Using Rail-and-stile Router Bit Sets

Using Rail-and-stile Router Bit Sets

Take a close look at the corner joints of nearly any cabinet door made these days, and you’ll likely find some variation of rail-and-stile joinery. These sturdy, attractive joints can be made easily in a home workshop with a matched set of rail-and-stile router bits, using a router table equipped with a mid- to full-size router.

Two router bits used to create rail and stile joints
Stile/Sticking Bit and Rail/Coping Bit

The stile cutter cuts a centered groove along both a door’s stiles and rails for fitting wood panels or sometimes glass. The bit also mills a decorative profile, called sticking, along the inside front-facing edge of the door parts.

This shape may be as simple as a chamfer or any number of different roundover, filet or ogee forms, depending on the bit set’s design. Because the stile cutter is also used on the door rails, it sometimes is referred to as the “sticking” bit instead, which actually may be the more fitting term for it.

The rail cutter mills a mirror opposite profile of the stile cutter — a reversed sticking cut and a stub tenon to fill the panel groove and strengthen the joint.

Labeling rail-and-style bits to remember what cuts they make
A setup block for some rail-and-stile bit sets, like Rockler’s Shaker-style set shown here, can help dial in bit settings efficiently. Label the block and each bit with an “S” and “R” or “C” to denote the joint cuts.

Because the rail cutter’s profile mates with the stile cutter, much in the same way a mitered piece of trim molding is contoured with a coping saw to fit its mate, this bit often is called the “coping” bit.

Label Them for Clarity

Adjusting router bit height with template
Install the stile bit in the router table and adjust its height until its center cutter aligns with the groove of the stile/sticking profile on the setup block. Typically, this groove is centered on the door stock thickness.

It’s easy to confuse which bit is which, because the profile each creates is actually the negative space of its shape. Plus, the bits are oriented in a router table to cut stiles and rails back-face up.

Adjusting router bit fence during setup of rail-and-style cuts
Open the router table’s fence facings to just clear the bit’s width and lock them in place. Then adjust the fence in or out until the rim of the stile bit’s top bearing is flush with the front face of the fence. Lock down the fence.

So do yourself a favor and label each bit with an “S” for stile/sticking cutter and an “R” or “C” for the rail/coping cutter.

Guiding rail-and-stile cut with featherboards
Install featherboards around the bit opening on the table and fence to help control the cuts. Then feed the stile-and-rail workpieces, back face oriented up, past the bit to create the stile/sticking profiles on their inner edges.

You’ll thank us the first time these labels prevent you from choosing the wrong bit for each cut … it’s an astonishingly easy mistake to make.

Which Cut Comes First?

Checking router bit against cut on rail-and-stile joint
Install the rail bit, and adjust its height until its top and bottom cutters align with the back lip and sticking profile of the stile/rail workpieces. If you plan to use a coping sled, be sure to account for it when setting bit height.

While the photos show the stile bit used first for making a joint, it’s also perfectly acceptable to cope the ends of the rails first.

Using coping sled to guide rail-and-stile joinery cut
Orient a rail so its flat (outer) edge is against the coping sled’s backup board on its fence. Clamp the rail down securely, and slide the coping sled along the fence to mill the first rail/coping profile on one end.

That can be advantageous when you already know the final length of a cabinet door’s rails. The rail can be coped on each end, followed by the stile/sticking cuts.

Test fitting both parts of rail-and-stile joint
Before coping the other end, rout the edge of a strip of scrap stock with the coping profile to fill in the stile/sticking cut already made.

Either way, since coping cuts are made across the narrow rail ends, they’re best performed with the workpieces clamped in a sled that increases stability and keeps your fingers clear. A backup block of scrap can be used in place of a coping sled, if you don’t own a sled.

Guiding rail cut on router with coping sled
That way, the second coping cut on the rail, in which the stile profile will face the coping sled fence, won’t be subjected to tearout when the bit passes through it. Clamp the rail in the sled and cope the remaining flat end of the rail.

Note that when the stile/sticking cuts are made first, you’ll need to make a filler strip with the coping cutter to fit into the stile cut in order to prevent the second coping cut from tearing out the wood inside the stile profile when the bit passes through it.

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