Designing Tombstone Raised Panel Doors

In past projects, I’ve done several square raised panels. These types of doors are fairly simple to make if you take your time. Square raised panels are very easy to do with only a rabbet plane but this simple detail results in a very elegant and stable door.

Of course there are several variations on the raised panel door. Just peruse the kitchen section of your favorite big box home improvement store to see several examples. The one example you won’t see however is a traditional tombstone raised panel. This is because it is impossible to make true, traditional tombstone raised panel doors entirely by machine because router/shaper bits cannot shape a sharp inside corner. These tools create rounded inside corners. A traditional tombstone raised panel must be at the very minimum, finished by hand carving. Therefore, mass production cabinet shops don’t make them as they are too expensive and require skilled hands.

So I decided that for my current built-in cabinet project, I would like to try my hand at making traditional tombstone doors. This will give the cabinet a look that says this piece was meticulously hand crafted with care. It will also provide me the opportunity to try something I’ve never done before, which is always exciting.

Of course the first step is designing the doors. This is half the battle with something as complex as a tombstone door. Being the traditionalist that I am, I decided to turn to my Chippendale references and employ the classical column orders to aid me in proportioning the doors. There will be 2 doors on the cabinet, therefore, I began my design by sketching the outer dimensions of a single door.

I used the proportions of the ionic order to proportion the parts of the door. The door dimensions are roughly H (height) by H/2 (width). I divided the height of the door, H, into 5 equal parts. The bottom 5th (H/5) would be the height of an ionic column pedestal and the remaining (4/5) H include the column (with its base and capital) and the entablature.


The next step is to divide the remaining space, (4/5) H, into 6 equal sections. This gives us the height of the entablature, and the height of the remaining column, including its base and capital. I used the height of the entablature as the height of the top rail for the door. I tried using the height of the base (H/5) but this looked to wide to my eye so the height of the entablature was a logical next choice. That is one of the interesting parts about designing this way. There are no rules, per se, only guidelines. In the end, how the final design looks to your eye should be the deciding factor.


With the height of the top rail established, I could move on to proportioning the remaining parts of the door. I divided the remaining space, (2/3) H, into nine equal parts, following the guidelines in Chippendale. One of these nine equal parts comprises what Chippendale refers to as a module (M). One module is equal to the maximum diameter of the column shaft. I used this dimension for the stiles of my door frame and made them 1 module wide.


One module seemed to narrow to me for the height of the bottom rail, so I experimented with different proportions of 1 module until I got a rail height that looked good to me. It ended up being 1-1/2 modules high. Finally, I played with the proportions in modules again to determine the width of the tombstone top shoulders and the width of the raised panel field. This was again a place where experimentation proved to be the best way to proportion the parts so they looked good to my eye.


You’ll notice that I haven’t given the actual dimensions of the door. That’s because it doesn’t matter what the actual inch measurements are. As long as the door is proportioned properly as noted in the pictures, it should look right. If one dimension changes, all the other dimensions change proportionally. This will allow me to modify the design as I go along since the parts will all be based on each other, not on a theoretical cut list.

Of course, this is all still in the design phase. I’ll be building a prototype door based on these proportions prior to building the actual doors for the cabinets. Stay tuned right here to see how it goes!


3 thoughts on “Designing Tombstone Raised Panel Doors

  1. Bob,

    Thanks for the very interesting and educational post! I definitely need to read more about this – guess it’s time to buy more books! Oh, darn.

    Which Chippendale references do you recommend?

    • Hi Dan,

      Thanks for the comment! I actually picked this up from an article written by Mack Headley in an old FWW and also a more recent one by Adam Cherubini written on his blog and in his Arts and Mysteries column in PW as part of his series on the standing desk. The Headley article was a great help and actually where I stole the column pictures from that are next to my drawings. If you’d like a .PDF copy of the article shoot me an email and I’ll send it to you. Headley has some good references on architecture at the end of the article as well.

      The actual proportioning of the columns comes from Chippendale’s “The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker’s Director”. He discusses the different column orders in the beginning of the book. It’s also a good reference for moldings and design proportions, even if you aren’t into the heavily carved Rococo designs of the late 18th century (they’re really not my style). I believe it’s out of print but you can get used copies through Amazon cheap. I think I paid $6 for mine and it is basically in new condition. One warning though, it is written in 18th century English so it takes some deciphering. Well worth it if you design your own pieces though as it is really a great tool for guiding proportions.

  2. I can’t wait to see how you work this out. I’ve just quoted a friend who is thinking about two large ones. I’ve been in a bit of a mental panic since as I’ve not done this before either.

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