Various manufacturers offer a wide range of panel moldings, but I’ve found that the best ones have fairly thin edges on both the inside and outside, so that the profile returns gently back to the door. The PM 525 and embossed PM 24 and PM 25 profiles from White River Hardwoods are good examples (800/558-0119, whiteriver.com). Moldings that have a pronounced edge to them are prone to damage from kids and pets. Since panel molding adds to the effective thickness of the door, this technique can’t be used with pocket doors.
When I plan my layouts, I usually try to emulate the look of a traditionally built raised-panel door. Bottom rails are typically 10 inches wide on this type of door, top rails are usually 4-1/2 to 5-1/2 inches wide, and lock (or center) rails are typically 6-1/2 inches to 7 inches wide and centered 36 inches up from the bottom of the door. Stiles are typically 4-1/2 to 4-3-4 inches wide. I use a drywall square marked with these dimensions to record my layout on the door slab (see slideshow).
When laying out the door, it’s a good idea to check the door hardware in case there is an unusual doorknob or a huge escutcheon. It’s always a lot easier to modify the layout than to try to work around a panel design that interferes with the function of the lockset. And when I use embossed moldings, I spend a little extra time laying out the design and planning the cuts so that the pattern looks reasonably continuous around the miters.
Some of the moldings I use cost more than $2 per lineal foot, so I try to cut them as carefully and systematically as possible to avoid wasting expensive trim. I set up for the right-hand miters and cut the longest pieces first, using a good-quality 80-tooth crosscut blade in the miter saw to get clean cuts. Then I switch to the left-hand cuts, using a stop block to speed production. Production cutting is good, but remember that this is finish work, not framing; you have to stay focused so that the molding is tight against the fence and accurately positioned to get perfect miters.
After the pieces are cut, I use glue and 1-1/8-inch-long headless 23-gauge pins to put the frames together. I also use glue when I pin the assembled frames to the door, with my layout marks serving as a guide. I’m very careful with glue squeeze-out, especially if the door is going to be stained. Instead of wiping excess glue off, I wait until it starts to harden and then use a chisel or sharp utility knife to remove it, since the residue will interfere with the way the door absorbs stain.