Make a Sliding Door - Canadian Woodworking Magazine

Home Improvement: A sliding door should be considered a piece of art hanging on the wall. It should be nicely made and should always showcase beautiful wood.

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Make a Sliding Door



Photos by Ryan Inman; Illustrations by James Provost

Choose the style and scale based on your preferences and intended site. Here’s an option – if the wall size permits, why not make the sliding door bigger than the entryway itself, perhaps much bigger.
 
But before we get crazy, a word of warning: this project entails a heavy dose of hand-planing; doors just have an extensive surface area by nature. Depending on your chosen wood, potentially difficult hand-planing of figured wood is involved. And depending on your design, there’s potentially lots of parts to keep track of.
 
A sliding door can be a great alternative to a swing door; they are excellent space savers. I made this door for a pantry, but they are a feature in any space. Making one is an opportunity to practice lots of fundamentals, but with oversize parts.
 
I planned this project much the same as all my projects: some doodles in my sketch-pad, much deep thought, much staring at the lumber rack, some waiting around for inspiration to kick in, a rough mock-up (mainly to get a handle on the joinery involved), a full-scale drawing on Google SketchUp. All of it was worth doing, as I wanted to be sure I got this right the first time.

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Choose the style and scale based on your preferences and intended site. Here’s an option – if the wall size permits, why not make the sliding door bigger than the entryway itself, perhaps much bigger.
 
But before we get crazy, a word of warning: this project entails a heavy dose of hand-planing; doors just have an extensive surface area by nature. Depending on your chosen wood, potentially difficult hand-planing of figured wood is involved. And depending on your design, there’s potentially lots of parts to keep track of.
 
A sliding door can be a great alternative to a swing door; they are excellent space savers. I made this door for a pantry, but they are a feature in any space. Making one is an opportunity to practice lots of fundamentals, but with oversize parts.
 
I planned this project much the same as all my projects: some doodles in my sketch-pad, much deep thought, much staring at the lumber rack, some waiting around for inspiration to kick in, a rough mock-up (mainly to get a handle on the joinery involved), a full-scale drawing on Google SketchUp. All of it was worth doing, as I wanted to be sure I got this right the first time.
 
Milling the parts
I chose a behemoth 12/4 black walnut board because it had straight grain running along its edge and it was much straighter than anything in the 8/4 bin. To make the milling more manageable, I started by flattening the edge of the plank on my jointer, leaving the faces rough. I then ran this flat edge against my bandsaw fence, making the parts slightly oversize. Once I had my frame parts roughed out, I then milled them on the jointer and planer and crosscut the rails and stiles to final length. This approach saved wood and was safer and easier. After crosscutting, I shot the ends of the rails with a sharp low-angle jack plane and shooting board to get them perfectly square. The panel divider frame can also be milled at this point, but cross-cut oversize for now.
 

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Sledding it – A planer sled does a half-decent job of flattening pieces that are too large for a jointer.
 
I started by cross-cutting the arbutus slab into four slightly oversized pieces. I built a planer sled to flatten a face of the pieces. With one flat face I ran the pieces through the planer without the sled. I then jointed an edge of all four pieces, ripped the opposite edge to oversize width on the bandsaw and lightly passed the fresh edge on the jointer to clean it up.
 

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Booking it – The Arbutus pieces are re-sawn on the bandsaw with a high fence.
 
I re-sawed the four pieces on the bandsaw, giving me eight book-matched panels. At this point I left the machine room and started the re-flattening and surface preparation using hand planes. Re-flattening on the planer sled would have been an option, but given the figured grain I was dealing with I didn’t want to risk tear-out on the show sides. Once I had re-flattened the bandsawn surfaces by hand, I sent the panels through the planer to re-flatten the opposite side. It’s a good idea to clamp a thin sheet of plywood to the planer table to avoid marring the hand-planed surfaces.
 
Hand Work
It’s important to label the parts and keep track of how the panels were sitting inside the plank, so you know how to assemble them. Before you know it, there will be lots of panels floating around the shop. In this case, I wanted the panels to be in plank sequence and book-matched. I thought I had done pretty well here, but the bottom left panel still somehow managed to get installed upside down (but I’m over it).
 
Of course, it is best practice to let the wood rest and acclimatize for a week or more after the initial milling before milling to final dimension.
 
