jointer to surface rough sawn stock with you will need to ask that it be surfaced and planed to ¾” thickness. This will cost a bit more but this service is available at most lumber yards and saw mills. Another option is to purchase your hardwood stock from a home center. Most often you will find hardwood that is S4S or surfaced 4 sides at the home centers. This again will cost a bit more than rough lumber but an alternative to buying a planer if you do not have one.

At this point I should mention that there are two styles of frame and panel cabinet doors for you to choose from. There is the flat panel style and the raised panel style. It is important here to know the difference because you will need to buy different materials for each style.

The flat panel style of frame and panel cabinet doors is the easiest to build. This style of cabinet door is built from a frame of hardwood with the panel being ¼” plywood of a matching wood veneer.

The raised panel style of door is not much harder to build but considered by many to be a more attractive cabinet door. This style of door is built from a hardwood frame with the panel built also from hardwood. The panel is routed with a decorative profile that will make the panel appear to be raised. This style takes a few extra steps to build and requires just a bit more skill, but still not out of the reach of many woodworkers. If you pay attention to detail and take your time you can build this style of cabinet door.

If you have decided on flat panel frame and panel cabinet doors you will need to buy ¼” plywood in a matching species. Oak and birch are widely available in most places with other species a little harder to obtain. If you shop around you will find specialty suppliers that carry walnut, maple and other species of plywood if this is what you want.

If you chose to build raised panel cabinet doors you will need to buy more hardwood in the desired species. I will discuss how to make each style of door through this article. First let’s look at how to build the frames as they are the same with either door style.

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Building the frames for your cabinet doors requires some attention to detail. You will want to make sure that your frame pieces are cut square or the frames will not fit together well. Let’s start by naming the frame pieces. The upright frame pieces are called styles while the horizontal pieces are called rails. Let’s get to cutting the parts for your cabinet doors.

The first step is to measure the cabinet openings that the doors will cover. It’s best to draw a sketch of the cabinets and write the measurements down for each opening. Now you will plan your cuts. Keep in mind that you will want your doors to overlap the openings by a ½” on all four sides. When planning your cuts add 1″ to the height and width of each opening for the overall size of the cabinet door.

Long boards are difficult to work with so we will need to cut them down into more manageable sizes. Once you know how long your frame pieces need to be, add a couple inches and rough cut your boards with a circular saw. Always add a couple of inches for rough cuts so that you will have a little to work with when squaring up your frame pieces.

Now that you have cut your boards to a rough length, let’s rip the boards to their desired width. Styles and rails are usually ripped to a width of 2″ to 2 ½”. This is visually appealing. If you are making cathedral style you will rip them a bit wider but cathedral doors are outside the scope of this article. I usually rip to 2″ as I find this the most appealing in looks and it is easy to figure how much wood you need to buy. Set your table saw up for a 2″ rip cut and rip all of your frame pieces at this time. It is best to plan ahead a rip all of the boards with one set up as subsequent set ups can be difficult to match. It is also a good idea to rip two or three extra pieces in case you make a mistake.

Now that you have all of your boards ripped to 2″ its time to cut them to length. Start by squaring one end to the long edge. Hold the board secure against your miter gauge and cut the end square. Mark your square ends by making a pencil mark across the corner of the squared ends. Now you can set up to cut the styles to their final length.

Remember to add that 1″ of extra length to the styles. Set up your saw to cross cut the cabinet doors styles to their final length. Make the cuts using your miter gauge. Always be sure that you miter gauge is set exactly 90 degrees to the blade. You can do this with a speed square. Cut like lengths all at once so that you do not need to change the set up. This will ensure that all boards are cut to the exact same length. Remember you cannot safely make cross cuts on a table saw using the rip fence. Attempting to do this can cause the board to kick back and you may be seriously injured. Now lets move on to cutting the frame rails.

The length of your cabinet door’s frame rails will require just a little more math to determine the length than does the styles. Take the overall width of the doors and subtract 3 ¼” from the overall width. This will allow the rails to fit inside the styles with the coping joints. Now in the same manner as you cut the styles to length cut the rails.

You now have all of your frame pieces cut for your cabinet doors. It is time to move to the router table. Chuck the coping bit into your router and mount the router to the router table. Adjust the height of the bit using set up blocks that are available with many cabinet door making sets. If the set up blocks are not available you will want to adjust the height so that the top cutter on the bit will be just proud of 3/4 of an inch. Check your set up with a scrape piece of wood. Use a coping sled to make the coping cuts safely. Coping cuts can be tricky to make without a coping sled. You will only be making this cut in both ends of your rails. Do not make this cut in the styles. Move the rails through the router bit carefully and repeat for the other end.

