My company does a lot of high-end cabinetry and finish
carpentry work, including coffered ceilings. Building coffers
requires dozens of coped joints, and we've found that we can
save a lot of time in the field and produce a better finished
product by precutting all of the pieces in our well-equipped
We worked out our precutting process a couple of years ago
when we got the contract for a huge coffered ceiling in a new
golf club. My crew and I decided that we needed a better
system, because even our most skilled finish carpenters would
spend several minutes on each coped joint. At that rate, the
huge job would have taken weeks.
I turned to a couple of our talented shop workers to produce
the coped pieces faster. Their solution was a portable band saw
(the hand-held type favored by plumbers and steam fitters)
equipped with a custom-made tilting table. It worked great, and
we got the time for each joint down to about a minute. The
pieces fit perfectly, and installing the ceiling took only a
few days. I thought we had come up with the perfect system
until I saw the Copemaster (800/630-1104,
www.copemaster.com) demonstrated at a trade
show. I immediately decided that we should try one, even though
it had a jaw-dropping $2,300 price tag.
What Is It?
The Copemaster is basically a circular saw mounted in a
sliding carriage that moves on an X and Y axis. The operator
produces perfectly coped pieces by following a template. It
works similarly to a key-cutting machine or lathe duplicator.
The 60-pound tool is built on a folding steel stand, making it
The Copemaster works like a
key-duplicating machine. A stylus rides along a template and
transfers the profile to another piece of stock with a 10-inch,
carbide-tipped saw blade. The result: perfect copes that take
seconds to produce.
Using the tool is easy, but making a template takes some
practice. You start by putting a 45 on the end of the stock,
and then you use the machine freehand to "carve" away the
stock. Carpenters without a significant caffeine habit usually
get the hang of it after a few tries. The hardest part is
removing the tiny amount of stock near the end of the process.
One wrong move, and you destroy the template and have to start
over. Instead of making the final pass with the spinning blade,
stop a little short and finish the template with self-adhesive
sandpaper stuck on a scrap with the same profile. We sand the
template until the two pieces mate perfectly.
The Copemaster blade rides at an acute
angle, allowing it to cope moldings in much the same way cove
moldings are made on a table saw. The template, shown here, is
cut freehand — the painstaking part of the
To make the process a little easier, the manufacturer recently
started including jeweler's glasses to magnify the cut line.
The glasses have a 2x magnification, and once you get used to
them, they help quite a bit. Once you've made a template, you
can use it over and over. Just make sure that you always
compare it carefully to the stock you plan to use. Even on
standard moldings, the thickness and profile can vary enough
that you'll need a new template for a tight joint.
Once you have a template, running the machine is easy enough
to put your least skilled crew member on it —
something you could never do coping by hand. Changing from a
left-hand cope to a right requires a new template and resetting
the motor position, a process that can take about half an hour.
To save time, the manufacturer suggests making all of the right
or left copes and then switching directions. Instead of
resetting the motor and making a new template, we make all of
our copes the same direction. Although some carpenters are
skeptical, we haven't found a situation where both directions
Putting a 45-degree bevel on the stock
produces a cleaner cut and prolongs the life of the $125 blade
(top). The stylus is first locked in the deepest part of the
template and the stock is slid into the spinning blade to the
cut line (above left). The operator then unlocks the stylus and
follows the template, using the ball-shaped handle (above
right). A cope on small moldings takes about 10
For situations like the coffers, where you usually cope both
ends of the last piece, we use another method. We use a scrap
to position the first piece and start nailing about a foot or
more from the joint. Positioning the first piece with a scrap
and holding back the nails allows us to slip in the last piece
with one coped end instead of two. It works great, and you
don't have to change the setup on the machine.
This is a well-made tool with industrial-quality components.
Its powerful DC motor and smooth-rolling saw carriage should
stand up to heavy use. It also has a built-in work light that
helps with visibility and powerful magnets that hold the saw
carriage in a neutral position when you're changing stock or
It's important to keep in mind that this is a production tool,
and you'll probably have to change your methods to take full
advantage of the potential time savings. In my case, the tool
has almost paid for itself in the six months we've had it, so
if you're making a lot of coped joints, I think it's a very
good investment. It has been as revolutionary to my business as
biscuit joiners and pocket screws.Tom Mooreis a custom home builder and cabinetmaker
in Underhill, Vt.