Grooves
Now it’s time to cut the grooves into the door rails and stiles, and also the thinner divider frame pieces. I used a plunge router with a 1/4" straight bit for these. The grooves are about 5/16" deep.
 

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Get into the Groove – Two fences are better than one. Rigging your plunge router with a fence on both sides keeps you going in a straight line.
 
Mortise and Tenon Joints
I joined the frame rails and stiles with double 3/16" mortise and floating tenons, being careful when laying out not to interfere with the groove that will house the panels. Generally speaking, mortise and tenon joints don’t get their strength from their thickness, so a 3/16" thick tenon is ample. Mortise and tenon joints get their strength from glue surface area, which I have more than enough of here. This is why I like to double up thin mortise and tenons, and also maximize the width of the joinery. I make my mortises 3/4" deep. The strength of the joint is also dictated by how well they fit. I mill my tenons so they are just starting to enter the mortise, and then use sandpaper stuck on a flat surface to fit them to the mortise. I know the fit is right when there’s no slop, but I can take them in and out by hand. This also means you won’t have a fight on your hands during glue-up.
 

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Double it Up – I use a horizontal mortiser with an XYZ table to cut my mortises. Notice the shop-made spacer underneath the workpiece for  consistently spaced mortises across pieces. Once the loose tenons are fit, they can be glued into the rail mortises.
 

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Stack ’em Up – Consistency is everything. Fitting is easier if the relevant dados are the same size. Gang up the three horizontal pieces and cut to layout lines. Do the same for the two long vertical divider frame pieces.
 
Mortises should be cut after milling the walnut, but before hand-planing, to keep everything consistent. When cutting double-mortises, I mill a spacer equal to the mortise thickness plus the distance between the mortises. One mortise is cut with the spacer, the other without; this keeps the distance between the mortises consistent across all pieces. With the spacer method, the height of the mortiser table is not adjusted for each cut (which would inevitably introduce differences into the mortise spacing), and any snipe in the workpiece cannot throw a wrench into your spacing. Be sure to machine the mortises in the bottom and top rails so the rails sit slightly proud of the stiles. This way you can simply plane the face grain of the rails flush with the end grain of the stiles.
 
Half Lap Joints
I followed Gary Rogawski’s method for cutting and fitting the half laps between the divider frame members. This is a great way to avoid gaps in a half-lap joint. Instead of trying to cut the dados to the exact width, the dados are cut slightly undersize (about 1/32" less than the width of the pieces before any hand planing), then the edges of the two pieces are hand-planed to fit. The face sides are also hand-planed once the edges are sized.
 

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Sneak up on it – Set the depth of cut just shy of half the thickness of the divider frame pieces, then clean up the bottom of the dados by hand. With this set-up, the file is kept flat (two at once with a spacer in-between). This should produce a reasonably flush fit before hand-planing the faces, and the grooves for the panels must line up nicely.
 
Next, cut the tenons on the end of each of the dividers. I used a tablesaw to remove most of the waste, then fine-tuned the joint with hand tools.
 
Panel Fitting
The panels can be cross-cut to final length and width. Measure carefully for each, and allow some breathing room for the panel. Again, labeling and keeping track of which panel goes where is critical.
 

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Flush-up – Flush up the face of the joint with a block plane to eliminate any discrepancies introduced from hand-planing the individual faces.
 

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Quick and Easy – The tiny live tenons on the divider frame are roughed out on the tablesaw, then cleaned up with a chisel and file to fit the groove. Before making the live tenons, cross-cut the divider frame pieces to final length (including the live tenons) by dry fitting the door frame and using measuring sticks.
 
To fit the panel to the groove, I reduced the outside edges on both sides of the panels to make a tongue. To do this I use a router table and a router bit that I’ve had modified by my local sharpening shop. It’s a rabbet bit with the 90 degree corner ground into a small radius. This allows me to cut the rabbet so that the panel is just starting to fit into the frame, then I can clean up and ease it home using a sanding block (with the matching radius). Again, the off-cut with the groove is useful for test fitting. You’re aiming for a snug but relaxed fit (so you’re not fighting assembly), with no gaps. I left myself with a fair bit of sanding to do here, so probably should have taken off a bit more at the router table. Alternatively, you could try using Lee Valley Tools bit #16J66.51, perhaps in combination with a shoulder plane.
 

