Building a Front Door

Instructions for building a front door.

If you want to build your own door, the first thing I will recommend is that you obtain some time at a nice woodworking shop. I really don’t think I could have completed my door easily or even correctly without some precision tools. I was lucky because my friend, Gregory, had a membership to the TechShop in San Jose and was able to get me in free for the day as a guest. If you don’t have a friend that can do something like this for you, then just pay for a day membership. The cost will be more than worth the time and effort you save in making your cuts quickly and accurately.

Next, familiarize yourself with the parts of the door. The stiles are the vertical pieces of wood that bound the door on the left and right side. There usually two stiles. The rails are the horizontal pieces of wood that separate the stiles. There usually three rails. The window fits in the rectangle formed by the left and right stiles and the top and middle rails. Finally, there is a decorative panel which fits into the rectangle formed by the left and right stiles and the middle and bottom rails.

The dimensions for all of the various parts of the door depend on a combination of things like rough opening size, window size and personal preference. If you plan enough in advance, you can kind of pick just about any dimensions you want that you think will look good. I decided to make things easy on myself. I used the door dimensions specified in my plans, but decided to construct all of the stiles and rails using the same width of wood. That way, I did not have to rip anything down to size. But that was just my choice. You can to make your rails a different width than your stiles or a different width from each other.

The next thing you will need are the right tools. The most important tool is a precision table saw with a dado blade. A dado is simply a bunch of circular saw blades stacked together that allow you to cut slots of a specified width in pieces of wood. The dado blade is what will allow you to accurately cut the mortises (slots) in the stiles and rails of your door. A dado blade can also be used to cut the tenons in the rails of your door. Tenons are fins of wood that stick out from the side of your rails and slot into the mortises of your stiles. When you add glue to all surfaces of a mortise and tenon joint and slot the wood together, you get a joint that is almost unbreakable.

Tools and materials you will need:

  • Table saw with regular blade and dado blade
  • A chop saw for cutting wood to length
  • A planer (a machine used to make the edges of a piece of wood perfectly straight)
  • A hand drill or drill press
  • Electric sander & medium sand paper
  • Yellow wood glue
  • ½” wide paint brush
  • Wood for your door plus enough to do a few test cuts. I recommend getting 20 linear feet of wood. I used 2 x 8 Advantage pre-primed finger jointed pine boards because they were really straight and would not need to be planed.
  • Four ½” x 5 ½” x 36” (actual dimensions) pine panels to edge glue together into a panel
  • Three 3 foot clamps
  • Right angle to test for square
  • Tape measure
  • Micrometer
  • Wooden mallet
  • Few regular clamps
  • Featherboard (used to keep would a snug against the guide when running through a table saw)
  • Window with a sash only and no frame
  • Hammer
  • At least 15 1”finish nails
  • Door knob and lock set
  • Deadbolt set, if desired
  • 3 door hinges
  • Eye and ear protection (of course)
  • 2 1/8” hole saw (or as specified in lockset instructions)
  • 1” spade bit (or as specified in lockset instructions)

And finally, here’s the process for building your front door:

