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Tombstone Doors


Tombstone Doors

By Lonnie Bird

Through many years studying and building 18th-century furniture, I’ve learned that this era produced countless fine examples of good design. One example is the arched-top door. Often called a tombstone door because its shape resembles a grave marker, the panel on this type of door is curved at the top and is capped by a matching curved rail. The overall effect is quite elegant, as shown at left.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a period furniture maker to incorporate tombstone doors into your work. The design looks right at home with modern furniture, or it can work with paneling or kitchen cabinets. In fact, you can use tombstone doors wherever you want to dress up an otherwise plain cabinet.

Eighteenth-century cabinetmakers used a variety of tombstone designs in their work. Fig. C shows four basic doors, illustrating simple to elaborate designs. I’ll show you how I make a standard arched-top door as shown in Figs. A and B.

Lay out the top rail

Figure C shows four traditional types of doors, with different arch configurations. I’ll be making the most common type, the standard, where the centerline of the arch is aligned with the shoulders of the field. The other types of doors are made like the standard door, but with differing layouts.

Planning an arched-top door begins with the top rail. The panel is then made to fit. Make a full-size drawing of the top rail for each different width of door. Follow the steps in Fig. D. When you know the dimensions of the top rail, you can make the remainder of your cutting list.

Prepare your stock

As with any door, it’s very important that the stock be well-dried and stable. I store it in the shop for a couple of weeks to let it settle before working with it.

I mill the frame parts to 7/8 in. thickness for a stout, traditional-looking door. Cut the stiles 2 in. extra-long for ease in gluing up the door. This results in “horns” that will be trimmed off later (Fig. A).

Cut the mortise and tenon joints for the frame. I chop the mortises in the stiles using a hollow-chisel mortiser, and saw the tenons on my tablesaw. When cutting the tenons on the top and bottom rails, cut only the face-side shoulders (see Photo 1).

Shape the frame

Draw the curve on the top rail, saw to shape (Photo 1) and sand the shape smooth (Photo 2). On traditional frame-and-panel doors like these, I prefer a molded inside edge on the frame, called “sticking.” Rout the molded edge on your top rail, bottom rail and stiles, using a 3/32-in. roundover bit in your router table (Photo 3). Use a starter pin in your router table for the curved top rail, and a straight fence for the other parts. Then groove the frame members to receive the panel (Photo 4), using a piloted slot cutter. Miter the molded edge on both rails and stiles (Photo 5), and cut the back-side shoulders on the tenons. Use a tablesaw to cut the unwanted molded edge from the ends of the stiles.


Shape the panel

Dry-assemble the frame to make sure everything’s OK. Then measure for the panel by adding 1/4 in. to the opening size all around. Because the grooves are 5/16-in.-deep, this gives the panel a little room to expand.

Mill the panel stock to 5/8-in. thick. Because wide boards can cup, I try to assemble the panels into the door on the same day I plane them. Using your full-size drawing of the top rail, set a compass to the radius of the top rail curve, plus 1/4 in. for the tongue on the panel. Lay out the curve and shoulders of the arch on the panel (Photo 6) and cut to shape (Photo 7). Smooth the cut surfaces to fair the curve, but don’t sand the edge—it will be housed in the groove.

Raise the panel

I use a shaper and a cutter with guide bearings to raise the beveled edges on the panel (Photo 8). You could also use a large router in a sturdy router table. To control the mass of chips and to keep my fingers safe, I built two jigs: one for the curved edges (Photo 8) and another for the straight edges (Photo 9). An acrylic shield on the top of each jig (hard to see in photo) keeps the chips contained. I plug a dust collection hose into the back of the jig.

Make a few test cuts and adjust the thickness of the tongue on the panel to 1/4 in. You can make several passes if you need to, but with a sharp cutter you can usually make the bevel in one pass. Start curved cuts against a pin in the table and use a fence for straight cuts.

Carve the corners

The inside corners of arched-top doors are distinctive and they must be carved by hand. First, lay out the straight and curved sides of each corner, following the shoulders already cut (Photo 10). Chop the waste with a bench chisel, staying 1/16-in. away from your lines. Then, pare the waste away across the grain (Photo 11). Check your progress with an adjustable square set to the shoulder depth.

Now, cut to the line at the shoulders. For the curved section, a 1/2-in. gouge with a No. 2 sweep usually works well (Photo 12). For smaller doors, try one with a No. 3 sweep. With the shoulders cut, mark the bevel with a knife, connecting the inner and outer corners of the curve (Photo 13). Finish carving the corner using left- and right-skew chisels (see Sources) Be sure your chisels are razor sharp and make light cuts to avoid tearing the grain.


Finish-sand all the parts. Completely finish the panel before assembly. This helps to avoid any unfinished parts being revealed when the panel shrinks a bit in the frame. It’s also just plain easier to work on the panel when it’s not in the frame.