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Now you have the coping cuts made its time for you to set up your stick bit. The job of the stick bit is to cut a groove and a decorative profile along the edge of your styles and rails. Again, set up your stick bit using set up blocks or by matching it to one of your rails. The groove should line up exactly with the tongue that the coping bit cuts.

With the router again mounted in the router table and with the proper set up, pass one edge of each style and rail across the bit. Take care to use push blocks as your hands will come into close proximity with that spinning router bit.

Now you can take the rails and styles of your cabinet doors to the work bench and dry fit the pieces. With each door dry fit together measure to make sure you will have the desired height and width of the door. By measuring the diagonals from corner to corner you will know if the frames will be square. If you find that you made a mistake use the extra pieces that you ripped earlier to correct it. I am sure you will find that you did a great job and each door is as intended. So we can move on to cutting the panels.

Let us first look at how to cut the panels for flat panel style frame and panel doors. After that I will show you how to make a raised panel. You will remember that if you decided on flat panel doors you will cut the panels from ¼” plywood.

To determine the length and width of the panels it is as simple as deducting 3 ¼” from the overall length of the door for the length of the panel. Then deduct 3 ¼” from the overall width of the door as you did when cutting the rails. This will give you the panels’ width. Now set up your table saw to make the rip and cross cuts remembering to cut all like sizes with one set up. Now you are almost ready to assemble your doors.

Let’s do some sanding and staining before assembling the doors. Sand the plywood panels with 120 grit sandpaper in a sanding block or using a random orbit sander. The plywood’s veneer is very thin so take care not to sand through the veneer. You will also want to smooth all the sides of your rails and styles at this time also. You should stain the panel before assembling. If you don’t do this seasonal wood movement may expose small unstained area that would have otherwise been hidden in the frame. I like to also stain the inside edges of the rails and styles at this time also. It is much easier to stain these areas now than when the door is assembled. Set all the stained pieces aside until completely dry.

Perhaps you decided to tackle raised panel cabinet doors. Let’s take a look at how to make these panels before moving on to the assembly. In the same way that you determined the measurements for your flat panels, do so for raised panels.

Your raised panels will be made by gluing 4″ or so wide boards that have both edges jointed exactly straight. Glue up your panels slightly larger than what you need for the finished size. Carefully clamp the edge glued boards together. Apply just enough clamping pressure to hold all the boards together. Too much pressure and the panel is likely to warp. Allow the panels to dry completely before removing the clamps.

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Once the glue is dry you will need to remove the clamps. Use a sharp chisel or bench plane remove the dried glue that has squeezed out of the joints. Now take the panels to your table saw and cut them to finished size. Now it’s on to the router table.

With your panel raising bit chucked into your table mounted router, you will route the face on all four edges of the door. This will give the panel the raised effect. Make sure you set up the bit height properly. When the bit is properly set up it will leave a ¼” tongue on the back face of the panel that will fit into the grooves you cut in the rails and styles. Now sand and stain these panels as before.

Finally you are ready to assemble your doors. This has got to be the most exciting part to see your doors finally come together. Again dry fit all of your parts before proceeding to glue up. This will let you know if there are any mistakes you need to correct before applying glue.

With clamps in hand and glue at your side you will now start to assemble the doors at your work bench. Spread glue only on the cope joints you cut into the rails. I like to use a craft paint brush to spread a good amount of glue. You will not apply glue to the panels; they should be allowed to “float” in the frame. This will keep the door intact during seasonal wood movement.

Assemble one rail into one of the styles then slide the panel into place. Slide the other style into place. Finish assembly by gluing the other rail as the first and putting it into its place. If you need to coax the parts one way or another, tap them into place with a dead blow mallet. Apply light clamp pressure as you assemble the parts and then check for square by measuring the diagonals from corner to corner. Adjust for square again by tapping with your dead blow mallet and clamp tight. Remember clamp just tight enough to bring the joints together. Too much pressure can cause the door to warp. Now let the glue dry.

Don’t those doors look great? You have done a fine job to this point. Now just a bit more sanding and finishing and you will be ready to install those new cabinet doors.

Use a sharp chisel to remove any glue squeeze out. Sand the surfaces of the frame smooth with 120 grit sandpaper. Apply stain to the pieces that have not yet received stain. Allow your stain to dry. For a final finish I like to use satin polyurethane.

Polyurethane is a very durable finish that will hold up very well to the demands placed on cabinet doors. You can choose to brush the poly on or use spray polyurethane. Either way, apply the polyurethane in several light coats. If you are brushing the finish on, three coats should suffice. If you are spraying I like to use 5 or 6 coats. Remember to allow each coat to dry completely. Sand the dry finish lightly with 600 grit sandpaper between coats.

There you have it. You have built your own frame and panel cabinet doors. Now just install hinges and pulls and install on your cabinets. Stand back and admire your work. Show your friends and family and you just may be making many more frame and panel cabinet doors.