Build Your Own Interior Doors
Loose-tenon joinery and applied moldings keep door construction simple and strong.
Synopsis: When cabinetmaker Paul Levine decided to make full-size doors for his own house, he devised an approach that required no special tools or techniques. Levine assembled his doors with loose-tenon joinery and needed only one dado-blade setup. Moldings were applied after the doors were complete. Levine’s process can be used for doors with a variety of molding and panel-layout options.
As a cabinetmaker, I build doors all the time. But when it came time to make doors for my house, I cringed. Full-size doors have little in common with their cabinet-size counterparts. They are thicker and heavier, requiring beefy joinery to stand up to the strain of their own weight, not to mention daily use. So after making the first of the 11 doors I needed, I realized that the joinery and assembly methods I was using were not going to fly. I agonized for a few weeks but finally came up with a good plan that didn’t require special tools or processes.
A typical interior door is assembled with dowels, which provide lots of surface area for a strong glue bond. But the two-part setup of dowel jigs makes them fussy to work with. My design provides just as much glue area as a doweled door, but it requires only one cutting operation instead of two. With one dado-blade setup, I can cut grooves to accept the loose tenons as well as the 1 ⁄2-in. plywood or medium-density fiberboard (MDF) used for the panels. The frames, panels, and tenons are then glued together. To eliminate fussy alignment work during glue-up, I let the stiles and tenons run long, then trim the door to size with a circular saw and edge guide once the glue has set up.
Floating tenons and dowels are, of course, much faster approaches to door making than the techniques cabinetmakers once used. At one time, doors were assembled with mortise-and-tenon joinery — the doors were very strong, but also time consuming to make. Classicists still like this approach, but it’s a big commitment of time and the techniques take practice.
For about $50 in materials (not including hardware), I can build thicker-than-average, paint-grade frame-and-panel doors, and I can customize them with my choice of molding. But one of the best things about this setup is the freedom to do what you want. By substituting mahogany for the frame and mahogany crotch veneer on the panels, for example, you get a dramatically different door without really changing the process.
Here’s a rough outline of the process:
1: The grooves that hold the panels and tenons all can be cut on a tablesaw with a stacked dado set to 3⁄8-in. width. By running both sides of each stile and rail against the rip fence, I can cut a perfectly centered groove 1⁄2 in. wide and 1 in. deep. I like to cut the grooves just a hair wider than the thickness of the panel, then cut the floating tenons to fit snugly.
2: I use a straightedge to make sure the door stays flat as clamps are tightened. I size stiles, rails, and tenons to let the door run long when it’s assembled.
3: After sanding both sides of the door flat with a belt sander (you can also pay a local millwork shop to run the doors through a wide belt sander), I trim the top and bottom of the door, then rip a 3° bevel on the strike-side stile.
4: Rabbeted panel moldings are available, but stock molding from the local lumberyard or home center can be rabbeted on the tablesaw to fit the frame-and-panel door. Install the panel molding after you’ve finished routing the mortises for the lockset and hinges, and after you’ve cut the bevel for the strike side; these doors are too heavy to be riding across the tablesaw on their moldings.
Magazine extra: Read Extending a Tablesaw’s Work Surface for more information plus links to process photos and detailed plans for building the author’s infeed support arm, doormaker’s outfeed table, and jig for mortising hinges.
For more photos, drawings, and details, click the View PDF button below.
More on doors:
13 Door Design and Installation Tips — From interior doors to garage doors, here are a baker’s dozen of design and installation solutions to help you create a perfect entrance.
Interior Doors — A look at the MDF doors that were selected for the FHB House. The two-panel design fits nicely with the clean lines of the interior.
Installing Prehung Doors — An accurate level and a bucketful of shims will correct just about any out-of-plumb condition.
A Custom Hinge Mortising Template — This time-saver helps turn slabs into doors that are ready to hang.
Designing Doors for Large Openings — Custom sliding, swinging and overhead doors reinforce the architectural style of a house and invite the outdoors in.