Tooling Up to Make Doors

An extended discussion of the best investment in equipment for a cabinetmaker who wants to start making his own doors. March 26, 2010

I am at the latter stages of planning to purchase the machinery to make my own five piece raised panel doors. I currently build the carcasses, sub out door production, spray finish, and then fit out.

At the moment work is scarce, and looks set to remain that way. In order to maximize profit from each job I will build my own doors, paying myself and my brother and not the sub contractor. It will also help me to control quality, offer a unique product and help control lead times (it will allow me to start a job immediately when we are slack).

My question is, how long would it take to make a set of five-piece raised panel doors (not arched, euro style) say 25 doors of varying sizes and four slab drawer fronts.

The machines I plan to buy are:
-Shaper with sliding carriage and power feed
-Wide belt sander
-Rip saw
-Cross cut saw

I already have all the finishing equipment, clamps, pinners, etc. I have no experience of making doors, because all of the companies I trained with subbed out also, so any other help or tips would also be appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)

From contributor L:
The machinery I plan to buy are:
$6,000-Shaper with sliding carriage and $1,000 -power feed
$15,000-Wide belt sander
$13,000-Rip saw
$3,500-Cross cut saw
$1,600 - stop sytem
Total $46,000

You really need three shapers so two more at $3,500 = $53,000 for all new decent quality basic machines. You haven't included some sort of profile sanding device? That seems out of the question unless you are making a lot of doors. Used would be about half that. Is it worth it?

From contributor R:
I use a 15" delta planer ($1,100-$1,200), Delta drum sander (not the best but it works $1,100), one two hp shaper ($1,300, better with two or three). Are you making doors every day? It takes planning and a bit more set up - power feeder definitely. I have a delta 1/4 hp feeder that runs all my stuff, even the 1 3/4 inch door stock.

I assume you have a table saw and a miter box. Thatís all it takes to make doors to start. Then if you feel you need more production and you have the money and the work then go for the bigger machinery. Make a cross cut sled for the table saw and now you can square up door panels. I have friends making decent doors with router tables, not fast but they are making money and not selling off equipment to pay the bills.

From contributor B:
As far as time goes, the data we came up with was roughly 1 hour and 26 minutes per door, from unbanding the lumber to having the door ready to spray. Some people were faster than others but that's the ballpark we were in. We do not have any sort of profile sander. Hope this helps!

From contributor L:
Material cost: FAS R Oak at $1.50x 3 sq ft x use factor 2 = $9 - You can buy a nice quality door for $30 leaving you $21 for your shop /1.5hr=$14/ hour! If we make the claim that your doors are special and value them at $40 each we've got $31/1.5=$20.67/hr for you shop. That's less than what an employee costs us per hour without any overhead! There have been discussions on WOODWEB about the low pay in our industry and I agree it is too low. Productivity has to be there to support decent pay. How many people have gone through their costs at the end of the year and divided by the number of production hours to see what it costs? Do the math; what level of compensation do you want for yourself and employees. Do you want to grow your business with better systems? What's your plan for getting there? Iím not intending this as a criticism just as an effort to improve our lot in life.

From contributor H:
Get yourself four solid shapers, preferably with 1" or 1 1/4" spindles. Insert tooling on all heads. Arch templates, 10" capacity coping sled and sticking plate from Weaver. A decent, used late model SCMI or similar two head widebelt (market currently flooded from guys that simultaneously bought the aforementioned stuff to forget). A decent edgesander, a profile sander - Larick or similar. Buy a RF Gluer and glue spreader and a door clamp. Buy your material Gangripped to 1/8" over net stile width and surfaced-adds pennies per board foot. We build on average 75-100 per week plus 40-50 5 pc drawer fronts every two weeks with this setup. Cost is under 20k for above mentioned equipment offering three frame profiles, three RP profiles, and three edges. Do not forget dust collection and air.

From contributor D:
To start,
1- Unique 250 mc. I think they call them something a little different now.
1- 2 head 2300 series Timesaver.
1- Edge sander.
1- Jointer, for edging the panel glue-ups.
1- Shaper, for edge treatment, preferably with a power feeder.
1- Framing table, the kind with holes and movable cylinders.
1- Brad nailer.
1- Random orbit (DA).

A Bunch of bar clamps.
A lot of insert tooling and cutter heads.

