Jeff Segal Cabinetmaker - Handmade furniture in the Arts and Crafts tradition

Douglas fir panelled door

Panelled door - Douglas fir, The Hermitage, Dunkeld, Scotland

Traditional glazed and panelled door in Douglas fir

This project is a bit of a departure for me. First of all, it's more of a joinery job than a cabinetmaking commission: building an internal fitting for a Victorian house rather than a piece of fine furniture.

And secondly, it's using a non-native softwood: Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), grown in British Columbia, Canada. This is one of two timber types recommended for interior doors due to their strength, their generally straight grain and their stability.

There can be big discrepancies in temperature and humidity between the rooms either side of a door, so it's vital to select a wood that won't warp or twist. Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), another North American conifer, would have been a good alternative. Douglas fir, though, is noticeably harder than other lower-quality softwoods like pine or spruce.

The project is going to be useful to me in terms of honing my skills in big mortice and tenon work, but in particular it's going to teach me how to make bespoke mouldings by hand, the traditional way, with antique or home-made tools.

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Panelled door - Douglas fir logDouglas fir is a fast-growing, exceptionally tall and straight tree. This log is from a young tree felled at The Hermitage, in Dunkeld, Scotland, which has a big plantation with specimens up to 59 metres (194 feet) high. North American trees can grow to twice that size.


Panelled door - original door with overhead panel taped upThe job is to replace a kitchen door in a Victorian house with a new one reaching to the ceiling. At present the two steps down from the hallway mean people risk hitting their heads on what's called the head rail, the horizontal bar below the glazed panel. It's got to go.


Panelled door - removing battens from around glass panelThe first task is to tape up both sides of the glass above the door with thick gaffer tape to stop any falling out. Then I prise out the battens holding the glass in place. They're fixed with long panel pins. If they were glued you'd never be able to replace broken glazing.


Panelled door - glass removed from overhead panelIt's just as well I taped each side of the glass. When I get the panel out - in one piece - it's clear that it's been made up of two 4mm sheets laid on top of each other, rather than a single 8mm pane. One of these could have fallen out on to me if I hadn't taken care.


Panelled door - sawing off old head railThen it's time to saw off the old head rail. It turns out that it's been screwed in from the inaccessible side of the architrave (the mitred and moulded surround to the door frame), which means the entire door would have replaced the 19th century original in recent years.


Panelled door - using laths to cramp new stopsHaving removed all the battens that were holding the glass panel in place, I have to machine up some new inserts to align with the main door stops below. I glue them down, then cramp them using timber laths held in tension against the opposite jamb (the vertical frame).


Panelled door - boring out mortice slotsNow the job shifts to the workshop, where I cut the components to size and chop the mortices for the joints. I always start the mortice off by boring out most of the waste with a vintage ratchet brace, although I do use it with modern Japanese auger bits.


Panelled door - rip-sawing deep double tenons with western and Japanese sawsThe cross rails are all fixed with deep through tenons, and sawing these with a traditional rip-toothed backsaw can be a chore - even in softwood. I start the cuts with my western ripsaw to establish the line then finish with a Japanese ryoba - faster but more likely to drift.


Panelled door - completed rip cuts in deep double tenonsWith the combination of the two saws the rip cuts emerge straight and true. Both the wide middle rail (also known as the lock rail) and the bottom rail need double tenons, separated by a bridge to avoid the risk of twisting. The narrower top rail uses just a single tenon.


Panelled door - cramping muntins into cross-railsWhen all the joints are cut I lay the parts out to cramp them up and test them for fit. The first bits that need to be connected are the muntins - the vertical dividers linking the cross rails. The short muntin below and the long one above are both fixed with short stub tenons.


Panelled door - door cramped for gluingThe apertures for the panels are all square - 89.9 to 90.1 degrees at each corner - so I go ahead with gluing. It's a long process, with a lot of surfaces to coat and adjustments to make, so I use urea formaldehyde adhesive and regulate the setting time to 2-1/2 hours.


Panelled door - double through tenons in stileThe double tenons, bevelled at the end to avoid splintering the shoulders of the mortices, slide into place easily, lubricated by the glue. Through tenons make a fine decorative feature in hardwood, as well as being practical, but this door is set to be painted.


Panelled door - completed frameWith the completed frame propped up against the timber rack you can begin to appreciate just how tall this new door is. It measures 2.33 metres, or 7 feet 8 inches, from top to bottom, compared to 1.98 metres (6 feet 6 inches) for a standard internal door.


Panelled door - smoothing glued-up doorThe door is deliberately left 1 mm too thick to allow for any slight mismatches in the joints, so it needs planing. My usual low-angle smoother doesn't work well on the fir, but my old jack plane, with its higher 45-degree angle for the iron, produces consistent shavings.


Panelled door - shooting hornsI also leave the stiles (uprights) too long, protruding beyond the rails, to make sure the slots for the mortice and haunch don't get damaged in the assembly process. After the glue-up the excess (the 'horn') comes off using a mitre plane on the shooting board.


Panelled door - planing top railPredictably the door opening isn't square and the floor isn't level, so I've got to trim the door to make it fit. I take a few mm off one corner, holding it awkwardly in my portable bench. Planing the stile is easier: I can prop the door on its side in purpose-built stands.


Panelled door - planed door tested for fitHeld up on little wooden wedges, it now fits neatly into the opening, with a uniform 3mm gap all around. I calculate the locations for the three heavy-duty drawn brass butt hinges and haul the door back to the workshop for the final stages of the joinery process.


Panelled door - original moulding detailThe mouldings are probably the trickiest part. I start by taking a profile of the original that I'm reproducing. It's a complex moulding, used in either architraves or panel moulds at different sizes depending on the door's importance in the Victorian hierarchy.


Panelled door - moulding profile drawingI trace the profile on to paper, divide the shape into gridlines and make an 8:1 scale drawing, using a flexible French curve to copy the classic cove and ovolo shapes. Finally I measure the radius of each individual element so I can match it to a particular moulding plane.