Have you been wanting to learn how to build DIY inset cabinet doors? I recently built a few simple shaker style cabinet doors for my new mudroom desk, and I am going to walk you through the whole process so that you can do it, too!
Note that this method can also be used to build overlay cabinet doors; your dimensions will just be calculated differently than described below for inset doors!
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links for the tools & supplies I used in this project. This means that I may earn a commission (at no extra cost to you!) should you chose to make a purchase through my link.
Tools & Supplies
- Miter saw
- Table saw
- Miter gauge (I used the simple one that came with my table saw, but there are lots of other options available too)
- Push block (This is the one I have – it’s an investment but works great. You can find other less expensive options too!)
- Dado blade (This is optional! It makes the process go faster, but you can also use your regular saw blade)
- Clamps (I have used these ones so many times during my desk build!)
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Other Materials & Supplies:
- 1×3 poplar (for your door rails and stiles)
- ¼” thick MDF (for your center door panel)
- Wood Glue
- Wood Filler
- Sanding Pads + Sandpaper
- Tape Measure
- Safety Glasses
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Figuring Out Dimensions + Planning Your Cuts
Let’s talk about how to determine the lengths for your rails, stiles, and center panel!
Step 1: Determine Your Overall Door Size
For inset doors it is common to leave a +/-1/8” reveal on each side between the door and the face frame. Measure your face frame opening width and height, and subtract ¼” from each dimension to get the dimensions for your door. In this example, a 15-1/4” wide x 20-1/4” high door will mean a 15” x 20” door.
Step 2: Determine Your Stile Lengths
The stiles are the vertical pieces of your door, and will be the full height of the door. So, 20” long in this example.
Step 3: Determine Your Rail Lengths
The rails are the horizontal pieces of your door. I make my door stiles and rails the commonly used 2-1/4” width, but you can vary this depending on your personal preference. To determine rail length, I first calculate the visible portion of my rail this way:
Visible rail length = overall door width – (door stile width x 2), so in this example:
Visible rail length = 15” – 4-1/2” = 10-1/2”
We’re not done yet though! To assemble the rails and stiles we are going to be cutting a tenon into each end of each rail. The tenons will be ¾” long on each side, so add 1-1/2” back to your rail length. That gives us a final rail length here of 12”.
Step 4: Determine your MDF Panel Size
Each of our rails and stiles are going to have a ¼” wide x ¾” deep groove cut into them to hold our center MDF panel. Calculate the visible portion of the panel similar to above, and then add 5/8” to the width and height. This will give the panel a little breathing room in the grooves. In this example, that would mean an MDF panel that is 11-7/8” wide x 16-7/8” high.
Cutting Your Pieces + Assembling Your Door
Step 1: Rough cut your rails and stiles
I like to rough cut my pieces first, making them a couple of inches larger than the finish dimension. I do this in case the material accidentally moves slightly off the table saw fence towards the end of my cut, so that I can cut that portion off. This is just personal preference and you can cut your pieces down to their final size first if you prefer, to make the most of your materials!
Tip: Cut a scrap piece too if you have enough materials! Make it long enough to place in your miter gauge when we cut the tenons. I found I had to do some trial and error to get my blade to the correct height at that step, and I was glad I cut a test piece first rather than my actual rail!
Step 2: Rip your 1×3 poplar down to your desired rail and stile width
The actual dimensions of 1×3 poplar are ¾” thick x 2-1/2” wide. Using the table saw, rip these pieces down to your desired width (2-1/4” wide in my case).
Step 3: Sand blade marks
For the most professional look, don’t forget to sand your blade marks off of your rails and stiles! Sanding all of the pieces together at once makes things a little quicker and easier, and helps avoid accidentally sanding at an angle. I start with a fairly coarse grit (80 or 120) and work my way up to 220 grit. You only want to increase your grit number 50% at a time. So, if you start with 80, move to 120 next, then 180, then 220.
Step 4: Cut grooves in the rails and stiles
Next, it’s time to cut the ¼” wide x ¾” deep groove into the rails and stiles. This is where the center MDF panel will be inserted. You can use a dado blade for this like I did, or make multiple passes with your regular saw blade, moving the table saw fence as you go. I definitely suggest testing your groove on a scrap piece of wood first to make sure you have the blade height set right at ¾”, and that your MDF panel fits in the groove. The MDF will likely be slightly smaller or larger than ¼”, rather than exact.
My MDF was slightly larger than ¼” thick, so I actually ran each of my pieces through the table saw twice (with the fence in the same position), to slightly widen the groove and also center it. If you only need or want to make one pass, make a pencil mark on one face of each rail or stile, and run each piece through the table saw the same way. Then assemble your door with all of the marks on the same side of the door. This keeps all of your grooves perfectly aligned even if your blade wasn’t exactly centered on your wood.
Step 5: Cut rails and stiles to their final length
If you haven’t already, use your miter saw to cut all of the rails and stiles down to their final lengths. Take advantage of a stop block if you have one, to make all of your same length cuts exactly equal. This is important so that your door will be all squared up when assembled!
Step 6: Cut your tenons into your rails
For this step I found it helpful to test cut on my scrap piece of wood first. Also, err on the side of the blade height being lower than you think, and you can raise it as you go if you need to cut away more wood.
Set the blade height to the same dimension as the wood on either side of your groove (this should be +/- ¼”). Set your table saw fence distance at ¾”, place your rail in the miter gauge, and make your first pass. The miter gauge will keep the wood perpendicular to your saw blade.
To avoid blade changes, I used my ¼” wide dado blade again and made multiple passes through the table saw until I reached the end of my rail. Flip the piece over and do the same on the other side. Then rotate the rail 180 degrees and do the same on the other end!
Step 7: Cut your MDF panel
I found it easiest to cut my MDF panels down to size on my table saw, but you can also cut them down with a circular saw. You can check out this reel to see how I cut down plywood with my circular saw, and use the same method to cut your MDF.
Step 8: Assemble
Add wood glue to your tenons and assemble the rails and stiles around the center MDF panel. Add some clamps to keep pressure of the joints while the glue dries.
Step 9: Wood filler + sanding
Sand the joints between the rails and stiles flush, add wood filler, and sand again! Use 220 grit sandpaper to sand the door and “break” the edges of the wood to soften them.
Step 10: Drill for door hinges
I used this Milescraft european hinge jig to drill for my door hinges. The hinges I used were these Blum soft-close hinges, made specifically for face frame inset cabinet doors. A blog post with more details on this step is coming soon!
Step 11: Prime + paint
Finally, it’s time to prime and paint your door! I used Sherwin Williams wood and wall primer and applied it with a foam brush (these are my favorite!). Then I used my Graco paint sprayer to apply the finish coat. I used Benjamin Moore Regal Select paint in a satin finish.
I hope you found this guide helpful and that you now feel ready to tackle your own cabinet door build!
If you’re more of a visual learner and want to check out some video content for this tutorial, check out these reels over on my Instagram:
As always, if you have any other questions leave them below and I’ll do my best to help you out!
DISCLAIMER: DIY Projects and using power tools pose inherent risks. Christine Nickerson Design cannot be held liable for any injury, damages, or losses sustained in the course of your project. Always follow local building codes and manufacturers’ instructions provided with your tools.