If you buy your materials at 13/16 you can forget the planer. Let someone else deal with the waste. Pre-milled is well worth the price. That's all you need to keep it in house and be able to make a lot of doors fast.

From contributor R:
Grizzly 10" contractor saw
Two 2hp router tables
Rigid 10" sliding miter saw
24" dual drum sander Grizzly
1 6" Rigid RO Sander
1 5" Dewalt R0 Sander

The last job was raised panel alder doors (150 approx) and 50 slab drawer fronts. Lumber comes in straight lined but at 15/16". Took 3 weeks to build - 200 doors/150 hours - 3/4 of an hour per door. Would I love bigger equipment yes, but I run off my own power system and can't run anything larger than the drum sander. I made a little over $1k a week building my own doors - not great money (I can/could make 3x that outsourcing doors and doing the rest when the volume is there) but these days I'm staying busy 50 hours a week, every week. The work load is such that there isn't enough to outsource without having slim months. It is all in having a system and in setting up that equipment no matter how elementary it is correctly.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the advice. I probably should have mentioned that I am from Ireland. I should have also mentioned that I will buy used machinery for the most part, and my research shows that I can purchase most of the equipment that I mentioned, including shaper heads, knives and basically everything I need for less than $20,000. 5k a year including interest payback - not exactly a life altering sum of money. Fifty dollars average per door here (white oak).

$28.60/cu ft rough sawn (1" white oak) (which will be less when I increase purchases). I would guess roughly two doors from that, so 50 - (28.60/2) = 35*2/3 = 23.30/hr. As I said plus all the other advantages. Around $200/day/employee brings me home $600/week which is a good wage here in Ireland.

I want to work in a joinery, and build my own doors and units. If I wanted too I could fit flat pack kitchens, probably three per week. But whoís to say I get three per week. To get three per week I am basically a sales rep/kitchen fitter. As I mentioned above, I want to work in a jointery. Those jointers who say outsource for the money are just sales reps for huge corporate door companies, in my opinion. At the minute I just outsource out of necessity.

Another problem I have here is that I cannot buy in my material S4S, so I need to plane. Thanks for the time per door averages. As you can see I have taken it out to 1.5 hours as a factor of safety. Now itís time to crunch the numbers properly.

From contributor V:
I think the new economy can be seen as another door opening. I think itís a shame anyway that a cabinet maker coming up in a shop today may never get to learn any joinery at all what with face frames now screwed together and doors and drawer boxes subbed out. Every so often we see a symptom of that on WOODWEB when a younger cabinet maker starts thinking and wondering if he can make cabinet doors with pocket screws? It makes sense - pocket screwed framework is the only joinery he's had the chance to learn.

As far as buying some tooling, for the guys that try to scare you with the high cost of machinery involved, woodworking is all about the money I guess. For the guys who try to show you that it can be done with fewer tools, woodworking is probably about more than just the money. I fit into that camp. Maybe you can swing it somewhere in between? Learn the entire trade and still keep the bills paid.

At the very least, I think it is very empowering to be able to make the odd door or even your own matching finished ends with different sized frame members etc even if it turns out that exclusively building your own doors turns out to be unprofitable.

For me, the bare minimum to make doors would be:
One 3 to 5 horse shaper W/1"-1 1/4" spindle.
Power feed.

Table Saw.

As far as how you can go about learning the techniques of making a five piece cabinet door, I have two suggestions. See if a local joiner/maker would let you come to his shop for a day or two and let you see the process. This would also allow you to know firsthand which machines are absolutely required (mainly shaper, cutters and powerfeed) to make a quality door. The lesser option to learn (in my opinion) would be to first purchase the machinery and then have a fellow joiner come to your shop and teach you to make a door. If you were in my area I would be willing to teach you to make a door. I feel I owe it to the craft to pass the knowledge forward.

From contributor G:
You have some good info here except for those trying to discourage you from building your own doors. I wonder how many guys that are against building doors actually ever built them using good equipment and tooling. More power to you for wanting to build your own! With that said, I think 1.5 hours is a realistic time to start out with the tools you listed. As you learn and acquire more equipment you may be able to cut that time in half and then some. I know we did. Against most of the advice here we do and always have built our own doors (with a few rare exceptions). We have more door making equipment than most shops twice my size and would do it again in a heartbeat.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the encouragement lads. I have picked up some very useful tips from everyone here. It would be great to get a bit of first hand experience, but I honestly do not know of another custom cabinet shop that makes their own doors. The only workshops that I could visit are those trying to sell me doors, and I can't see that being a runner. The one thing I do have on my side is, and don't laugh, the guy I am going to buy the machinery from. He has said that he will bring me to some of his previous customers, so I will at least get some info on each specific machine set-up. But apart from that, I'll have very little firsthand experience. I know I will probably make plenty of bad sample doors to start out with, but I will get the hang of it. For someone like me, and I know I'm probably pushing it, could some of you guys possibly give me the top ten stupid mistakes that are made, but are avoidable when making cabinet doors?

