Restoring an Old Front Door
Your first decision is probably how to get the paint off. If it’s been painted before the 1960s, there’s a good chance that old paint will contain lead and so stripping it off by hand is not safe unless it is done by a professional (see the advice on the British Coatings Federation website – do not try to do this yourself). Lead is extremely hazardous and continued exposure leads to kidney damage, nerve and brain damage, and infertility. You get lead testing kits from most DIY stores but they shouldn’t be completely relied on – the safest approach is to assume pre-1960s paint will contain lead and treat it as such.
TIP: Any surface that is painted with pre-1960s paint and is chipping or flaking away could be a potential health hazard in your home, due to exposure to lead dust and particles. Young and unborn children are, particularly at risk. So you must sort out any such surfaces urgently.
So for old doors with old paint on, you have two options – having the doors dipped and having them stripped. Let’s move on to dipping doors!
When restoring an old door getting your doors dipped is the cheapest option. The cost is fairly low. Usually, between £10 and £20, and many companies will collect them and deliver them back for you. Some offer reasonably priced waxing, varnishing, or painting services as well. If they’re 1930s doors (or later), the panels could be plywood and might not be very attractive without paint – just keep this in mind (or check) before you start, as it will impact what you decide to do with your door once it has been stripped down.
Winter is a good time for dipping doors because fewer people will be restoring their homes and the stripping companies are not as busy. Without the backlog, they can usually get your woodwork back to you far quicker than they can in the summer.
When restoring an old door if you’re going to get your internal doors dipped all at once, you need to make sure you put the right door back in the right frame. Doors are often sanded and adjusted to fit their frames, and they won’t fit well in the wrong frames when they come back. The best way to do this is to mark them on their underneath edge deeply with a chisel before they go off to be dipped, so you can tell where to put them when they are returned.
One thing to keep in mind before they get dipped – sometimes the doors can warp and crack. This is because the chemicals used in the door dipping process dehydrates the wood. Another problem can be if the doors aren’t that old and they use veneer – since the stripping solution is water-based and many types of glue are water-soluble, the wood veneers may lift and in an extreme case the door may come apart. So you have to be prepared for the fact that the door may be no good once it’s dipped – there’s a risk.
Before you send your doors
Before you send your doors off to be dipped, you’ll need to remove all of the hardware including the hinges. This can be really tricky on old doors because layers of paint have built up over the screws – like so:
Ask the company that is stripping your doors whether they can do this for you, for a reasonable fee. Otherwise, you need to protect yourself while you are removing these parts as again, the paint is likely to contain lead which will chip as you are removing the various parts (again, review the safety advice on the British Coatings Federation website – as you’re only removing a few bits of hardware and not stripping an entire door, you may decide that you can carry out this task yourself).
To remove the paint from the hardware, DON’T follow the advice on many internet forums that suggests you stick them in a pan or crockpot and boil them. The paint has lead-in and you’ll be sending lead fumes around your house by doing this. Instead, find yourself a container about the paint-can size and put in about 1/4 cup of washing powder. Fill it up with boiling water, stirred until it all seemed dissolved, and dropped in your hardware.
Here are some more detailed instructions for doing this. Do it in your garden well out the way of any people or animals in a well-ventilated area, and use a respirator to ensure you’re not breathing any of the fumes in. If in any way you’re not sure of what you’re doing, please ask a professional for help.
If you remove the paint and the door hardware looks beyond repair, there are plenty of reproduction door hardware pieces you can replace it with a reasonable cost.
Types of Door Dips
Back to your doors: and how good they look after they get dipped depends on two things. There are different types of dips used – e.g. chemical or caustic. Chemical is gentler on the wood, caustic is better for a lot of paint. It also depends on the type of wood. Pine strips great, but pitch pine (like the dark stuff found in churches) can go furry which is a pain to sand down. Beech strips really well, as do oak, elm, and walnut but these tend to go slightly darker with the dipping process and can sometimes take on a greyish tinge that can be sanded off. Plywood and veneer don’t strip very well.
Once your doors are returned
Once your doors are returned to you, assuming you’ve not used their finishing (painting/waxing/varnishing) service, it’s likely you’ll have to do a little extra work yourself. You might have to lift some recalcitrant paint out of the corners and molding, but it shouldn’t amount to much work. Even if the wood is paint free, the other thing you will notice is that your woodwork will feel furry to your touch. This is because most tank strippers use a lye saturated water solution and the water lifts the wood grain. A quick pass over with sandpaper or steel wool will knock off the “fur”. A hand-held electric orbital sander makes this a really easy job.
A final consideration when restoring an old door is the door glass if there is any. When restoring doors, windows can be tricky unless you are prepared to replace some or all of the glass. The stripper chemicals from the dipping process can dissolve the putty holding in the panes of glass, and in handling the window it can be dropped easily enough. When your window glass has ripples, waves, or bubbles, it is most likely the original glass from when your house was built.
This vintage glass is worth saving, as are any beautiful stained glass panels – you should carefully remove this before the dipping process. If however, the glass in your door isn’t authentic you can choose whether to leave it in during the dipping process and risk it getting damaged, or remove it – and you might want to replace it with some period-style panels. eBay is a brilliant place to find these:
The alternative to dipping is to pay a professional to remove the paint. You might think this is a waste of money because you could do it yourself with a blow torch/heat gun/nitromors. But it’s just too risky with old doors because of the lead fumes. Paying a professional to strip your old door will cost a bit more than dipping. On the other hand, you don’t run the risk of the door warping or cracking.
Removing the paint yourself
I must reiterate that this option is only viable if the paint is lead-free, or unless you really know what you’re doing and can take the proper precautions. For example, if you have an old door that has been stripped down previously and painted since the 1960s, this is an option to consider. There are various ways to get the paint off an old door – my favorite by far is Nitromors – you paint it on, leave it and scrape it off later. I also own a heat gun.
Now that you’re done getting most of the paint off with the Nitromors, you use this to scrape off stubborn bits of paint. Make sure you practice and get confident using this so that you don’t burn the wood and take extra care around any glass – you have to shield it from the heat (I use my metal scraper and direct the heat over the top). Finally, an orbital sander is used to finish off. See restoring an old door is fun, isn’t it?!
Period house front doors – salvage
If your door is beyond repair or gets damaged during the restoration process, a good option for replacing it is to visit your local salvage yard. Here are a few examples of some of the gorgeous doors you can pick up, typically for around £800. In many cases, all that’s needed is a little sanding and a new coat of paint to restore them to their former glory.
Period house doors – bespoke
A final option for restoring an old front door is to have a bespoke door made for you, to match the character of your home. This is the most expensive option but the result can be stunning. Take for example this beautiful Victorian-style door that has been lovingly handcrafted by Nottingham company Old English Doors for a property in West Bridgford:
It is difficult to tell that the door is not original! It perfectly matches the character of the house while really adding to the overall appearance. A bespoke door will set you back a fair amount. But a bespoke door will certainly add to the overall look and appeal of your period home. That’s all for Restoring an Old Front Door. Comment below if you have any tips you’d like to share or if you agree that getting your doors dipped is a great solution!