Introduction: A DIY Guide to Frame and Panel Doors

Frame and panel doors are a simple way to create lightweight, strong doors that add a modern look to your projects. Whether you're building shop cabinets or a front entry door, many of the outlined steps are the same. In my case, these were doors for a hallway linen closet.

Step 1: D Is for "design." I Have No Idea What A, B, and C Are For.

Needless to say, the first step to building your panel doors is to design the doors. Having a clear plan will certainly make your life easier, as you end up building it in your mind and solving problems before you ever touch a piece of wood. I used Sketchup, but there's certainly nothing wrong with good old fashioned pencil and paper!

The dimensions will vary, but I wanted the upper doors of my hallway linen closet to be 27"w x 45.5"h. Yeah, that's big, which is one of the reasons I used pine and a thin center panel. Pardon me if you already know this, but just in case... the horizontal parts of the frame are called rails, and the vertical parts are the stiles. Then the panel goes in the middle.

Step 2: And the Math Begins... Don't Panic!

The exact dimensions of my doors don't matter much because you're not building my doors and will obviously size them to your needs. Typical construction for frame and panel doors have stiles running the full height, and the rails fitting in between. So cut the stiles to the same length as your desired door height. Then, subtract the widths of both stiles from the total door width, then cut the rails to that length, plus 3/4" (That will make more sense later).

A few tips...

  • When shopping for material, keep in mind that surfaced lumber is still labeled by its rough measurements. That means a 1"x4" is actually 3/4"x3.5", which is what I recommend for the rails and stiles.
  • "Measure twice and cut once" isn't just a clever cliché. It's a time and money saver.
  • You can always cut more, so if in doubt, cut it long and sneak up on the final dimension.
  • Please use the hold down clamp on your mitre saw. If you're a seasoned pro, you probably don't need an instructable, and if you're a DIY-er, an extra minute in setup will be worth the additional safety. You know what takes longer than setting up the hold down? A trip to the E.R.
  • When possible, cut multiple parts at the same time (such as both stiles for one door, as shown here). This will make sure that they are exactly the same size.

Step 3: Get Groovy. or Dado-y, If You Want to Be Technical...

Now it's time to start cutting the dados in which the center panel will sit. The first thing you'll want to do is to either close the safety cover on the power switch, or unplug the saw altogether. You will be touching the blade and don't want that thing accidentally waking up to collect a finger tax.

3/8" is usually enough depth for the dado, unless the panel is unusually large or heavy. Lower your blade almost all they way, then slowly raise it until it just touches a combination square set to 3/8".

To center the dado within the thickness of the frame, you have to do a simple calculation:

[ (thickness of frame) – (thickness of panel) ] ÷ 2.

If you're using 1" thick material, for example, and your panel is 3/8" then you'd end up with this:
[1 – 3/8] / 2 = 5/16

In my case, I was using 3/4" material for the rails and stiles, and a 1/4" panel, which meant...

[.75 – .25] / 2 = .25

Once you have this measurement, set the table saw fence just slightly wider than it (1/4", in my case) and run a test piece through, flip it front to back, and run it through again. Check to see if the panel fits. If it's too tight, move the fence in toward the blade, just a touch. If it's too loose, move the fence out. Make micro adjustments; remember, you're running the board twice, so any adjustments get doubled. When the panel fits snugly, you're ready to run all of the rails and stiles through.

A featherboard is a big help in this step. Not only it is safer, it frees you up to just concentrate on pushing through with your push stick, rather than through and in towards the fence.

If you have some leftover wood in the middle of your dado, you could move the fence and just run the piece again, but sometimes it's nice to turn off the power tools and play with a chisel.

Step 4: Tongues. No, I'm Not Going to Make a Tongue Joke... This Is a Family-friendly Instructable!

To prepare for assembly, we must create small tongues at the end of each rail. You want each tongue to be at the center of the rail, which means calculating this:

[ (thickness of the rail) – (thickness of the dado) ] / 2

And that is the height of the blade, above the surface of your cross-cut sled. In my case that was 1/4". Then mark your test piece 3/8" from the end.

NOTE: DO NOT attempt this cut without a cross-cut sled, unless you want to turn your saw into a trebuchet with you on the receiving end. Go to hand tools if you don't have a sled. Or build one already!

Once you have the depth and width of the tongue dialed in on the test piece, clamp a stop block to your sled to make your life easier. This will make quick work of milling up all of the rails. Clean up the shoulders with a chisel, and optional, chamfer the ends of the tongues to make assembly easier.

Step 5: Now to Fill That Big Square Hole...

Do a dry fit (no glue) of the rails and stiles. If there are any significant gaps, trim the tongues or cut the grooves a little deeper to create a tight fit.

To calculate the size the of the center panel, measure the size of the opening, then add 3/4" to both dimensions. That's to account for the extra material that will be hidden in the 3/8" groove on each side.

I would recommend plywood for your panel. It's stable, and so wood movement is not a concern, which is helpful for the beginner. Once you've got it cut and are happy with the dry fit, glue and clamp it up. Although there are no issues with gluing a plywood panel into the frame, just glue the frame. It will be plenty strong and you'll be in the habit of doing so when it comes time to use expensive hardwoods. Before the glue dries, measure both diagonals to make sure the door is square. If not, use a clamp (or three) to pull in the longer diagonal.

Then the best part (not!): sand, fill, sand, sand, sand, repeat.

Step 6: Install the Doors and Check This Thing Off of Your "honey Do" List!

I built these doors to hide the mess of our hallway linen closet, and the wife was happy. One coat of primer and two coats of semi-gloss white paint completed the project.

The lower doors, if you're wondering, were made to look like drawers, just to break up the design a bit. Those false drawers are actually really easy! 1/2" plywood makes up the door, and then add 1/4" strips to make the "drawer fronts." Complete the illusion by painting the tiny gap in between the "drawers" the same color as the surrounding frame/wall.

I hope you enjoyed the project and got something out of it! Thanks for reading all of these terrible jokes. Now go crack open a beverage and enjoy the fact that your "honey do" list got shorter. Wait, it's supposed to get shorter when I'm done with something. What's this here at the bottom? Ok guys, I gotta go...

Woodworking Contest 2017

Participated in the
Woodworking Contest 2017