  • Spend some time in advance planning out the dimensions of your door. Figure out how wide and long your rails need to be and how tall and wide your stiles need to be. The dimensions of your wood will be governed substantially by the dimensions of your window. Here are some basic guidelines. These guidelines will make more sense once you have read through all of the instructions:
    • The height of your door should be equal to the height of your rough opening minus 2 1/2″ (to allow room for door jamb header and entry sill).
    • The width of your door should be equal to the width of your rough opening minus 2 1/2″ (to allow room for door jamb legs).
    • The horizontal length of your rails will equal the width of your window minus 1 ¼” (for a 5/8” mortise on either side of your window) plus 3”es (for a 1½” tenon on either side).
    • The vertical width of your rails is variable and up to you. All of your rails can be the same width or different widths. Whatever widths you choose will affect the height of the wood panel at the bottom of the door (see below).
    • The height of your stiles will be equal to the height of your door.
    • The width of your stiles can be determined by subtracting exposed length of your rails (the total length of the rails minus 3”es) from the width of your door and dividing that quantity by two.
    • The width of your lower panel will be equal to the total length of your rails (including the tenons) minus 1/16” (to allow panel to float).
      The height of your lower panel should be equal to the total height of your door minus the total height of your window minus the width of all three of your rails plus 2 ½” (to account for 4 x 5/8” mortises in your rails) minus 1/16” (to allow the panel to float).
    • All of these dimensions can be changed slightly by adjusting the depth of your mortises. The instructions below assume a 5/8” mortise around the window and along the length of the rails and a 1½” mortise along the length of the stiles
  • Add a dado blade to your table saw that is just a hair wider than the thickness of your pine panels. Set the height to 5/8” and test the width by cutting a slot (mortise) into a scrap piece of wood. The channel cut by the Dado blades should be just wide enough for your pine panel to slip into without having to wedge it in. Adjust the width of the dado blade if necessary. I used a 9/16 dado blade which ended up being more like 17/32” wide.
  • Run each of your pine panels through a planer a couple of times until they are perfectly straight such that when you place them edge to edge, there are no gaps between the pieces.
Planing the Edges of the Pine Panes

Planing the Edges of the Pine Panes

  • Edge glue your bottom panel together. Add just enough glue to each edge to smoothly cover that edge.
Gluing Panel Edges

Gluing Panel Edges

  • Line up all of your panels and clamp them together around the edges. Also clamp the entire fixture down to a flat board to keep the panels from popping up.
Clamping Panel Together

Clamping Panel Together

  • Using a chop saw, cut all three of your rails to exactly the same length (stack them next to each other and ensure that the cut surfaces are flush and square).
  • Using a chop saw, cut both of your stiles to exactly the same length.
  • Test cut a 5/8” tenon into a scrap piece of the same wood you will use to create your rails and stiles. Set the distance between the table saw fence and the outer edge of the dado blade equal to 5/8”. To determine the blade height, measure the thickness of your board, subtract the width of your blade and divide the result by two. Set the blade height equal to the number you calculated minus just a fraction. Lay your piece of wood down flat with the short edge up against the fence and use the dado blade to take off an equal amount of material on both sides of the wood. You will probably need to take a couple of passes across the Dado blade to get all of the material off of each side. You should be left with a tenon that is exactly the width of the blade.
  • Test to fit the tenon you just created into the test mortise you created earlier. The fit should be snug. You should be able to assemble the two pieces together by working at it just a little bit. If the pieces are too loose or too tight, then adjust the height of the dado blade down (if loose) or up (if tight) and try again.
  • If the fit is good, then determine where to put the fence to create a corresponding mortise. Place the test block with the tenon on the table saw such that the tenon is facing downwards and is lined up with and exactly parallel with the Dado blade. Adjust the fence until it is up snug with this side of the test block (see picture below).
Lining Blade up with Tenon

Lining Blade up with Tenon

  • Set the blade height back to 5/8” and cut another test mortise into a scrap piece of the same wood you will use to create your rails and stiles. Use a featherboard to keep the wood pressed up against the fence so you get a straight cut.
Getting Ready to Cut 5/8" Mortise

Getting Ready to Cut 5/8″ Mortise

  • Test the fit with your test tenon. Now the two pieces should not only fit snugly together, but the top and bottom surfaces should be exactly flush with each other. If the surfaces are not exactly flush, then move the fence left or right as required and try again.
Testing 5/8" Mortise and Tennon Joint

Testing 5/8″ Mortise and Tennon Joint

  • Once you have your 5/8” mortise set correctly, cut the mortises into your rails that will slot around the window and the lower panel. You’ll need mortises on the bottom edge of your top rail, the top and bottom edges of your middle rail and on the top edge of your bottom rail.
5/8" Mortises in Rails

5/8″ Mortises in Rails

  • At this point, the glue on your panel should be almost, but not quite set up. Keeping the panel clamped (unlike the photo below), use a putty knife to scrape off any glue that has squeezed up between the seams.
Removing Excess Glue from Panel