From contributor G:
Make sure to not use so much glue that the panel accidently gets glued in place. If you use space balls, size the panels so they only compress the ball about 1/16". Do a halfway decent job of color and grain matching. Sand the raised panel profile before assembling the door. Make sure you have a good cope and stick (tongue and groove) fit. A good fit should be built into the cutters. Use an outboard fence and powerfeeder for the groove cut. This has been discussed in depth on this site before so search it for some good info.
Use power feeders and tenon jigs to safely move the wood through the machine. If it seems too dangerous to do by hand it is! Read the grain to minimize chip out. For a cleaner cut remove about 1/16" in width from the work piece when making the groove cut. Search this and other web sites for all the door making info you can get.

From contributor V:
The one I can think of is accidentally coping the end of a rail with wrong face down on the sled. To get the best results for flushness, door parts are usually run with the face side of the part down on the shaper table or coping sled. That way, any deviation in the stocks thickness will be driven to the back side of the door.

On flat panel doors, most of the large cabinet door companies run a panel groove of only one size. I think they run a 1/4" panel groove and then use 3/16",5MM panels etc and shoot brads in the back side of the panel to push it to the face and stop the rattle. In your own shop you are free to do it right and size the panel groove to .010" over actual panel thickness. This is done by having several different groovers and tongue cutters for your stick and cope set and also by the use of shims or a bit of tape to make the groover run eccentric.

If you are somewhat of an artist or craftsman, you are free to match your door stiles. This is done by ripping adjacent stiles from a single board and keeping track of them with a marking system throughout the entire door making process. It is a bit more work but it really looks nice when adjacent stiles are matched especially between "pairs". A step deeper into craftsmanship would be to run the door rails continuous by cutting them from a single length of board and keeping track of them. The same applies to plank drawer faces. I would never run plank drawer faces any other way.

On plywood panel doors it is the same story. These should definitely be "bookmatched" to make a nice job of it. There is a potential for a bit more waste when bookmatching but if a sawyer is clever about it, the material consumed won't amount to much more than if they are just cut helter skelter like the door companies do it.

There is also an art to good panel wood matching when making raised panels. How you do it (two piece, three piece, etc.) will depend a lot on the boards you are allotted for the work and your net panel widths. The best looking matches are with two boards. A good strategy is to cut your lengths from the same board, remove any sap wood from the edges and then orient the two boards so that the 'cathedrals' in the grain flow in the same direction. When you determine the best orientation of the boards, rip them to final width plus extra room for jointing and clamp dent removal etc. Often times using the straight grain found on the edges of plain sawn lumber for the joint in the panel between the two boards is the best look and nearly invisible.

Three board matches will have a middle board on perfect center with brothers from the same board glued to it using the plain sawn edge grain at both joints. Panel glue-ups are always sized larger than net size and then ripped and crosscut after glue-up. Naturally, these are the guidelines and the rules can be broken when stock is running short by using a good eye for matching the grain and color of the wood on the odd piece here and there.
Most of the above is strictly for doing the highest quality of work. If you are taking jobs that pay very little then perhaps the large door companies cutting strategy of using any board that is long enough for the door part in question regardless of grain or color is the best bet.

From contributor O:
I would like to respond directly to the original questioner. I do apologize for this articles length in advance. Hopefully you can derive some useful information from my years of trial and error and may it serve well in your woodworking endeavors. Let me start off by saying that I think itís fantastic that you want to build your own doors for the cabinets that you make. I have always built my own cabinet doors for the cabinets that I build and I have always made money doing so. In fact I would continuously beat bids by shops that outsourced. Although most cabinet door companies do build quality products I could never justify the costs since I know how much I had in materials. I have run a successful cabinet shop for over eight years now, and we also sell our custom cabinet doors to people all over the United States and Canada via the internet.

