Order of Operations for Cope and Stick Machining

Cabinetmakers discuss the details of routing operations for cope-and-stick joinery. December 9, 2013

Do you cut the end grain on the rails first or the length edge on both stile and rails first? Or does it matter? If I make the cope cut first do I still need to use a backer board? This is on a router table.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor V:
Yes, always cut cope first on the router table or shaper then make the stick cut and use the backer board on cope cuts.

From contributor C:
I agree with Contributor V. I would also add that when you run your stile/stick profiles to use the climb cutting technique to get a much cleaner cut with no tear out. Mind you though that climb cutting on a router or shaper without a power feed will be difficult, tricky and somewhat dangerous.

From the original questioner:
A climb cut is just going with the spin of the bit? Is the trick to have a good grip on the piece?

From contributor C:

From contributor X:
I run long strips of the stick profiles and then cut everything to length. I then cope the rails using two different cope cutters. One cuts forward and the other cuts in reverse, that way I am always cutting into the profile and not getting any tearout. The way I do it is not the most common way because most guys don't have reverse cope cutters. This way of doing it is most common in bigger operations.

From Contributor B:
We run ours just like Contributor X with the exception of the reverse cope. We run the sticking on long stock for the whole job, shaper/feeder and no climb cut unless using something with wild grain. Sharp tooling and a slower feed rate leaves a perfect finish on the profile. Then we cut the stiles and rails to length leaving the rails and mid stiles 1/4" long. On the coping sled cope one end with backer, flip, and cope the other end to finish length.

From contributor F:
I also run all the sticking in one shot and then cut rails to length and cope. I use a sled with backer for coping and get clean cuts. Not quite as good as you would get with a second set of reverse cutters, but for the small quantities I do a second set would not be worth the investment. I cut my rails 1/16" oversize so I can remove the profile plus 1/32" on each end.

Also to elaborate on climb cutting a bit - I would not attempt to do any climb cutting without a feeder. Climb cutting by hand is not just dangerous it's just plain foolish and will get you hurt!

From contributor X:
I agree with Contributor F on the climb cut - don't do it!

From contributor M:
If you can safely make the stick cut on short pieces then do it last. It will save you any chances of blowing out the cope profile. I have a Panelmaster shaper, so it is very safe to cut short lengths of rails after I've made the cope cut. I used to cut all of my stock in long lengths and shape all of the edges first, but always had a problem with tear out and was constantly making and replacing backer blocks. When you make the stick cut last, you always know you'll have a nice crisp cope cut with no tear out.

From contributor X:
To contributor M: Don't you find it more time consuming machining a bunch of short little pieces rather than just powerfeeding long strips of stick material?

From contributor F:
I believe there's no one way that's best for everyone, so not trying to knock anyone’s method of making doors here. However it seems to me that if you’re running all your copes first, then running all your sticking cuts second and using one shaper is probably not the most practical. If you forget one part or make a mistake on a part, or for whatever reason need to make another part you now have to swap your cutters back to the cope, run your copes and swap cutters back to the sticking to run that again - yikes! Now of course if you’re set up with multiple shapers that's a different story.

I like running all the sticking at once along with a percentage of extra stock. If I need an extra stile I just cut to length and go. If I need another rail my cope setup is still on the machine ready to go. My sled will safely cut down to about 2" in length which is actually smaller than practical for a five piece front.

From contributor M:
It's a little more time consuming, but I prefer not to have to worry about a cope blowout I may miss and find during a glue-up. Like I said, I did it the other way as well. Another problem I didn't like dealing with was not getting a full cut on pieces that weren't perfectly straight. I'd also have this problem sometimes with the power feed not keeping the piece tight to the fence and getting the same result. In either case I would always end up running a few pieces twice to ensure a good, full cut. I honestly think it's nearly a wash - to each his own.

From contributor M:
Also, to reply to Contributor F's comment - I have a Panelmaster shaper with all three cutterheads on the same spindle. I don't need to change anything to go back and forth between cuts. This would definitely make a difference in your methods. It works great on this particular machine.

From contributor L:
Climb cutting even on a router table is dangerous. Once the bit grabs the part you have lost control, and may not have time to put your hands some place safe. We occasionally climb on a power fed shaper and it is still risky. If the cut is too deep or the feed is not perfectly set up it will lose control and make the part into a spear. You would be much happier with shapers and a feed for doors.

From contributor J:
A climb cut without the "C" is a limb cut. Climb cutting is for very well-seasoned pros with appropriate equipment. Sharp tooling with backups will yield fine results.

From Contributor K:
I stick all my stock with plenty of extra, cut all my stiles starting with the tallest doors first and then cut all my rails, label, cope, sand and glue. Yes occasionally I have to re-cope a piece because of tear out. If I periodically cut a bit off the end of my backer block I rarely have any problem with tear out. We run a bunch of shaker doors, so I don't even use a backer block with a negative profile. I just use a piece of solid wood. It is amazing how fast a piece of wood can move when climb cutting incorrectly.

