Rout raised panel look-alikes in minutes.
Raised panel doors made with traditional stile and rail joinery are my first choice for cabinets. But I don’t always use them. For example, cabinets for the shop or laundry room usually don’t require fine woodworking. But that doesn’t mean they can’t have good-looking doors, especially if the doors can be made in minutes, instead of hours.
Here’s how to turn a piece of MDF into a door that mimics its traditional counterpart without going through all the traditional time-consuming steps. Making doors in multiples is a breeze with this method (Photo 1). The only caveat is that these doors must be painted—unless, of course, you’re a fool for the look of “natural” MDF.
The basic process requires a specialty router bit (Photo 2 and Sources), a shopmade template, and a plunge router equipped with an edge guide.
Start by cutting a piece of MDF to the finished size of the door. Then make a template that has the same outside dimensions. Use solid wood for the template’s stiles and rails and assemble it with pocket screws. The stiles and rails must all be the same width and the joints must all be flush. Attach the template to the door blank with 1″ finish nails (Photo 3). I pre-drill shank holes for the nails in the template.
If you’re making multiple doors of different sizes, you’ll need one template for each size. My strategy is to make the largest doors first. When these doors are finished, I disassemble the template, cut the stiles and rails down to fit the next size door, and reassemble the new, smaller template.
Install the plunge-grooving bit in your router and set the plunge depth (Photo 4). Attach the router’s edge guide and adjust it (Photo 5). Leave a little play in the setup.
Rout each profile in two passes (Photo 6). Make the first pass while pressing the edge guide against the template’s outside edge. Make the second pass with the bit’s bearing pressed against the template’s inside edge. This method creates a slightly wider groove, but it guarantees that both sides of the groove will be straight.
Routing MDF produces such copious clouds of dust that no single method of dust collection is effective. When you pull the router toward you, the dust will be directed away from you. But when you push the router away, the dust will be directed toward you. So be sure to wear eye protection and a respirator mask. Turn on your air purifier and keep a broom handy. The most effective system I’ve found is to attach the dust collection hose directly behind the router, and to remove the bulk of the material while pulling the router forward. I also make several shallow passes to complete each groove, instead of hogging out all the material at once.
After routing the first groove, rotate the door/template assembly counterclockwise and position the support piece, so you can rout the adjacent groove. Repeat this process until all four grooves have been routed (Photo 7). Remove the template and make sure the edges and bottom of the grooves are consistent all around. If something requires a re-do, reinstall the template, using the nail holes in the door, and go again.
If you make a mistake, you don’t have to throw the door away. Instead, fill the damaged area with wood putty, let it dry, and sand it smooth. Reinstall the template and rout that section of the groove again. After the door has been painted, you’ll never see the mistake.
Sand the door after filling the nail holes with putty. Use a sanding sponge to remove any fuzz from the routed areas and a sanding block or a power sander to touch up the flat surfaces. The door is now ready for priming and painting.
You can go several steps further, to make your faux panel doors look more authentic. Square the rounded corners. This step requires chisels and gouges. Rout a decorative edge around the door’s outside perimeter, using a profile bit. Or use a different bit-and-bearing combo to create a unique profile for the panel (Photo 8 and Sources). The routing process is identical. Just make a second pass around the template. An oversize bearing keeps this bit from cutting into the door’s stile profile.
Whiteside 1-1/4″ MDF “Stile” Profile Bit, Traditional Pattern #5620 (other patterns available)
Whiteside 1-1/2″ MDF “Panel” Profile Bit, Cove Pattern, #5710 (other patterns available)
Bearing Lock Collar for 1/2″ Shank (required for all Whiteside MDF profile bits)