How to Build Cabinet Doors

One of the easiest and cheapest home upgrades you can do is to upgrade the kitchen cabinets. This doesn’t mean replacing the cabinets entirely, but rather replacing the doors. Usually, the cabinets themselves are just fine. Replacing the doors gives the kitchen a whole new look, updating the style and making it look new.

While there are many different styles of cabinet doors, they really all fall into two basic categories: panel doors (this includes raised panel and flat panel) and smooth “European style” doors. Of the two, the Euro-style is considered more modern and is easier to make. The only tricky thing about them is installing the hardware.

Before making any cabinet doors, you need to decide on the style and color you want to end up with. Are you going for a finished wood cabinet door or for a painted door? Are you going to cover them with laminate? Are you going to install pulls? These things are all going to affect the way you build your doors.

cabinet doors, installing, kitchen, how to, wooden
Cabinet doors installing, Paul Schultz

Probably the easiest part of the project is determining the dimensions of the new cabinet doors and drawer fronts. All you have to do is measure the existing doors and drawer fronts. However, if you currently have panel doors, and want to put in panel doors, you will want to make them larger, as they are usually made to be flush with the edges of the cabinets, while panel doors sit on the surface of the cabinet, with a frame around them.

Making Panel Doors

There are many ways of designing panel doors. A quick search on the internet will show you a wide range of designs. But don’t be fooled by what looks like a lot of styles; they are all made almost exactly the same.

You start by cutting the rails (horizontal pieces) and stiles (vertical pieces) for the door frame. These can range from 1 ½” to 2” wide, but are always ¾” thick. The stiles run the full height of the door, with the rails inset between them. But cut the rails 1” longer than the spacing required, so that you will have material you can use for the tongue and groove to hold the corners together.

If you are making flat panel doors, you will need to cut your panels out of ¼” thick cabinet-grade plywood or if they are painted ¼” thick luan plywood. The overall size of the panels needs to be I” taller and 1” wider than the opening created by the frame. This is to accommodate the tongue, which will be inset into the groove you will cut on the inside of the rails and stiles.

Let’s review the overall dimensions of all your parts. We’re going to assume a door 14” wide and 22” tall.

  • The stiles will be 1 ½” wide x 22” tall (the full height)
  • The rails will be 1 ½” wide, by the overall door width, less the width of the 2 stiles, plus 1” for the tongues to go into the grooves
  • This gives us an overall length of 12”
  • The panel will be the overall size of the door, less the with of the frame (3” in height and width), plus 1” for the tongues to go into the grooves. This gives us an overall dimension of 12” wide x 20” tall

Cutting the Groove

The next step is to cut the groove in all of the frame pieces. You will want to try this first on a piece of scrap, just to ensure you have the dimensions correct. The panel must fit smoothly but slightly snugly inside this groove, so that it can’t move. This groove is cut on the table saw. To start, mark a scrap piece of wood exactly in the middle of its ¾” thickness.

Set the table saw’s blade to just a bit over ½” above the table (about 17/32”to 9/16”). It helps to use a ripping blade for this, as it will ensure a flat bottom in the groove. That little bit of extra cut depth will allow for expansion of the door’s panel from humidity. You will want to align your table saw’s fence, so that you are cutting to the side of this mark, with the edge of the blade right on the mark.

Cut the groove the length of the board, then flip the board around, end to end, so that you can do it again, making the groove two times the thickness of the saw’s kerf. It also helps to use a fingerboard on the saw’s table, to help hold the frame piece against the fence.

This test piece should then be tested on the panel. The panel should fit into the groove smoothly, without having to strike it. If it is too tight or too loose, you will need to adjust your fence and try another sample, being sure to use the same stock for this second test.

Cutting the Tongue

The two rails will need tongues cut into both ends, so that they fit snugly into the grooves on the stiles. This requires changing the blade on the table saw and using a dado blade. It is best to only use a ¼” dado, not the full ½” that the tongue will be. You can easily set the height of the dado, by using one of the frame pieces. You want the teeth of the blade to come right up to the edge of the groove and no farther.

Set the fence so that it is ½” from the far side of the dado blade, as you want a ½” tongue. Using the saw’s miter gauge, dado both ends of the board, on both sides, forming the tongue. You will need to make more than one pass for each side, cutting first with the end of the rail up against the fence, and then moving the workpiece farther away to cut out the rest of the material.

