Restore a Wood Entry Door
Let the wood shine through with a marine-grade finish that's sure to last.
Synopsis: After watching a shipwright apply epoxy to a wooden skiff, furniture-restoration specialist Sean Clarke realized that if this finish could stand up to the sea and the sun for a season, it could surely protect a wood entry door for several years. In this article, he describes his four-part method of restoring such doors. He begins with prep work, which includes stripping the door’s existing finish, repairing surface damage, and sanding all surfaces. Next, he adds color with an oil-based stain, beginning with the panels and moving to the rest of the door. He then applies the epoxy sealer, beginning with the end grain on the top and bottom edges of the door and continuing on until the entire door–including the lockset and hinge mortises–is covered. The final step is to apply eight to 12 coats of varnish, score the finish along the molding to release the panels, sand all surfaces, and apply a final coat of high-gloss varnish. In a sidebar that includes a detailed illustration, Clarke explains how using a jig to hold the door while applying the finish is better than resting it on sawhorses.
Several years ago, I wandered into a small East Coast shipyard. In the center of a quaint workshop was a shipwright kneeling alongside a wooden skiff. I watched as he applied epoxy by brush to the boat’s exterior. At that moment, I realized that if a finish could stand up to brutal ocean conditions and nearly relentless sun exposure for a season, then surely this same finish could get a wood entry door through a couple of years of use.
Wood entry doors can be strikingly beautiful. Unfortunately, because they are exposed to weather and heavy use, they often show their age prematurely.
With a little research and lots of samples, I adopted an epoxy based finishing system that changed the way I finish wood doors. I have completed dozens of doors with this approach, and I have to admit that my initial assumption about longevity was wrong. You can expect this finish to last from five to 10 years, depending on its exposure.
Here, I’ll show you how to prep a wood door properly whether it has been painted or varnished, how to make minor repairs, how to apply an epoxy sealer, and finally, how to build up a varnish finish that yields a durable, clear shine.
Remove Existing Finish
Whether it’s paint or varnish, removing the existing finish on a door is accomplished with the same techniques.
With the door placed level in its jig, I apply a semi paste methylene-chloride based stripper to the face of the door with an old paintbrush. Because methylene chloride is an aggressive chemical, be sure to wear nitrile gloves and to work in a well-ventilated area.
I find that stripping one-half of the face of the door at a time is best. If you’re stripping only one side of the door, mask the back surface and any edges you don’t want stripped. If you intend to finish both sides of the door, you can simply flip the door in its jig after the front face is complete.
It doesn’t take long for the stripper to soften an existing finish. However, if I am stripping several layers of paint, I may need to leave the stripper on for 30 minutes to an hour to cut through all the layers. The bulk of the paint or varnish can be removed with a taping knife or a paint scraper.
I switch to a Scotch-Brite pad and nylon brush to remove any residual finish left in crevices and molding profiles. Don’t use steel wool or wire brushes for this process. Fragments from the metal can break off, become lodged in the wood fibers, and cause mineral spotting, which reveals itself in the form of tiny black spots that appear after the finish coat has been applied. The spotting typically is caused by a reaction between the mineral in the steel and the tannin in the wood, and is most commonly a problem with species like cherry, walnut, or white oak.
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