Cope and Stick Joinery with a Router

Tips on door construction using a router table and sled, and an extended discussion about outsourcing doors versus building them in house. June 28, 2007

I recently had a horrible time with door rail coping. The doors were a seven piece with no profiles. I was using a Bosch t&g bit with a Porter Cable router under a table with a miter slot, which I used a mitre guide in. I was using yellow birch. First, I kept burning the material a little. I know I wasn't keeping the material flat because I had poor consistency on my joints. What's the proper way to run these things? Is a coping sled the solution? I want one that slides in the mitre track, so do I still use the fence? Also, why am I burning? Do I need to make a series of passes? It seems that the more passes, the more likely the joint will be loose. Also, what's a good sled to purchase?

And please, don't tell me to buy my doors next time. I want to build my own. It's a matter of pride. What the heck is a cabinet shop that doesn't build their own doors? It takes the artisan from the equation, and that's not what my customer pays for.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor J:
I think it is kind of funny that you think that shops that don't make their own doors don't take pride in their work and aren't artisans. In the same post you ask how it is to be done correctly. Are you more an artisan than someone who owns a shop that buys their doors?

The reasons that shops buy their doors are many, but among them is the fact that to build doors correctly and efficiently, you need to make a substantial investment in equipment. It is not because they lack craftsmanship and pride in their work.

To answer your question, I would buy a Panelcrafter for coping and arches and at least one good shaper and a powerfeed before I would even consider making any doors at all.

From contributor P:
Use the correct motor speed and feed rate to prevent burning. However, I wouldn't worry about burning on cope cuts - it will be buried in the joint once you glue it up. A sled or mitre gauge that allows you to clamp the material down will help keep cope cuts flat. I use a Delta sled.

That said, I usually use my table saw with a dado set to do T&G. I've never been happy with the quality of T&G cuts on my shaper - too much tearout and snipe if the fence is not perfectly adjusted.

For what it's worth, I mostly outsource my doors, but I'll build 'em myself if they're a unique style, if I can't deal with the lead time, or if I only need a few doors. As far as craftsmanship goes, it's hard to beat the quality of a door from the big door companies like Meridian or Conestoga. They have the best machinery, tooling, choice of lumber, quality control processes, etc. It's hard to admit, but they build a better door than I can. Pretty cheap, too, if you care about making money.

From contributor B:
I haven't used that setup since I came over on the Mayflower. I upgraded my equipment because of the problems inherent in that system. If you want consistency and to improve the quality, you'll have to invest.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for your responses. To clarify, I think that the customers who want me to build them custom units want *me* to build them, not because I am the best or the cheapest (I am neither). I've done a ton of painted cabinets. I've pocket holed the doors together, filled and painted and given a good quality original custom job. The reason the customer hires me is because they know me and they want cabinets made in a local shop, by a local. So although buying my doors is highly tempting, I really can't. I need to learn to make them as high quality as I can with the tools I have, and I know it can be done because people have done it with much less tooling than I have. Either way, I do appreciate the advice, and sorry to offend.

From contributor Y:
If I have a Rolls Royce custom built for me, I don't expect the tires to be RR tires. I don't expect them to have their own cow farm to supply the leather for the seats. I expect them to assemble the best parts into the best auto custom built just the way I want it. That's the way I feel about outsourcing my doors. They can choose the edge profile and panel profile and wood species from more choices than I can give them because I do outsource.

From contributor A:
If you explained to your customers exactly what others have articulated, then they would wholeheartedly encourage you to purchase the doors (or high quality dovetailed drawers) from a reputable company.

The people who forged this path (using routers to make cabinet doors) quickly saw the futile waste of time and quality. This was before the days of outsourcing. Those ancestors either invested their money in a shaper or went out of the cabinet business. At the end of the day unless you are an outstanding craftsman, your customers are interested in getting the best product for the best price.

On the other hand, if you are getting paid $100 a door to make routed, burned, warped, failure prone doors, then all the power to you.

Every one of us makes decisions to make less money everyday for many reasons. Pride, education, interest, boredom, etc. However, everyone has to start making doors with whatever tools they have on hand. I've made numerous shaker doors with a TS, but now I can make them a hell of a lot better and faster on the shaper.

From the original questioner:
All good points. Thanks.

