Q: The gumwood veneer of our west-facing front door is cracked and peeling. It’s the original solid wood door on a 1924 San Francisco home. The previous owners painted the door, but the veneer and filled cracks split and peeled anyway; lots of rain, moisture and sun hit this door.
We stripped, sanded, patched, stained and applied polyurethane to the door with the same results.
We would still like a stained–rather than painted–door. We now believe we should remove the entire veneer and apply a new one instead of repainting or replacing the door. More than one contractor has recommended a new door, but it’s custom work that could cost several thousand dollars. We are very handy, aggressive do-it-yourselfers, but have never attempted this type of project before. What do you advise (or are we crazy to consider this a do-it-yourself project)?
A: No, we don’t think you’re crazy for tackling the job. This is the perfect advanced do-it-yourself project. It’s labor intensive and doesn’t require skill beyond the reach of a talented do-it-yourselfer.
It does take attention to detail and patience–qualities of a good do-it-yourselfer that oftentimes results in a better job than if done by a professional. We say go for it, reap the satisfaction and save yourself a ton of money in the process.
Beware, though. This is more than a daylong job. Plan to do it when the weather is drier.
The first step is to locate the replacement veneer. Gumwood (eucalyptus) might be tough to find. We suggest you contact a lumber store specializing in the sale of exotic woods. They’ll know if it is available.
If gumwood is unavailable, we’re certain you’ll be able to find an attractive substitute. You’ll pay a premium, of course, but it shouldn’t break the bank.
Pay attention to the thickness and width of the replacement. Applying veneer of the same thickness will allow you to avoid adjusting the doorjamb or the depth of the hinges. To avoid seams that are susceptible to moisture, try to use one piece of veneer.
If you have to go with a little thicker veneer, it’s easier to adjust the doorjamb rather than try to adjust the hinges. For a solid doorjamb, do this with a rabbet plane.
Once you’ve bought the replacement veneer, remove the door from the opening by removing the pins from the hinges and sliding the door from the opening. Support the bottom of the door with a scrap of wood so that the hinges will not bend when the pins are removed. Check the condition of the hinges. If they are painted, you’ll want to strip them or consider replacing them. Also, if the door has two hinges, you’ll want to add a third; a third hinge increases the stability of the door.
Once the door is off, you’ll have to fill the void with something. Assuming you have a back door, install plywood in the opening while you’re “under construction.” Another alternative is to buy a cheap door slab at a home center to use as a construction door.
With the door laid flat on sawhorses, strip the door of the damaged wood. The goal here is to provide a smooth, level surface for the new veneer. A stiff putty knife, a wide chisel and a paint scraper should prove useful in this task.
Once all the veneer and filler is removed, sand the door smooth. An orbital hand sander is the best tool for this job. If there is glue residue on the door, use paint stripper, lacquer thinner or acetone to remove it.
Now, rough cut the new veneer. Allow about 1/8-inch overlap on all sides. Dry fit the new veneer by securing it to the door with spring-loaded clamps. Don’t worry about drilling holes for the lockset; that can be done later.
We notice from the photo you sent that the door has a window. Rather than try to make a perfect cut around the window molding, remove the piece of molding attached to the face of the door. Cut the hole a little smaller than the outline of the molding and, using the molding pieces as a template, scribe the finish cut for the window opening. This should provide a perfect fit when the molding is replaced.
Glue the veneer to the door. Because moisture and weather are a problem, we suggest you apply the veneer with a waterproof adhesive. Check out boat builders or marine hardware stores for their recommendations. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for best results.
Apply pressure to the veneer so that the adhesive bonds properly to both the veneer and the door substrate. Place several boards over the surface of the door and place buckets filled with sand (or other heavy material) on the boards. This evenly distributes the pressure over the surface of the door, allowing for an even bond.
When the veneer is bonded to the door, trim the excess material from around the edges. A sharp block plane works well when working with the grain of the wood. To avoid tear-out, a sander should be used when working cross grain.
Next, re-hang the door. To make sure the hinges are solid, reinstall the hinges with longer screws that will penetrate the two-by-four of the door framing. We advise that you wait to finish the door until it is hung in its opening in case adjustments are necessary that might mar the newly applied finish. Drill out the holes for the lockset at this time.
Stain and finish. Although we usually tend to recommend polyurethane for its toughness, here we suggest you go with spar varnish for its weather resistance.
There are many steps to the process and a lot of work. But it’s a labor of love. When you’re done, you’ll have a front door that promises welcome. And, you’ll be richer for the experience–in dollars and satisfaction.