From contributor H:
I always stick first then cope. Sticking short pieces of wood is silly if you have a power feeder. I've seen it done both ways, but in my opinion the best way is to stick first. I can sit there flying through 10-12' pieces of wood sticking for hours with ease while someone else might sit there and put in every single piece by hand. If tear out is your issue it's because you don't know how to properly cope a door/panel part with a backer and insert. I agree that sometimes wood has just very tough grain and climb cutting with a feeder that was well set up is the only way. Not using a feeder and climb cutting on a shaper is asking for an ER visit. I remember watching a guy who didn't secure a stock feeder well enough and the feeder went right into the cutterhead wheel - the piece shot out like a rocket.

From contributor X:
In my opinion, anyone who is sticking first should buy a reverse coping cutter. That will make all troubles go away. It's a small investment for what you get out of it.

From contributor D:
To contributor X: How do you run those two different coping heads? I have used a machine that's had two spindles and that worked but with only one spindle do you stack the tooling, run one cutter readjust spindle height, run the other end or flip part upside down? Or do you have a nice programmable shaper that can jump up and down with each piece?

From contributor X:
I have a programmable shaper that I use now. It doesn't take a fancy shaper though, just as long as it runs in reverse. A lot of guys just use a dedicated shaper for it. They also make coping machines that have two spindles (one running forward, the other in reverse) so that you can cope two pieces at the same time and then swap them and run the other two ends the opposite way.

From Contributor B:
I agree the reverse coping set is great if you have the availability to any of the aforementioned options. It isn't really a deal breaker not to however. I've never had a problem with the backer option, tear out or otherwise. If I had a big programmable or multiples of course I’d take that route. For reference I busted out a single re-make today, roman arch with solid panel from scratch in about 30 minutes. I would guess half that if I had a couple more shapers.

From contributor X:
To contributor B: When I was running my SCMI shaper I just stacked all three cutters (stile, forward cope, reverse cope) on one spindle and then all I had to do was raise the spindle for the next operation. It was pretty quick and effective considering it was all done on one shaper. The SCM shaper had mechanical readouts so there was no need for test cuts.

From Contributor O:
To raise and lower the spindle per Contributor X's method with all tooling mounted get an Accurate Digital Readout so you can move the tooling to within three decimal points of where you want it. This way you can move from one cut to the other reliably, with no set-up parts lost or extra time.

These basic operations benefit from evolved thinking. Don't accept what you are doing as the end of the search for a proper method. Think it through - what can be done next? Stacked tooling is good, but is only a step to a better way.

From contributor F:
To contributor O: Do you have any recommendations for good quality readouts? I've been thinking about adding one to the Martin to cut down on set up time. For now I'm using the old blue tape on the hand wheel to retain certain setup but that doesn't get you far when you go from job to job.

From Contributor O:
The Accurate Technology Company makes the Pro-Scale 150 - the model I have several of. A cable connects the readout unit to the reader so you can put the readout wherever you want. You can easily zero the readout, or adjust up or down on the display. They have some models with short reader bars, perfect for shaper fences. They are accurate to about .003 +/- and it is easy to get back to previous settings for all sorts of work. I have five of the units on the shaper, Maka mortiser, planer and two on the tenoner. I'd like one for the tablesaw and might try to justify one for the router table.

From contributor X:
To contributor O: Did you have to make a lot of your own brackets when you installed your Pro Scales? I just bought one for my planer and I will definitely have to have some brackets fabricated to make it work. I am just curious if it is common practice to have a lot of fabrication to do to get these installed?

From Contributor O:
Yes, we made some brackets to hold various parts but I would not call it a lot of fabrication. A couple are simply pieces of aluminum that are bent. The tenoner (Powermatic 2-a) has a plywood box that holds the sticks, and the readers had to be attached to the head castings with small tapped holes, but it took no more than a half day. The DRO's are supplied with a flexible sort of mount that helps take some rigidity out of the install. Instructions are very good and they have tech help, though I did not use it.

The trick is to locate the reader stick or bar where it will be the most accurate. For the planer, that is right close to the cutterhead. The previous planer had the stick on the outfeed end of the table casting and any slight movement made for variable readings of .040 +/- while the wood was feeding. The current planer has the stick almost touching the cutterhead shaft, right next to the table, so any play in the table is not read, and the measurements are dead accurate. The stick is stationary and the reader is mounted to the table.

Every now and then I check the planer DRO with the Starrett calipers, and find it is as accurate as the last time I checked. It just does not need any adjustments or tuning - always dead on (a testament to the planer (Powermatic 180) and to the DRO). The two DRO's on the tenoner changed setups from 25 minutes plus to about 3-5 minutes at worst. The 2-A's are notorious as the worst machines to set up for tenon thickness and then tenon height off the table. If I want to adjust the tenon thickness by a few thousandths I will do it easily. Before the DRO's, I'd sooner take a hand plane to the tenons.

From contributor T:
I cross cut stiles to length first. The scrap generated is used for rails. I then cope the ends of the rails and run the stick cut. Short rails can be a pain and I use a unique door machine for those if I have the profile set up. If not I tape several together end to end, creating a longer piece and run through the stick cutter. Each of my machines has a power feeder and I sometimes use an outboard fence depending on door style. I can run shorter pieces using a feeder and an outboard fence without having to tape them end to end. I have and do climb cut if the wood grain forces me to - it isn't my first choice.