I will start off with the absolute minimum you will need in terms of machinery and you can pick what you will need. When I first started out I used a router table to make doors, it can be done but the production level is low and if youíre making raised panel doors youíll be there all day, so for this discussion I will skip all router table related info.

Here is what you need minimum:
Table saw - with decent rip blade. A straight line rip saw is great if your lumber in not straight lined to begin with, and will make nice square cuts fast. It helps with face frame rips cuts too, but a decent table saw will work fine. A large heavy power feeder above it would be the next upgrade for cut consistency. Hereís a tip if your cuts are not square to the face of the wood you make get chip out on your cope cuts, since the wood is not making contact with the backer board, sometimes this wonít be apparent until everything is glued up, even more so on doors where the outside edge is square like most shaker and inset style doors.

Cross cut saw - really any saw with a fence stop would fine. Pop ups saws are by far the safest considering all the guards and clamp downs are working properly. I have used a 12" miter box for years and it works just fine and is accurate. If your stock is clean and relatively straight you may opt for a stop fence that allows you to cut multiple pieces at once. With my miter box set up and stop I can cut two strips one on top of the other at the same time.

Shapers - at least three one for the cope cut, one for the inner edge profile, and one for raised panels. If your doors have an outside detail such as a finger pull then another shaper would be desirable. The type of shaper is not critical. Iíve used 3HP 3/4" spindle machines for all of these processes, but I would highly recommend a 1 1/4" spindle 5HP minimum shaper just for the raised panels. A 3/4" spindle machine can make these cuts in one pass on a hard wood like oak, only if your cutters are either new or recently sharpened. If you do any maple or hickory then itís a multi pass operation with a 3/4" spindle machine. Also all of these machines should have large power feeders on them, four roller if you can. Obviously the cope is a manual process. Companies like Weaver have nice coping sleds some with air clamps and bases that have small holes with air in them to help them glide over your shaper top, similar to an air hockey table but upside down. These are great for production, but you can make a simple coping sled with some plywood and a piece of laminate or plastic and a toggle clamp. That will get you started if you budget is limited. Iíve built thousands of doors with basic cope sleds. To make the inner edge profiles a power feeder is highly recommended you do not want stops and starts from hand feeding, chatter and burning typically occur especially on long stock. All of the profile cuts I have done with my shapers do not require any sanding they are finish ready. Now that brings me to the raised panels, those cuts will need to be sanded. Now depending on the profile you can use a small 5" air powered random orbit sander to sand the profile. I have for years and it works great. I would opt however if budget allows for a profile sander, itís similar to a shaper but has sandpaper heads that sands the profile they do spin a bit slower than a shaper so you donít burn you work. But I would only get that machine if you are doing lots of raised panel doors.

Shaper cutters - once you have a shaper you will need cutters. There are a few ways to go, you can use standard stackable cutters or a replaces carbide insert cutters. For small production I would recommend standard stackable cutters. I could write a page just on that, but I will keep it brief. One thing I would look for in cutters is to buy one set that allows you to do tongue and groove, glass, and the profile you have chosen, i.e. ogee, quarter round, whatever it may be. That way you will have some versatility. We used cutters from Ridge Carbide for a long time. They are pricey but they do all three operations.

Another thing worth mentioning is I always bought cutters that have a small radius on the inner edges of the groove where the panel goes into. This is vital! The little radiused edge prevents chipping you will find with square cutters. A wood notorious for chipping out on the grooves is oak. Also that little radius allows stain and finish to have a place to go so your finish doesnít bond with the panel and the stiles and rails, something that most likely will crack latter on. Make sure that all of these cutters at least the stile and rail cutters remove the entire profile of the wood. You will need to set your shaper fences like a jointer to accommodate the material removal. This was even if your rips and crosscuts are less than perfect the shaper does the final squaring/cutting. You will also need to make sure your coping sled is set square as well. This may be something you will have to factor in. I usual rip my stiles and rails to 1/32" over to allow for this and it seems to have worked well over the years.