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Bringing it Home – Use a block plane to shape the edge of a sanding block to match the radius of the router bit.
 
Because the show side is already a hand-planed finish, try using a marking gauge to scribe the face, to reduce possible tear-out from routing, particularly across grain. You could use a test board on your final pass to set the marking gauge. I didn’t do this, so was left with a few more passes with my hand plane.
 
When routing across grain, it’s typical to have a small blow-out at the end of the cut, particularly if the long-grain edge has already been profiled, preventing you from supporting those fibres. You can get around this in two ways. You can use a supporting block to make the end-grain passes and make all the end-grain passes first, followed by all the long-grain passes. Because I was making multiple passes, changing the bit height and fence with each, I opted to make the end-grain pass and then the long-grain pass for each table setting. In the one or two instances where the long-grain pass didn’t clear the tear-out, I moved the fence a touch (same bit height) and made another pass down the long-grain to remove it.
 
To allow assembly of the two center panels, which are completely captured by the half-lapped divider frame, I converted the grooves on the back of the center horizontal divider into rabbets by removing material from one side of the groove. I did this on the router table.
 
Hand-planing
Now it’s time to catch up with any surfaces that haven’t been hand-planed and edges that haven’t been softened. The mortise and tenon joints will need final fitting as well. It’s also a good time to drill the door frame for the handle. Given the scale of the surfaces, I typically started things off with my low-angle jack plane, then polish them with my smoother. I also sanded the panels with 400 and 600 grit sandpaper because the Arbutus was figured and the grain was a little ‘spikey’ in places.
 
Assembly
With all parts ready and separated, it’s a good time to pre-finish everything with your chosen finish. Then it’s time to dry fit the rails and stiles, set a diagonal stick, and start gluing up and sliding everything together.
 
First I glued up a stile with two rails, with the second stile in place but not glued. I then threw a couple of clamps on and made sure I was square. While that dries the panels and divider frame can be assembled, but nothing is glued here. The panels float in the divider frame. The panels and divider frame assembly can then be slid into the door frame once it is out of the clamps (best to have a relaxed fit between the panel tongue and the frame groove; I had to tap the panel assembly down carefully with a mallet). With the panel assembly in place, it’s time for the final glue-up of the second stile onto the top and bottom rails.
 
Finishing
Using my low-angle jack plane, I flushed the top and bottom edges of the door. This was straightforward, especially as the joinery was cut so as to make the rails slightly proud of the end grain of the stiles, as explained above.
 

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Shoot It – Flushing the top and bottom of the door calls for a rather large shooting board. The one end of the door rests on a shop-rigged adjustable sawhorse and the other end on the bench with a spacer.
 
The door is now ready for the rest of the finish coats and the hardware installation. I used to rub out between coats with Lee Valley’s 0000 steel-wool, but have recently been using their new Siawool with good results. It doesn’t leave steel debris behind, which can get into the wood pores and cause problems with some finishes.
 
I made my own exposed sliding door track, hanger hardware and floor guide. For those sensible folks who want to stick to woodworking, there are a few companies out there making exposed sliding door hardware, but be warned, based on my enquiries they can be expensive. You could look into kncrowder.com, richelieu.com systems and draftseal.com (who carry Kristrak products). Kristrak also makes ceiling mounted or concealed-type systems that are more affordable and could probably be adapted to your particular site.
 

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Get Creative – Making your own sliding door hardware is fun and the possibilities are limitless. Notice the small wood block screwed to the top of the door. It stops the door from being lifted off the track when in use, and can be removed if you want to take the door off the track.
 
For those interested in making their own hardware, it’s important to design a system that has door stops at both ends (to prevent the door sliding off the track), an anti-lift bar (to prevent the door lifting off the track), a floor guide (to prevent the door pulling away from the wall in use), and sturdy brackets to hang the track. I used garage door pulleys available from Home Depot (SKU7113, they come with bearings), and fabricated the rest of the parts from flat bar and round bar. I kept the anti-lift simple and attached two small removable wooden blocks to the top edge of the door. You could also try your hand at making wooden sliding hardware or simply use hinges to mount the door.



RYAN INMAN
Ryan Inman

ry.inman@gmail.com 
Ryan is a woodworker with a metalworking problem. When inspiration strikes, he designs and builds furniture in his studio in North Vancouver, BC.