Monday, February 13, 2012

Door duty

It's a rite of passage for every buyer who commissions the building of their own home: that despairing moment when you stand there realizing that your picture-perfect made-to-order jewel has now aged to the point where you need to begin your first round of minor repairs.  Where does the time go?!

One of the first items to require restorative maintenance is likely to be your front door, if it is one of the stained wooden varieties.  Particularly if direct sunlight falls on it, you're going to find that the finish just doesn't stand the test of time.  Our front door is a leaded-glass mahogany upgrade which faces southeast - great for feng shui, but it gets blasted by direct sunlight.  Less than two years after it was installed, it had begun to look like this:
This is a close-up of a bottom raised panel.  Do you see how the molding is turning grey, and the coating ("varnish") has pretty much totally broken down in this area? 
I really should have turned my attention to this before now; I almost let it get too far gone for an easy fix to be capable of restoring it.
Here's another unpleasant surprise:
If your door was stained a darker color than the natural wood, chances are good that the sun took at least some of the color out of it.  Here you can see that the edge of the door, normally sitting in the frame, was shielded from the sun and thus retained the original color. 
In this post, I'm going to describe how I lightly stripped and re-sealed our door, but I did not opt to do a complete restoration to include returning it to its original stain color (it's just going to bleach out once again in another year or so anyway, so that kind of expenditure hardly seems worth it to me, but you may have a different opinion regarding your own situation).  If you want to do that kind of work, with re-coloring, it's probably better to hire a professional (at who knows what cost, versus about fifteen bucks for the DIY shown below). 

In other words, I used a CLEAR polyurethane - not a tinted one.  Stained wooden doors typically do not bleach out evenly - the bottom section ends up with more sun and water damage.  For this reason, if one uses a colored product, it's likely going to soak in to different degrees on different parts of the door, which means that the door might no longer be the same shade from top to bottom.  That would look nasty, and that's also why I recommend that you hire a professional if you want a total stain-color restoration. 

Here are the steps I took.  Remember that your door may be different, and what is shown here may not produce the same results for you.

I used a fine-mesh steel wool to remove the remains of the sun-damaged coating.  It's also possible to use very fine sandpaper, but the door has these raised panels and ridges, so it's easier to do with wool which will conform to the shapes.  Steel wool like this is available at any hardware store (don't use the kitchen kind that has soap in it!). 
After you get the damaged coating off, you have to remove all the dried varnish dust and steel wool fragments using a tack cloth.  Very important that you don't re-coat the door with gunk still in the grooves because you will seal it in there and it will look awful. 
Clear exterior-grade polyurethane will work fairly well for this job.  It may sound very liquid and sloshy in the can, but remember to stir it well.  It contains solid polymers that will settle to the bottom and which will need to be stirred back in prior to use.

If your DIY skills are not exceptionally good, you may want to choose a "satin" rather than a high gloss polyurethane (as I did).  New doors are usually done in high gloss, but it's harder to re-apply a high gloss with a brush such that it looks like a professional job.  Satin products are more forgiving at hiding brush marks, small drip marks, etc. 

Make sure you pick a nice warm, dry day with no chance of rain to do this also, so that the new coating will dry thoroughly.
You can use a regular brush for this (any of those that are sold as appropriate for oil-based products) but I prefer to use disposable foam brushes, which leave fewer streak marks and which can help to soak the polyurethane into all the little channels and grooves in the molding.
Here you can see the bottom part of the door about half done.  The right side has been re-coated, while the left side is still bare.  The difference is obvious. 
And voila - the first coat has been completed, and the grey is gone.  While this result falls somewhat short of the door's former deep reddish-brown stained glory, (a) it looks about a thousand times better than it did before I started, and (b) the wood is now protected from further degradation due to weather exposure.

You should do at least two, and preferably three, coats of polyurethane for maximum protection.  Each successive coat should be THINLY APPLIED.  This will help it adhere and you will also minimize drips and streaks if you do successive thin coats.  It's best to allow at least 24 hours between coats, even if your can of polyurethane says the time interval can be shorter.   You'll know when it has become fully set - the coating will feel hard like a thin layer of plastic, instead of tacky. 

And don't wait too long to do this.  Depending on your weather exposure, you might have to re-coat your door once a year or less to keep it in good condition.  Mahogany doors are beautiful, but they demand significant maintenance like this. 

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