Assemble the frame around the panel (Photo 15), brushing glue on both the tenons and in the mortises. Be careful not to let glue get in the panel grooves or on the panel, and work on a flat surface so the door stays flat.

When the glue is dry, cut off the projecting horns and plane the edges of the door. Now they’re ready to hang.



(Note: Product availability and costs are subject to change since original publication date.)

Garrett Wade, 800-221-2942, Left- and right-skew chisels.

Fig. A: Tombstone Door

Fig. B: Door Details

Fig. C: Arch-Top Door Designs




Arch-Top Rail

Fig. D: Laying Out the Top Rail

Determine the arch of the upper rail.
1. On a piece of paper, draw a baseline and mark on it the overall width of the door. Then, to determine the length of the rail, mark the positions of the two stiles.
2. Draw the centerline of the rail. Divide each half of the rail into thirds and mark points B on the baseline.
3. Line AC extends below the baseline by the width of the panel bevel (in this case 1 in.). Point C is the center of the arch.
4. From point C, swing an arc with a radius equal to the distance BC. This is the rail arch.
5. Draw the top of the rail. Make the distance between it and the top of the arch the same as the width of the stiles.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker April 1999, issue #72.

Click any image to view a larger version.

1. Bandsaw the curve in the top rail, after cutting the tenons. Saw on the waste side of your layout line. Only one shoulder of the tenon is cut at this stage.

2. Sand the curve smooth and to your layout line using a spindle sander or sanding drum in a drill press. Be sure it’s a fair curve without dips or flat spots.

3. Rout the molded edge on all frame parts, using a roundover bit in a router table. A pin helps start the cut on the curved rail. Use a fence on the straight parts.

4. Cut a groove for the panel in all the frame parts, using a ball-bearing piloted-slot cutter in the router table. Again, use a fence for straight edges, and start the curved edges against a pin.

5. Miter the molded edge on the frame parts. To align the cut, screw a wood fence to your miter gauge, and mark the end of the cut. Align the shoulder of the tenon with this mark. After mitering, cut the second shoulder on the tenon.

6. Mark out the panel for cutting the arch. Masking tape protects the surface when you use the compass. Lay out the shoulders with a small square.

7. Bandsaw the arch in the top of the panel, staying on the waste side of the line. Smooth the curve with a file so it has no dips or flat spots.

8. Raise the curved edge of the panel on a shaper or powerful router table, using a cutter with a guide bushing or pilot bearing. A wooden jig with an acrylic top makes the cut safer and allows you to collect the chips.

9. Raise the straight edge of the panel with a similar jig, but use a fence instead of the guide bushing or pilot bearing.

10. Mark the inside corners that the panel-raising bit couldn’t reach, by extending the shoulder using a compass and small square.

11. Chop the waste from the inside corners by making a series of chopping cuts to the depth of the shoulder, then paring horizontally to remove the waste. Stay inside your layout lines.

12. Pare the shoulders using a straight bench chisel for the straight sections and a gouge with a shallow sweep (No. 2) for the curved parts.

13. Score the miter line with a sharp razor knife, following a small straightedge laid from the inner to the outer corner.

14. Carve the bevels up to the miter line, using a pair of left- and right-skew chisels. The tools must be very sharp and the paring cuts light to keep from tearing the grain.

15. Put it all together. Spread glue in mortises and on tenons and clamp the frame around the panel. Work on a flat surface and place the clamp heads on the midline of each rail to keep the doors flat.


Jerald G. Basol wrote re: Tombstone Doors by Lonnie Bird 2
on 04-27-2009 11:55 PM

Very clear and concise directions. Am waiting to try this in the future.

astrobuff49 wrote re: Tombstone Doors
on 05-05-2009 8:27 AM

i would like to have some informations about solid surfacing.sincerly behzad.

bricofleur wrote re: Tombstone Doors
on 05-24-2009 8:26 PM

This is a must to add to my bookmarks, in the Techniques section! Thanks.


Roger Ringnalda wrote re: Tombstone Doors
on 06-21-2009 8:58 AM

I would like to know how to make the "bead with quirk" sticking profile shown in the article.  Is it possible to mill with a router or does it have to be created by hand tools like a molding plane or scratch stock?

U Tin Maung Ohn wrote re: Tombstone Doors
on 07-16-2009 8:24 AM

this tombstone doors are very western.i am from asia.but i like this different style.thanks                                                                    u tin maung ohn

Rick Mellin wrote re: Tombstone Doors
on 08-18-2009 9:56 PM

I have wanted to do this project for some time now, thanks for all your help.

Signed- Black Eye.

Tiana12 wrote re: Tombstone Doors
on 06-30-2010 1:47 AM

Hello! I think this is my first visit so I wanted to say hi!