From contributor L:
You will never get the quality, consistency, or production levels you need to make a living using the tools that you cite. You're getting burn because your router speed is too high and/or your bit is too small in diameter to accomplish the cut at the feed speeds you need to be productive. If you insist (as I did for many years, even producing for other shops) and you truly want to deliver high levels of consistent quality, you will need at least 3 shapers, two of these with feeders, 1 with a sled and or arch cutting setup, 1 more for the outside profile with a feeder, 1 set of cope and stick insert tooling, preferably one that will give you a choice of profiles without changing heads, as many raised panel cutters as you care to have, a good dust system, a wide belt or drum sander, and an assembly table with clamps, preferably pneumatic. An edge sander will also make things more pleasant and "crafted."

Good luck - even with all of this, you will need it in today's market. My answer to customers who seem surprised that I don't make my own doors anymore (I only use referrals to get new business) is to show them what I can offer in the way of style, species, and yes, heaven forbid, the 1000+ different finishes I can offer, and ask them to compare that to offerings of the shops that make their own door (yeah, singular)
using routers and putty. (Sorry, couldn't resist). I have not gotten only two jobs in the last 5 years I have bid on and they were not because I didn't make my own doors.

From contributor D:
I would add that you will also need to face and edge every piece of lumber you use on a joiner, then finish plane all four sides. Then get real tooling and run it on real shapers or real molders. Send your finished doors through a wide belt, then hand sand.

If your customers want you to build their doors, fine. I'm betting that you really think you can't charge enough to outsource doors - or to tool up properly and make your own (pocket screw, plug and paint!?). You fear that your prices will have to go up too much. If so, your customers are keeping you poor and resourceless. Remember, you are working for yourself, not them.

From the original questioner:
Thanks - that is helpful. I do have a shop with most of the proper tools, 22" planer, 8" jointer. I'm missing the real production tools. I'm not convinced I need a shaper right away. I should have had one for the last job with the birch, but the finished product is still incredibly impressive. I've never seen anything that Wood-Mode has that has the same look as my product. I'm not saying mine are better built. And as I mentioned before, cost is not the issue. I can't compete with Brookhaven or Kraftmade, maybe Wood-Mode. But regardless, I did a pine entertainment center recently with the same setup and I got really beautiful consistent results. (Only because it was pine.) But regardless, I still feel that making my own imperfect doors that cost me more than my customer adds something to this small operation. And, obviously, I stand behind my product, so the customer still gets what they are entitled to.

Anyway, is the PriceCutter coping sled any good?

From contributor E:

A lot of good responses here both ways. I'm of the same school of doing everything I'm capable of in house. And I disagree with the need to spend a ton of money and have every machine known to man.

Having said that, you do need to invest in one decent shaper with a powerfeed. I started the same as you, doing doors on the router table. You spend too much time doing it this way. Even with all the correct bits, speeds, hold downs and featherboards, you are still getting a lot of machine marks and tear out that will need to be sanded out.

With a shaper and feed, your parts are smooth and ready to finish with a quick swipe of sandpaper. Very few if any machine marks or tearouts. You will see the biggest difference when using harder woods like maples and oaks. Also, you will get the parts cut significantly faster with this setup, as you just feed parts into the feeder wheels and it does all the hard work. Believe me when I say these machines will pay for themselves in no time.

Lastly I'll say you don't need to justify your building your own doors to anyone but yourself. As long as you can make them and still make money, then you're in good shape. I still build mine after 5 years and enjoy building them. But I'm not opposed to be buying them either, and if I have a need to, I will go that route.

Almost forgot the original question! Yup, you should use a sled for copes. This way you have clamps holding the work piece down and tight to the cutter. Doesn't really need to run in the mitre slot; probably better if it doesn't. I run my sled right up against the fence.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I've got two questions. What can I get away with as far as a shaper and feeder? They really run the gamut as far as price. I don't do production yet and if I do, I'll reinvest more heavily. Also, I'm not sure how a sled runs against the fence without the bit grazing the surface?

From contributor E:
Well, now you're really looking for trouble, asking my opinion :)

I would say buy the best you can afford, either used or new. A 3 hp motor with two speeds is a popular choice and the smallest you should get. I know some people are afraid of the used market, but I bought my two year old 1 hp Delta feeder and Delta 3 hp shaper for less than the cost of a new Grizzly shaper. Patience is key when looking for equipment!

