Your front door is surprisingly easy to ignore, but it deserves your attention
Michael Good | House calls
The front door may be the first thing visitors notice about an old house, but for the homeowner, it can achieve a quality of near invisibility. You see it everyday, like a face in the mirror, and like a face in the mirror, when it changes, it changes too gradually to notice until something dramatic happens: it won’t open, it makes a funny noise or something falls off.
Then you think, maybe it’s time to do something about that old door.
The story of your front door is the story of modernity. It starts with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and ends with the beginning of the Space Age. Before that, doors were handmade by individuals: one headstrong person with a block plane, a saw, a chisel and a lot of time. Then in 1790, an Englishman named Sir Samuel Bentham was handed a project by his brother, a prison reformer: find something for inmates to do that won’t require much training or education.
Woodworking seemed like a good fit, except it required skills, apprenticeship and aptitude. Bentham decided to invent machines that would make shaping wood simple. His inventions – a circular saw, a tenon cutter, and boring and shaping machines – made mass-produced window sashes and doors possible.
By the 1820s, hundreds of milling operations had sprung up in the United States, wherever water could provide power and a railroad could provide transportation. These same advances made modern sawmills possible, and in the latter part of the 19th century, the vast stands of Redwood, yellow and white pine, and Douglas fir that blanketed the West were tapped for doors, windows and wood trim, making the streetcar suburbs of San Diego possible.
At the same time the U.S. was discovering mass-produced millwork, Great Britain was discovering and marketing shellac, a clear finish derived from the excretion of a particular bug that liked a particular tree in India. Shellac made clear-finished wood doors possible throughout the two countries and remained the finish of choice in homes everywhere until the 1960s.
The Great Depression put an end to many lumber mills, millworks and mill-workers. In the depths of the Depression, only a few dozen houses were built each year in San Diego. When building started again, wartime innovations – drywall, aluminum windows, and doors, plywood, fiberglass and mass-produced building materials – revolutionized the industry and put most of the remaining millworks out of business. Today, if you want to make a door that is made like a door from the 1920s, you have to find someone who has antique equipment and who knows how to use it.
There was another reason why post-war homeowners did not want doors made the old-fashioned way: maintenance. Early front doors required yearly coats of shellac, and in 1950 homeowners had better things to do than break shellac flakes, mix them with alcohol and slather on another coat of finish.
It was time to enjoy the advances of science and make a small fortune in real estate by buying up inner-city bungalows that no modern middle-class family wanted to live in anymore. Of course, they removed or painted over all the woodwork to reduce maintenance, slopping whatever they could find in a mysterious jar in the garage onto the front door.
If your door suffers from a little neglect, do not worry, you are part of a great tradition. People have been ignoring your door for decades. Of course, that does not change the fact that it is going to fall apart, eventually.
To prevent that, you have a number of options, in ascending order of expense and bother:
1. Do nothing. After all, it lasted this long. It might be falling apart, but it’s falling apart slowly.
2. Paint it. Paint is opaque, so it blocks most of the UV rays, and it’s cheaper than varnish. It’s also easier to apply and easier to maintain, but it looks like paint.
3. Sand, clean and re-coat with a high-quality, high resin, UV-protecting varnish. If the finish on your door is sound, this is all you need to do to keep it protected.
4. Do it the professional way: strip the finish, sand the wood, repair the cracks with epoxy wood filler, then stain and apply four coats of a marine varnish. Once the finish is compromised, this is the proper way to do it, but it’s an onerous, time-consuming process.
5. Replace the veneer. If pieces of the original veneer are missing, “re-skinning” may be the only option. The cost to veneer both sides of a door is about $1,800.
6. Buy a new door that looks like an old door. There are a few people in San Diego who make replicas of old doors. Shawn Woolery of San Diego Sash (619-944-8283) uses vintage equipment to make replicas of vintage windows and doors. Depending on size, complexity and species of wood, a replica can cost from $3,500 to $5,000. Installing it can run $500. Finishing could be another $500. This might put the value of your present door in perspective.
What should you do if your door is in reasonably good shape and you want to keep it that way? Keep it dry. Keep it out of the sun. Keep it varnished, and finally: buy a screen door. Screen doors, made of solid wood and that are quite attractive in their own right, were part of every pre-war house. They were the first line of defense for entry doors, protecting them from weather and abuse, and they allow you to leave your front door open so you can admire it from inside your living room in a whole new light.