When finished, the tongues on the ends of the frame rails should fit snugly into the grooves on the stiles. They will just about fill the entire groove, so that the ends of the doors will appear solid. The only gap will be because the grooves you cut are slightly deeper than ½”.

Raised Panel Doors

Raised panel doors are slightly different, in that the door panel isn’t made of ¼” thick plywood, but rather a laminated panel. This panel is then run thorough a shaper with a panel raising bit in it, to create the “raised” effect on the panel. Other than this, the panel for the door is essentially the same.

You will also need to make a decision as to how you are going to make your frame. It can be made just like the flat panel frame or you can cut the inner edge of the frame with a bit that usually comes with the panel raising bit. This will give an edge something like an ogee, which also works as the tongue and groove for assembling the frame.

Assembling the Doors

The entire door has to be assembled at one time, with all the frame parts being glued together. However, before gluing, dry fit the entire door together to ensure that everything fits together.

Before gluing, it is a good idea to sand the inside edges of the rails and stiles, as it will be difficult to sand them once the door is assembled. Sand the door panel as well. If you are planning on staining and/or varnishing your doors, apply the first coat or the sanding sealer, before gluing. This way, if the glue gets out of the groove, it will not cause a spot on the wood of the door.

To glue the door together, start by applying glue inside all the grooves. Then slip the tongues on the edges of the rails into the stiles, with the groove on the rail and the groove on the style both on the inside. Adjust the position of the rail so that the outer edge of the joint is aligned. Then, slip the panel into the door and finally the rail at the other end of the door. Clamp the entire door together with bar clamps, until the glue dries.

Making European Frameless Doors

There are two basic things that make European frameless doors different from framed panel doors. The first is that there is no frame to assemble. The second is the hinges used. Rather than being surface mounted hinges, these hinges are hidden inside the door and attached to either the cabinet’s front frame or to the sides of the cabinet, if there is no frame.

Most European Frameless doors are extremely simple, consisting of a flat door panel the size of the front of the cabinet. However, it is also possible to make them with an edge molding, which forms a door pull. This molding comes with a tongue and groove for attaching it to the door.

Simple frameless doors can be made by simply cutting ¾” sanded or cabinet grade plywood to the required dimension. Laminate is typically applied to the door panel, although it is also possible to paint it or in the case of finer cabinet-grade plywood, to stain and varnish it.

The doors need 35mm holes cut most of the way through, from the inside, for the hinges to be installed in. This is typically done with a template and a forstner bit. This should be done before finishing or installing laminate on the door.

Installing Laminate

Vertical grade laminate, used for cabinet doors, is about half the thickness of that used for countertops and other horizontal surfaces. As such, it is also much more delicate, so extreme caution must be used to avoid breaking it. While this laminate can be cut with a saw, it is actually much easier to cut it with a utility knife, making several cuts with a straight edge, until you are through the laminate.

Install the laminate to the outside of the doors first. Cut the laminate slightly oversize and lay it on the workbench, face down (cover the workbench top to avoid damaging it) next to the door. Ensure that there are no wood chips or other debris on either the door surface or the back side of the laminate. Then cover both surfaces with a thin, smooth coating of contact cement. Wait for the contact cement to become tacky.

Contac cement adheres on contact; even the slightest contact. So you don’t want to allow the two pieces to make any contact until you have the laminate located exactly where you want it. One thing that can help with this is to put dowel rods across the door, to hold the laminate off of the door panel. Once things are aligned, the dowel rods can be removed, one at a time, and the laminate can be pressed down onto the door panel.

Once the laminate is in place, rub the entire surface to ensure that you have full adhesion. A clean wadded up rag works well for this, or you can use a clean paint roller. With the laminate installed, trim the edges of the door with a laminate trimmer or a laminate trimming bit on a router.

The edges are attaches in essentially the same way, with the exception that it is easier to buy laminate edging to match the laminate you are using. This will be the same width as the door panel, so you will want to ensure that you keep it perfectly aligned, as you glue it in place with the contact cement.

Finishing the Door

If you are using edging to form a door pull, it is not installed until after the laminate has been installed. It is a good idea to varnish these pieces, before installing them.

To finish out the door, attach the European door hinges to the inside of the door, with the round part of the hinge set into the pocket you made with the forstner bit.

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