As far as the sled goes, the bits do indeed graze the sled - it's just a sled, so I don't worry about it much. You also need a set of backing blocks to eliminate tearout as the rail passes the cutter, and these too will get chopped up by the bit. But with this setup, your piece is completely supported, with zero clearance for blowout.

From contributor F:
My spin on this is both similar and different. First off, can high quality frame work be done with mere routers and shop made jigs? You bet! But, because you had to ask how, I know you have not learned the craft to the point that you are ready yet. That's not your fault; it is only putting in the years and loving the work enough to strive to fully understand it in detail that will get you to that point.

Contributor D pointed out what I consider to be the foundation of precision woodworking. That is learning to dress your stock. If your door parts have been flattened and straightened with saws, jointers and planers, your accuracy even with a router setup will be much higher than with stock taken straight from the kiln or the delivery truck.

Next, you need to learn to take square seriously. Square is square! Not almost square or pretty square... but dead nuts square. This is only possible if your tools for checking for it are accurate. Learn how to test your squares for accuracy and adjust them if needed.

Those are the fundamentals of becoming a precise millman. If a part is supposed to be flat, straight, and square... do your utmost to make it such. If you do, all of the following milling operations will be easier and much more precise. Is this basic? Yup!

After you train yourself in this manner, it will transfer to the next important area for a small shop situation where industrial machinery would be impractical. That is, building fixtures and jigs. Now you are using perfectly straight and square methodology to build your jigs, which in turn greatly increases the precision of your parts.

As to outsourcing doors, I struggled with the concept myself and have come almost full circle on the idea. Differently than someone else stated, as a woodworker of some three decades including a fine furniture background, I definitely can, do, and have made better quality doors than I am able to outsource.

However, very few cabinet shops would be interested in paying what a door company would have to charge to make them with my personal level of quality. The differences are in things like matched grain adjacent stiles, continuous grained rails and drawer fronts. Carefully selected and matched solid panel glue-ups. Plywood panels that are center matched with plainsawn veneers from sequenced and numbered units. Panel grooves sized to the panel stock per job, not shimmed tight to the face with brads shot between the panel and doorframe on the back side (whoever got the notion that was okay – ugh!). Joints that are tight due to being left in the clamps until dry instead of braded from the back.

But if you shop around, you can find a door company that makes doors that are acceptable. I agree with everyone else that the companies that specialize in cabinet doors make them nearly as good as I can from a structural standpoint. Stick and cope is stick and cope and that's what holds the stiles to the rails.

I was set in my ways, but the business has changed and I am changing with it. As a one man shop, very few contractors or private clients have the time or patience to allow me to make the doors myself. Most want fast food. If they can wait and if they will pay the extra, they can have a very special product. If not, I have found an outsource door company that I am mostly happy with.

As I said, if you learn those fundamentals and practice them on your parts and jigs, you can do high quality millwork with almost any tooling you may have. But the job of making cabinet doors is much easier with a shaper and power feed. I think every cabinetmaker should know how to make stick and cope doors because even if you outsource your doors, you will find it very expensive to get a door company to make panel finished ends and backs that have frame members with widths other than 2.25".

I find it much less hassle to make the end and back panels in house to match the doors, because the door shops don't like to think outside of the door box and charge a fortune if you order that way.

I know that a lot of shops just plant on doors as a finished end or back, but mine are part of the carcass and must have custom sized frame members to work on my designs.

From contributor Q:

“What the heck is a cabinet shop that doesn't build their own doors?”

“It takes the artisan from the equation”
Maybe, but a craftsman knows how to make doors efficiently (and that is not with a router!).

“and that's not what my customer pays for”
No, your customer is paying you to make a quality product at a price he is willing to pay. I don’t think he gives a damn about your methods; it’s the end result he is looking for.

From contributor W:
There was a time in the not too distant past when every cabinet shop made their own doors. Likewise, they made every aspect of their cabinetry including finishing. Then somewhere along the way, people started specializing and outsourcing things such as doors, moldings, carvings, drawers, etc. Pretty soon, the majority of cabinet shops became assemblers and installers and some even outsourced the install part. Why? So that they could meet the unrealistic demands of the general public. I'm sure that most of us have experienced the customer who orders the cabinets on Monday and wants them installed by the weekend. Nonetheless, I won't lecture you on the business aspects of cabinetmaking.

