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Exterior Door Installation: How To Stain (and Finish) A Wood Door

By Phil Vandermeer / September 30, 2011

Prehung Door Preparation and Finishing

Recently I won a bid to install a new rear entry door on an older home. The homeowner loved the door she already had, but it had so many problems, it was impractical to try and repair it. It needed a new threshold, an entirely new jamb, and the original installer had cut the top of the door “out of square” to make it fit his make-shift jamb. I quoted to install a brand new, pre-hung wooden door and was able to find the exact same door she previously had and fell in love with. This article is the first of three articles on installing a new door, this one is on how to stain a wood door. Check out my other articles on doorway preparation for a new door and installing a pre-hung door  which cover the other aspects of this same project.

unfinished door the way it was delivered

The new door was stain grade fir (meaning it was milled accurately and with finer wood, requiring very little sanding before stain is applied). It has gorgeous grains and came nearly ding-free. The cost of the unfinished door was in the $350 range and special ordered from Home Depot. It came with hinges, weatherstripping, a primed jamb and a threshold. Actually, that was far more for the money than I expected. The threshold is the adjustable kind and the molded plastic piece was manufactured to look like cherry or mahogany. This wasn't the first time I ever had to stain a wood door, but it may be the most pleasant experience I've had. The final result was awesome. Thankfully, I took lots of pics.

Door Inspection and Packing Removal (more prep)

The old door that this one will replace was stained with "golden oak" stain and finished with shellac. Shellac yellows over time, and since the door is off the kitchen, it aged and became way darker than it's original finish. Rather than use the "golden oak" stain, I chose to go with "golden pecan" stain, which appears red in the can, has less of a honey colored look and is slightly darker. I really didn't want to match the old faded door, but the darker, redder stain compliments the aged golden oak the homeowner already has throughout the kitchen, which was not replaced.

To start, I needed to get everything out of the shipping container and remove the door from the casing. I used 150 grit sandpaper and lightly sanded all the surfaces. Because I wanted to keep the aged look, I didn't really need to spend a lot of time…maybe 20 minutes total on the sanding. Being an exterior door, that was enough, and it was a relief not to have to do extra sanding

unfinished door removed from shipping container

I purchased a cheap natural bristle brush to apply the stain followed immediately behind the brush with a clean shop rag for wiping and color continuity. Once the rag was saturated I was able to work the stain easier and achieved the color I wanted after about 30 minutes of brushing and rubbing on each side. I used 2 clean 5-gallon buckets to lay the door on so I would have access to the edges. No worries about turning the slightly wet door over to work the other side, and once I finished both sides, I leaned the door on it's end against the cardboard the door came in, which I leaned against the wall. I buffed both sides of the door with a clean rag before letting it set overnight to dry.

compressed air cleans every corner of the door prior to stain

Compressed air was used to clean the door prior to staining it.

Final Finishing of the New Door Before Putting it All Back Together

For the finishing coats, I used a UV Polyurethane. One quart gave me 3 coats on each side of the door. The first coat I applied with the same cheap brush I used for the stain to make sure I got it in all the corners. I brushed the polyurethane while the door was still leaning against the wall. After a day, when the first coat was dry, I went over the entire door with 150 grit sandpaper on all the flat parts and "0" grade steel wool over the trim and harder to reach areas. Then, I applied the second coat.

Golden Oak Stain was applied with a cheap horsehair brush

After the two coats were dry (another full day) I used the same grade steel wool over the entire door, looking for 2 things while I worked: a dulled surface and no bumps. For the final coat, I used a Preval sprayer filled with thinned down polyurethane.

Paint thinner works great for thinning varnish. It doesn't need much added in to get it spray evenly, maybe 1 part thinner to 4 parts polyurethane. I used 5 gallon paint buckets again so that I could take advantage of gravity and eliminate any worry over sagging.

The sprayer I used worked great for one door and I only needed one aerosol can for each side for a total of 2 cans. The Preval Pro Pack was well worth the investment for the job it did and I loved the final product.

Of course, I don't stain a wood door very often in my business. If OI did,  I'd get a more professional, heavier duty spray rig.

The final product turned out really beautiful. My next article, "Exterior Door Installation: Preparing The Doorway For A New Door" is more or less a continuation of this project if you want to check it out and follow me through not just how to stain a wooden door, but also how to prepare the doorway and  hang the new door.

use 0000 steel wool to rough the surface between coats
Two coats of varnish on each side of the door was sufficient

Tips For Making Your New Door Better Than Good

  • Never set the can of stain on an unfinished door. It will make a ring that you'll see after applying the stain and it won't go away without a lot (A LOT) of sanding.
  • Don't worry too much about dings and nicks in the raw wood, especially if the door is an exterior entry door. if it's really bad, return it for a new one. Small imperfections will virtually disappear once everything is applied.
  • Be aware that even though the process is fairly straight forward and not difficult, that there is a lot of drying time involved. Be patient and you'll reap the reward.
  • Do not mask off the edges of the glass. Allow at least 1/8" of the glass to show next to the wood trim pieces. That way, the polyurethane can seep under the edges of the glass and seal the door better. I did not mask any of the glass, but wished I had when it came time to scrape the glass clean.
  • Be sure and use a brand new utility razor when scraping glass clean! a nick in your razor will score the glass and it'll be there forever.
pre-hung wood door unpacked and ready for inspection
Finished Door with 3 final coats of varnish

Before and after pictures of the same wood door. 

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