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AW Extra 8/30/12 - Stile and Rail Joinery


Stile and Rail Joinery

A reversible stile and rail cutter makes perfect-fitting frames for doors and cabinets without dowels, mortises or biscuits.

By Tim Johnson

One of the best buys you can make for your tablemounted router is a set of stile and rail cutters. These cutters allow you to join frame pieces together at right angles by making a decorative version of the tongue and groove joint. It’s sometimes called a “cope and stick” joint because the rail is coped to fit around the profile that’s “stuck” onto the stile. When assembled, two stiles and two rails form a frame with a groove around its inside edge, perfect for holding a panel.

Stile and rail cutters come in a variety of profiles (Fig. A) and are great for making kitchen cabinet doors and other frame and panel structures. Most manufacturers offer them either as dedicated two bit sets or as a single “reversible” bit. With the two-bit set you get one bit to make a “profile” cut on long grain (the stile cutter) and another to make a matching “coped” cut on the end-grain (the rail cutter). With the single, reversible-bit sets you get removable parts that can be configured to make both cuts (photos at right).

Dedicated sets are best in production shops, but reversible sets are a good choice for anyone working with a budget because they’re cheaper to buy and still offer great performance. Using the reversible set is a piece of cake (Photos 1 - 6), as long as you remember to make the cope cuts face-side up and profile cuts face-side down. Making the changeover from profile to cope cutting (or back) takes only a few minutes. You’ll be impressed with the quality of the fit and the speed with which you can make a quantity of doors or frames.


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

Reversible cutters and toggle clamps available at:

Eagle America,, 800-872-2511.

Highland Hardware, 800-241-6748.

MLCS,, 800-533-9298.

Sears,\craftsman, 800-377-7414.

Sommerfeld’s,, 888-228-9268.

Woodcraft,, 800-225-1153.

The Woodworker’s Choice,, 800-892-4866.

Fig. A: Stile and rail cutters come in a variety of decorative profiles.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker February 2000, issue #78.

Click any image to view a larger version.

Reversible cutters have removable profile- and slot-cutting wings along with shims and a guide bearing mounted on a single shaft. Changing from profile to cope cutting (see photo above) means disassembling the cutter, rearranging the wings and reassembling—a two minute process. Depending on its orientation, the profile cutter either makes the profile or its coped negative. Make sure the flat sides of the carbide cutters face into the cut. Shims are included to adjust the fit if it’s too loose.

Phase 1: Make Coped End-Grain Cuts

1. Set the fence flush with the bearing on the rail cutter, using a straightedge to assure a smooth pass.

2. Make test end-grain cuts. You’ll need a sled to hold the rail safely and ensure a square cut. Simply glue a block of wood with one squarely cut end onto a larger piece of 1⁄4-in. plywood, aligned on one edge.Then attach a toggle clamp.Clamp the rails in the sled face-side up for all end-grain cuts.

3. Set the height of the cutter by making cuts so the rabbet on the bottom of the rail is at least 3⁄16-in. deep. Otherwise the corresponding bottom shoulder on the stile will be too thin and may break. Once you’ve got the height set, use the sled and make all of the coped end-grain cuts in the rails.

Phase 2: Cut Profiles on Long Grain

4. Disassemble the cutter to rearrange the pieces for making profile cuts. Leave it mounted in the router when loosening the locking nut—it’s a handy way to hold onto the shaft. After rearranging, don’t over-tighten the nut or you’ll damage the shims.

5. Set the height of the stile cutter by aligning its slot-cutting wing with the tongue on one of the rails.These cuts don’t require a sled. Use scrap stock to make a test cut, check its fit with the rails and make adjustments, if necessary.

6. Make profile cuts on the stiles and inside edges of the rails with the stile cutter. (Yes, use the stile cutter for this profile cut on the rails!) Orient the pieces face-side down and mark the edge to be routed. Use push blocks to hold the stile against the fence and the table when you guide it past the bit.


cajunbro wrote re: Stile and Rail Joinery
on 10-10-2009 8:54 PM

I would also like to know how to do the breakdown when finding my panel measurements. Thanks for the article.

Paul D Andrus wrote re: Stile and Rail Joinery
on 10-16-2009 6:11 AM

This tutorial will certainly help me make my cherry face frames and door construction. So far, my base carcasses are built (Birch ply 3/4) and all dadoed snugly. Being a toolmaker, start & stay square is the rule!