First, you will need at least one shaper. A 3 horsepower will work just fine. You will also need a coping sled. If cost is a factor, I suppose you could make your own, but you would be better served to spend the $50 and buy one from Eagle America (example only). You will also need to buy a decent set of door making bits. The key is to slow down. Take time with your passes and expect some burning. Sand the panels, especially the raised edges, before you assemble the doors. After you assemble the doors, plan on spending quite a bit of time filling cracks and joints and sanding and then sanding some more. On an average size kitchen, expect to mill a couple of hundred parts. Mill extra ones because some will become defective. This process will take you 2-3 days. Plan on a day of assembly and another couple of days sanding to the exclusion of everything else.

Order extra raw material because you will run out. Once the doors are finished, then you can get back to the task at hand of finishing the job. Don't forget that you will have to hinge the doors as well. As I mentioned earlier, you can certainly make your own cabinet doors and they will look every bit as good as those that you order (with some practice) or... long pause... you could simply order your doors from a door company and spend the next week working on other things like new sales, callbacks, building boxes and frames, etc. and when your doors arrive, all you have to do is hang them.

From contributor G:
I went against the mainstream and tooled up over the years to efficiently make doors and other things in house. In our 9 man shop we now have 13 shapers (don't buy cheap junk), multiple feeders, air tenon jigs, panel jigs, doublehead widebelt sander, planer/sander, profile sander, fladder sander, edgesander, downdraft tables, glue wheel clamp, pneumatic door clamp, straightline ripsaw, chopsaws, upcut saw tablesaws, bandsaw, resaw, panelsaw, a big moulder, profile grinder, more tooling than I can shake a stick at and dust collection 'til hell won't have it. We damn sure can build doors in-house profitably. All the equipment wasn't bought just for doors, but it helped justify buying it. It also helped build my business to a size I thought I'd never reach. Why? In part because I was too damn stubborn to outsource. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Might not work for everyone, but for now I'd say "go for it." Be sensible and if you're not careful, you might learn a trick or two and build a business in the process.

From the original questioner:
Thanks very much for all the advice. I am not and never claimed to be a cabinetmaker. I am a finish carpenter who's been getting into the cabinets more and more. I enjoy doing them. I know that the next big job I take on, I'll either be investing in the shaper, or perhaps if timing isn't right, I'll suck it up and buy the doors. Either way, thanks again.

From contributor H:
I outsource all of my doors. The company I use is first rate, delivery is free, you can go 60 days without complaint (which is needed here, as builders don't like to pay their cabinetmakers). But even though they are first rate as a door company, quality has some variables - sometimes the color isn't as nice as the time before. Or if I was making a knotty alder door, I would not have used that 6"x8" open wound knot. Sometimes a pair of expensive doors have a slight bow in one direction, then the other one is going the other way. Some of this is a hard sell to a picky (non-paying builder).

Sometimes I would like to make my own doors, and maybe I will. I've lost jobs that would have been a great fill-in, but the door company is so popular their lead time is over 3 weeks. But then again, the big bag of chocolate cookies they bring makes it all worth it. But then again, if you get a high end miter door job, there's no way you're going to set up to build those doors.

Around here most custom cabinetmakers make their own doors, with the same attitude you have. I tell them I'd rather build more and nicer kitchens, with a huge number of door styles, then spend all day making doors, which is a $8.50 to $10.00 a hour labour factor. I know this for a fact as my son works for the largest cabinet shop in the state and that's what they pay to build cabinet doors. Now if you're in a very high end market, I'd say make your own unique doors and charge for it, play the craftsman sales game. You know we hand select our hardwood for matching color and grain, etc. But then you don't get the cookies.

From contributor K:
While I empathize with the pride factor, as we struggled with this for a long time, unless you are hand-making everything by yourself, I'd like you to consider some points based on the fact that you describe yourself as a finish carpenter and not a cabinetmaker (you'd be surprised as to what passes as such nowadays):

1. If you have one employee helping or making the doors with you, in the end, this is the same as outsourcing. Only difference is you are not paying employee tax, insurance, etc. for the same end result.