Removing Excess Glue from Panel

  • Without moving the fence, take a test block of wood and cut a 1½” deep mortise. Do this by taking several passes across the Dado blade with blade heights set to 5/8”, 1” & 1 ½”.
  • Record the location of your fence before moving to the next step.
  • Set the Dado blade height back to exactly the same height that you used to create your original test tenon. Set the distance between the table saw fence and the outer edge of the dado blade equal to 1½”. Cut a 1½” wide tenon on one side of a test piece of wood by laying the wood flat with the short edge against the fence and making several passes across the dado blade on both sides of the wood, working from inside to outside.
  • Test fit the 1½” wide tenon into the 1½” deep mortise. Make sure the fit is snug in that the surfaces are flush. Adjust blade height if needed.
  • If desired, use a hand planer or a sander to chamfer the ends of the tenon. This will make it easier to slot together with the corresponding mortises.
  • Cut 1½” tenons on both sides of all three of your rails.
Tenons Cut in Rails

Tenons Cut in Rails

  • Return your fence to exactly the same location it was in when you created your 1½” deep mortise. With the saw off, double check the setting by making sure you can easily run your test mortise across the blade without snagging on the blade.
  • Cut a 1½” deep mortise into the entire length of the inside edge of one of your stiles. Do this in three passes with blade height set to ½”, 1” and just slightly less than 1 ½”. Use a featherboard to keep the board flush against the fence. To increase stability, have one person feed the board and one person pull the board.
  • Test fit your stile with your rail. It may fit together with a very small gap between the rail and the stile. Measure the width of the gap, raise the blade by exactly the same amount and run the stile through the saw one more time to deepen the mortise slightly. Now, the two pieces should fit together snugly with the outer end of the tenon just touching the inner side of the mortise.
  • Use the same process to cut the 1½” deep mortise onto the inside edge of your other stile.
  • Unclamp your lower panel and use a rotary sander to sand down any remaining glue or blemishes on both sides.
  • Use a 2 1/8” hole saw to cut a hole for your door knob in your left or right stile, depending on which side you want your door knob on. Center the hole 2’ 11 ¼” from the bottom and 2 3/8” from the edge. You can also do this step after your door is assembled.
Drilling Hole for Door Knob

Drilling Hole for Door Knob

Door Knob Hole Complete

Door Knob Hole Complete

  • Use a 1” spade bit (or as specified in your door knob instructions) to drill a hole from the outside edge of your stile all the way through to the doorknob hole you just cut. Center the hole in the edge of the stile 2’ 11 ¼” from the bottom.
  • The next step involves cutting 5/8” mortises into all sides of your window. This step must be done very carefully to ensure you don’t ruin your expensive window. The objective is to cut the mortise such that the distance between the front of the window (the aluminum clad side) and the beginning of the mortise is the same thickness as your pine panel (slightly narrower than the mortises you have already cut into your rails and stiles). The window will eventually be inserted into the door in such a way that the front of the window is inset from the outside surface of the door by about ½” and the back of the window (the wooden part) protrudes about ½” from the inside of the door.
  • Set the distance between the table saw fence and the inner edge of the dado blade equal to the width of your wooden panel. Set the height of the blade equal to 5/8”. Make a test cut in a scrap piece of wood. Check to see that the part of the scrap piece of wood that was between the blade on the fence easily slips into the mortises in the rails and stiles. Adjust the fence if necessary.
  • Once you’re absolutely sure that you have the fence set to the correct location, mortise out one side of your window by running it through the saw with the aluminum clad side facing the fence. You might want to consider clamping some wood to the table saw to use as a guide to help keep the window exactly vertical while making the cut.
Mortising the Window (note wood blocks keeping window verticle)

Mortising the Window (note wood blocks clamped to table to  keep window vertical)

  • Double check that your window now fits into the mortises on your rails. It should not be too loose or tight.
  • Mortise out the other three sides of your window.
Window with Completed Mortises