Assembly table - you will need a way to assemble your cabinet doors and square them. The most basic of this is a simple half sheet of plywood or melamine with two pieces of wood forming a square on top of the melamine or plywood. This will work although itís a bit crude. I have built doors with this setup for a lot of years. I would glue the doors and tap them into the squared jig and them clamp them with Bessy clamps and let them sit, if possible for a few hours depending on temperature. You will have to check squareness with a tape once in the clamps. You can buy pneumatic jigs with air clamps for this procedure but it typically only clamps one to two doors depending on the setup. It is basically a metal table with holes every few inches to place the air clamps and you place clamps usually on the stiles to begin the clamping. I like to use four to make sure where the style meets rail is even and itís pushed firmly to the squared end of the jig. There is one small downside to this, you either have to pin nail the back side of the door, or wait until the glue dries both of those Iím not excited about. Some have found the pinning to work well, I personally donít like that approach. The next step is a rotisserie squaring clamp that has usually five areas or sections that rotate where it clamps and squares the doors for you so you can do five doors in a row. Usually that would give you just enough time to pull the first door out (very carefully) and the glue should be set enough to handle enough to stack. This is the best for production, the next best if the clamp method. I personally donít like pins because you do have to fill them, and some paints just wonít hide the holes. And it really doesnít keep both surfaces together while the glue dries like time in the clamps will.

Planer - depending on the stock you buy you may need one if you lumber comes rough then this is a necessity. Even if you get surfaced and straight lined lumber itís nice to have in case you want to make 1/2" center panels for beaded or shaker style doors. Some guys like to make 5/8" thick panels for their raised panel doors if thatís the route you take them a planer is worthwhile. I would recommend at least a 15" wide to do most panels. If your planer is not wide enough you can plane then glue what you need.

Sander - once your doors are assembled they will need to be sanded. If you enjoy the workout and the complete wasting of time you can use a belt sander. When I started out I did for a few years a stop and a belt sander. It was a 4 x 24 sander if you can I implore you to get either a drum sander or if budget permits a wide belt, if you just doing doors a 25" width will work fantastically. If you have to get a drum sander there are a few models of double drum 37" width sander that work great. Stay away from drum sanders that use a velcro backed paper. The velcro acts as a cushion and will squish and swell during operation, you will notice grooves right after it sander the rail then it will dip leaving dug out areas that are almost impossible to sand out with an orbit sander.

Iíve tried out lots of drum sanders and I can tell you they do help but if youíre serious about doors a wide belt sander is a must. Also when looking for a wide belt look for one that has a finishing plate. You will see it when you look from the side where you load the belts there are two rollers on the bottom where the belt rides and a small flat platen in between the two rollers. If you do find a sander without a platen make sure you get a deal on it as it will have a bit coarser sanding pattern then a platen. If you are under budget constraints I will offer another option which most people have forgotten about. It is a stroke sander. A stroke sander is basically a huge (long belt) belt sander where you control the platen. Similar to using a hand belt sander but way more efficient and the platen area is usual 6" x 12" these machines are still available new and start at $1600 or so, and can do about 50+ inches in length. I got one a while back for free and it does up to seven feet in length, the machine did need some restoration but it was worth it. These machines can minimize greatly the orbiting time greatly of you go to higher grits. Another advantage of a stroke sander is it can do large complex panels that may not fit into your sander. I could go one about stroke sander but perhaps for another thread.

Edge sander - if you are building cabinets it is likely that you already have one of these. These machines are great for sanding edges of square edged doors. There are lots of styles of these machines out there. My recommendations are the longer the belt the better. But even the smaller 6x89" sanders work great. One thing, always keep a fresh supply of belts, some woods love to burn on the end grain a worn belt will usually always burn your work on its end grain. What is nice is that you can raise and lower the table to expose a new area of the belt.

Orbit sanders Ė Iím sure you probably have a collection of these. Find the one that has the most efficiency and low vibration. I must have over 30 different types of random orbit sanders and air sanders. One of my favorites is the Porter Cable 333 which I bought back in 96 and yes it still works great. Unfortunately the current model 333 is not worth the money and is nothing like its predecessor. You will have to seek out whatís comfortable for you and works the fastest. Currently we use a Fein 6" random orbit sander for large work and several small 5" Dynabrade sanders for final orbit sanding.

This should cover what you need to get started building square raised and inset panel doors. As you can see from the list of machinery above you can get started building cabinet doors for a small investment. As a cabinet shop this will add a lot of versatility. You can make money on less actual jobs since your making money building doors then if you were outsourcing the doors. You can also build cabinet doors to use for re-facing or other services that you may offer. You can even sell them to homeowners, handymen, or even some painters so they can do re-facing or cabinet door replacing. There are advantages to building your own doors.