2. To me, "custom" means whatever you want, but to do this, if you are really interested in giving your clients a broad range of offerings, it will be near to impossible to offer the gamut that's available out there and what people are seeing in the magazines and home shows. Think of it this way - as a finish carpenter, you don't make all your mouldings from scratch, do you? What about carved corbels, etc.? There are many mouldings we make in-house, because we can do it easily and profitably, but there are many I wouldn't attempt to because it doesn't make sense. We would have to charge the customer an arm and a leg to do it, and usually they only want to pay a finger.

3. You don't cut your own trees down to get the wood, do you? No, you outsource it because even though you may know how to, it doesn't make sense to. The customer would be waiting a very long time to get their product, it would cost you more to produce it, and you and your family would make less money.

4. If you are only doing a couple of hundred doors per year, as it sounds like this may be the case, it is very hard to justify the machinery, the tooling, electric and the maintenance, just to be able to say you did it yourself. If you are making over 5,000 doors per year, it starts to make sense. Otherwise, you are throwing money out the window that could go into your family's pocket, not your customer's...

We struggled with this for a long time, mainly due to the pride factor, but we came to a happy medium by continuing to offer our customers whatever they wanted, but outsourcing the items that we either don't have tooling for, or that we very rarely make, or if we are experiencing schedule stress. We still make doors, just not all of them (we currently offer more than a customer will ever need to choose from).

For the hardcore customer who wants you to make the doors yourself, and is not open to outsourcing for something you don't normally make, there are many ways to handle this... One would be to simply explain that you would be happy to do so, but please realize, Mr. Customer, that there will be an upcharge for the tooling involved, as the price for what they choose reflected outsourced doors, as it is impossible to maintain an inventory of every profile out there. Then simply ask, knowing this, which way would you like me to proceed, as we are happy to meet your needs either way. If they really want it, they will pay for it...

In the end, you will be able to service your customer better, and offer them more, make more money for you and your family, as well as your business, and open a whole new world to your artistic creativity, by not closing the door to outsourcing. Once you consider all that you already outsource (wood, plywood, corbels, mouldings, knobs, pulls, hinges, drawer glides, etc.), you'll realize that outsourcing is a tool for your business to make money, not the identity of who you are as an artist.

After all, painters don't make their own paint, brushes and canvas to create their masterpieces, but outsource these items so they can focus their attention on the finished product.

From contributor N:
The sled will help you with your present setup and playing around with the speeds and depths of cuts. You are the one that has to decide if it is feasible for you to make your doors yourself.

From contributor F:
When I learned to make cabinet doors in the 70's, I don't believe there were any commercial sleds. I still make my own. I use the same basic methods as I use for a table saw sled. The difference is that a shaper sled needs a toggle clamp to keep the rails held fast while being machined. Look for toggle clamps by a company named De Sta Co. You can learn to design and build your jigs so that they last many years. Like any other well made tool, they can be fashioned so that the parts that become worn are easily replaceable. The part that rides in the table groove is best from a hard tough wood like eastern maple and should fit nearly friction. In fact, my wooden sleds fit tighter than any of my steel miter gauges do. It takes practice to learn to do it right.

From contributor E:
As usual, contributor F has some of the best advice on this post. I've looked at a couple of those aftermarket sleds and I wouldn't pay half what they want for them. Make your own and you will be much happier in the long run.

From contributor L:
Contributor F's advice about the shop made sled is right-on for your apparent situation and I would add that you should try the largest diameter set of bits that your router can swing safely because you will be able to slow down the spindle speed and get a much better geometry to your cuts (larger bit = longer cut through the work, i.e. more of a shaving action versus chopping action), thus eliminating the burning and getting more life from your tooling. If you build your sled, try placing a strip or two of sanding belt on the fence and the bed of the sled to help hold the work in place. These can be inset into the surface so that the grit is just proud of the surface of the sled and thus not interfere with close tolerance cuts.

I do have a philosophy in my shop and I try to get my employees to follow it. If you are working too hard (forcing the work), or you are not getting the results we want (high quality parts = quality work) with ease (setup should make the task safe and effortlessly repeatable), something is wrong with your setup, your tool, or your approach to the task. I also remind them fairly regularly that they can be replaced by a well-positioned clamp most of the time, and with some of the jigs and fixtures I've come up with over the years, they know I'm not kidding.

From contributor U:
You can do nice copes using a router. Instead of using a coping sled in the miter gauge slot (which I find to give an uneven cut), I recommend using a separate router table for coping only and making a sliding table, using IGUS bearings (like in the photo) instead. This will give you clean cuts every time.