Q: I have an oak front door that has been stained a reddish color. It is covered with shellac that has been peeling. I removed most of the shellac with a razor and discovered scratches on the door. Most of these scratches are not deep and would probably disappear with sanding. What grade sandpaper should I use, and will it alter the stain color? Also, what should I use to protect the door after sanding?

A: The front door is the gateway to your home. A well-maintained one leaves a first and lasting impression of either “wow” or “yuck.”

To do the job right, strip the entire door. But please put away your razor blade. Use a chemical stripper instead to remove the remainder of the finish.

We don’t think the finish is shellac. Shellac is an alcohol-based resin used to finish interior woodwork and furniture. More likely, your front door is finished with either varnish or polyurethane. Shellac is much softer than either varnish or polyurethane and does not tolerate water very well. Polyurethane and varnish are harder and stand up better to the weather and the wear and tear a front door gets.

You can buy a chemical stripper anywhere paint is sold. It is available in two consistencies, liquid and semi-paste. We recommend the semi-paste because it tends to stay where you brush it and you should not have to take the door off its hinges and lay it flat to do the job.

Apply the stripper with a paintbrush you don’t mind throwing away. Wear rubber gloves and eye protection. Use drop cloths to cover the floor and anything near the work area in case some of the stripper misses the door.

Once the door is stripped and dried, do a careful inspection. You may find that the scratches you thought were there are gone. If so, they weren’t in the door but in the finish.

If the scratches are still there, however, it’s time to sand. Go gently. Hand sand only–no power sanders allowed. Sand only enough to remove the scratches. Too much sanding will remove too much of the stain.

Start with No. 150-grit aluminum oxide paper. Finish the job with No. 220-grit sandpaper to remove marks left by the 150-grit paper. To double-check if the scratches are gone, wet your finger and rub the area. The moisture will highlight any defects that are left.

When the sanding is done, the stain will probably vary in color. The easiest way to restore a uniform color is to re-stain the door. For an exact match, take the door to a paint dealer for a computer match. If you don’t want to go through this bother–and we wouldn’t–use color chips and a sample can or two to get as close as possible to the existing color. Stain is available in 4-ounce cans for a few bucks. Two or three cans won’t break you and will ensure a close, if not perfect, match.

Apply the stain with a rag in a light, even coat. Let it dry for a few minutes and then wipe it off. If the sanded areas are a little lighter, apply another coat there, blending it into the surrounding area. After the stain is dry, apply the finish.

We recommend polyurethane as a clear finish on a door exposed to weather. Polyurethane is available in a variety of sheens from matte to gloss. Two coats will do on a front door.

With a clean, dry paintbrush, working from the top of the door to the bottom, apply the first coat and let it dry for at least four hours. Sand the surface with No. 220-grit sandpaper. Wipe the surface with a tack rag to remove the dust. Apply a second coat of polyurethane and you’re done.

Follow these steps and you’ll have an entry to be proud of for many years to come.


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