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Cope and Stick Technique with a Router Table

Jack Gordon - February 18, 2019 - 0 comments

The terms” “cope” and “stick” date from the days of hand-tool joinery. To “stick” a molding, you positioned a suitable plank between bench dogs and cut the desired profile with a molding plane. Cuts were always made with the grain. The freshly planed shape could be ripsawn from the board and be “planted” by nailing or glueing in place on the work.

Today, a shaper or router is generally used to mill a profile on the long grain of square or rectangular stock. With machine work, one is not restricted to milling wide boards, so strips of suitable width can be ripped first on the table saw and milled directly. For this work, all you need are a fence and a bit of a suitable profile.

The term “cope” comes from the installation of architectural molding. Until the early part of this century, such moldings were quite wide. When wide moldings meet at an inside or outside corner, cutting the ends of each to a 45° angle is fine if the room is square, but rooms rarely are, even in modern buildings. The traditional solution (see the drawing below) is to cut the first piece square to the corner, then “cope” the molding profile at the end of the mating piece with a coping saw. A coped joint will fit without gaps even if the room itself is out of square.

Today, we refer to the “cope” as the mirror image of the “stick.” By definition, the cope cut is made in end grain, whereas the stick cut is made with the grain. In frame-and-panel doors we can use this technique to produce a cope-and-stick joint.

The drawing at left shows a typical cope-and-stick panel door. Originally the rails and stiles for such doors were assembled with mortise-and-tenon joinery. In the Georgian period, the molded edge around the panel and the groove was stuck with hand planes. The stuck profiles of the stile and rail were cut back to the depth of the groove before the mortise and tenon were cut, and the stuck profiles on both the stile and the rail were mitered at the corners for a perfect fit. Later, during the Greek Revival Period, the molded edge around the groove was planted, which made hand-tool construction much simpler.

The frame for a frame-and-panel door can be made on the router table by using a set of matched cutters. Such sets are variously called stile-and-rail sets or cope-and-stick sets. The inside edges of the stiles and the rails are stuck with a groove. At the same time, the cutter also mills the molded profile (parroting the planted or stuck moldings of old) leading up to the groove. The ends of the rails are coped with the mirror image of the stuck profile, the effect being a stubby mortise and tenon joint. Because of the perfect match of the milled surfaces, the joint works quite well. This joint is used on modern interior and exterior doors as well as in cabinetry.

When setting up for sticking the inside edges of stiles and rails, it’s a good idea to have extra stock on hand to allow for test cuts, as well as milling and machining goofs. First set the cutter height by eye (Step 2), then align the fence (Step 3). This can be done by placing a steel rule against the bearing and snugging the fence up to the rule. Now make trial cuts to ensure that the bit is at the right height. Most cope-and stick sets are designed for ·%-in. stock to be run face down and are set at the correct height when the groove is about 1/8 in. from the back of the stock. (This puts the back of the groove 5/8 in. from the face, which is the thickness of most panels.)

Work is run face side down on the table. It is wise to pick the face based on grain orientation as you fetch each new piece of stock for sticking so the cutter will be laying the grain down as much as possible, but artistic considerations such as bookmatching the stiles may preclude this. For most jobs, however, it is possible to orient the most pleasing grain to the face side and orient the edge such that the cutter is laying grain down.

In most situations, end-grain cuts can be carried out before side-grain cuts. This keeps the edges of the workpiece square until coping is completed, thereby allowing them to be backed up with a square block taped with double-sided tape to the miter gauge or a squared-off waste block-the quick and dirty miter gauge. When making cope-and-stick panel doors, however, it’s often more convenient to cut and mill all the material required for the job, then cut and fit the stiles and rails to match the cabinet face-frame openings. The length of the rail often has to be “adjusted” for proper fit. Therefore sticking is generally carried out before coping.

The right end of the top rail in the drawing on the facing page copes fine with standard backing-block techniques, but the left will not be backed up properly, and splintering at the break-out will be the result. The solution is to back up the inside edge of the rail with a special profiled backing block when it is against the miter gauge. You can make this block by sticking a short, narrow length of scrap with the coping bit. The scrap should be about 1 in. wide and the same thickness as the stile and rail material.

In all router-table operations, the work must be fed into the cutter. Because sticking usually involves a relatively long, narrow workpiece, the work needs as much support as it can get as it passes by the bit and over the table insert. For this reason, it is a good idea to use a zero-clearance fence and to make the opening in the baseplate around the bit as small as possible. Most operations greatly benefit from having dust evacuation. Carrying away the dust saves the cutter from having to recut waste, so it operates cooler.

In cross-grain or end-grain operations it is also often convenient to employ the fence. In many jobs, such as rabbets or panels, it may already be in place and set properly, and moving the fence would be a nuisance for it is needed in the next operation-sticking the edge. For cope-and-stick work, such as panel doors, the fence is a convenient way to position the workpiece before it passes through and after it exits the cutter. The problem is that the fence is seldom parallel to the miter slot. Setting the fence in correct juxtaposition to the cutter and parallel to the miter slot is a nightmare at best. Therefore it is better to use a wraparound miter gauge that guides off the fence itself or a quick and dirty miter gauge, which also guides off the fence. Since the wraparound miter gauge is shop built, it may be run through the cutter and of itself back up a cope cut. If you do not want to dedicate a wraparound miter gauge to each bit you will be making cope cuts with, you can attach a strip of scrap with double-sided tape to the leading edge for each new coping operation. The quick and dirty miter gauge is so quick to make that a new one can be made for each situation.

Steps for making a cope-and-stick door frame

  1. Stick the inside edge of the stiles and rails, with the workpiece face side down on the table. Complete the cuts with the aid of a pushstick, keeping your hands well clear of the bit.
  2. Adjust the height of the coping cutter to the newly milled stiles and rails.
  3. Align the fence to the cutter by snugging it to a steel rule held against the bearing, and make a test cope cut in a piece of scrap to ensure that the cutter is at the correct height. Readjust as necessary. Then use this setup to stick a backing block.
  4. Install a length of backing block in preparation for coping the ends of the rails. The backing block will prevent splintering at the end of the cope cut.
  5. Make the cope cut in one pass. Double cutting may result in a loose fit.
  6. You have the finished joint.

Remember to clean your router bits, take care and use your bits properly to have the best results.

Check out this article for how to make a sliding dovetail, make molding on router table, raised panel door, rabbet cutting and feed direction on router table.

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