Window with Completed Mortises

  • Double check that your window mortises are deep enough. Slot the top mortise of your window into your top rail and make sure that the width of the mortised out part of your window is just a fraction shorter than the exposed width of your rail (the part of your rail not including the tenons). The objective here is to make sure the mortised out part of your window as wide as possible without preventing your stiles from assembling tightly with your rails. If necessary, raise the saw blade a fraction and make the mortise on just one side of the window slightly deeper.
  • Dry fit your entire door minus the panel to make sure everything fits together properly.
    Once you’re confident your door fits together, replace your Dado blade with a normal table saw blade.
  • Cut your panel to the appropriate width which should be equal to the total length of your rails (including the tenons) minus 1/16” (to allow panel to float). When cutting your panel to size, keep in mind that the individual strips of wood that were originally glued together to create the panel should lay horizontally across your door.
  • Cut your panel to height. You should have calculated the appropriate height of your panel when planning at your door. However, with your door dry fit together, you can double check that measurement now by measuring the distance between the middle and bottom rails, adding 1 ¼” to that measurement to account for the 5/8” mortises in both rails and subtracting 1/16” to allow the panel to float.
  • Cut decorative horizontal V shaped grooves into both sides of your panel at approximately 3” or 4” on center. Do this by setting your table saw blade at a 45° angle and setting the height to about 1/16”. Make a test cut on a scrap piece of wood first to make sure you have the height the way you want it. Alternatively, you can make this cut using a router.
  • Use the table saw to cut a 45° chamfer into the top, outdoor edges of the middle and bottom rail. Start the chamfer about 1/8” out from the 5/8” mortise. This will allow rain to run off of the bottom of the window and the bottom of the panel.
  • Dry fit the entire door together with the panel. Trim the panel if required.
Dry Fitting the Door

Dry Fitting the Door

  • Before pulling the door apart, carefully mark the stiles with the location of each of the rails. This will help you identify where to apply glue to the stiles during final door assembly.
  • Prepare to assemble the door. Place all the pieces near each other on a large, flat work surface. Orient the pieces with the outdoor side facing down towards the table (aluminum clad window surface facing down).
  • Glue the right side of the top rail to the right stile. Using the ½” paintbrush, apply a thin layer of glue to all outer surfaces rail tenon and all inner surfaces of the stile mortise where the rail will connect with the stile. Push the rail into place using your hands. If necessary, tap the rail into place using a wooden mallet. Place a scrap block of wood between the mallet and the door to keep from damaging the door with the mallet.
  • Glue the right side of the middle rail to the right stile and tap into place, following the markings you made on the stile earlier for the middle rail.
  • Slot the window into place relative to the upper and middle rail and the right stile. Do not apply glue. The window should float.
  • Glue the right side of the bottom rail to the right stile and tap into place.
    Slot the panel into place relative to the middle and lower rail and the right stile. Do not apply glue. The panel should float.
  • Apply glue to all outer surfaces of all of the remaining tenons on the left sides of the rails. Also apply glue to all of the inner surfaces of the left stile only where the tenons will actually attached to the stile (do not apply glue to the sections of the stile where the panel or window will be).
  • Assemble the left stile onto the door starting at the bottom of the door and working up. If you have trouble getting it to come together at the top, then use the mallet on the stile, starting at the bottom and working your way to the top. You may need to do this several times to get everything to come together.
  • Use three 3 foot clamps to clamp the door together across the width of the door. If you were unable to get the door to completely come together with a mallet, you should be able to close any remaining space with the clamps.
All Pieces Clamped Together

All Pieces Clamped Together

  • Nail the door joints together with 1” finishing nails driven in from the backside of the door. Drive two nails through each of the six mortise and tenons joining the rails to the stiles. Also use two nails to secure the bottom panel, one nail at the top center and one nail at the bottom center.
  • Wait at least 2 hours for the glue to set up before removing clamps or moving door.
  • Congratulations! You have built yourself a door.
Completed Front Door

Completed Front Door

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