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

How to stain and finish a ew unfinished wooden exterior door

Recently I won a bid to install a new rear entry door on an older home. The homeowner loved the old wood 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 the existing crooked 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 and finish a wood door. The other two articles cover doorway preparation for a new door and installing a pre-hung door.  All three articles cover the three aspects of new door installation.

Unpacking The New Pre Hung Door

A pre hung wooden door comes fairly well exposed, so it's important to inspect it carefully before you accept delivery or bring it home. 

Look for tears or holes in the packaging, which are indications that the door may have scratches or mars that you don't want. Look for dings and scratches on the surface of the door itself. Aside from drying times, the amount of sanding you do later on will be the biggest factor in how long the entire project will take you to complete.

Look carefully at each corner of the package. When a door is dropped or damaged in shipping or at the store, it usually occurs on the corners. Make sure the corners aren't damaged at all. Corner damage is the worst kind of damage that can happen to exterior wood doors.

prehung wooden door still in shipping packaging

This new wood 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 under $400 and special ordered from my local home improvement store. It came with hinges, weatherstripping, a primed jamb and a threshold, most of which which I painted.

I actually got a lot 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 my first old wood door replacement, but it may have been the most pleasant experience I've had. The final result was awesome.

Thankfully, I took enough pictures to share here.

Final Inspection of The New Door

To start, get everything out of the shipping container and remove all of the packing. Make sure that all the hardware that comes with your new door is included. There should be a checklist that comes with the new door that you can use. Making sure everything is included immediately will save you a lot of headaches later on.

a pre hung wood door after removal from it's packaging

Once you've checked to make sure every part is accounted for, you'll need to sort the loose parts and keep them stashed away somewhere for several days while you're staining and finishing your new wooden door.

A gallon baggy works pretty well.

A final once over of the entire door, the jamb and individual parts will give you perspective on your project. Look for imperfections that you'll need to address later, like scratches.

Removing The Door From The Casing

Now it's time to remove the door from the casing. Leave as much of the hardware attached to the casing as possible. Everything will eventually be removed, in stages, but for now you can leave the hinges and so forth in place. The goal is to have just the door separated from all the hardware so nothing gets in your way while you're working on it. Set the casing somewhere that will keep it protected for several days while you stain and finish the bare wood door.

this exterior pre hung door is taken apart for stain and new finish

As you can see in the picture, I simply set the door on two 5 gallon buckets while I worked on it. That's not ideal. Four buckets are better and more stable 🙂 The idea is to set your unfinished door somewhere that will hold it securely while you work, with as few points of contact as possible. The reason for that will become apparent later on when you're waiting for things to dry.

Sanding and Cleaning Your New Wood Door

I used 150 grit sandpaper and lightly sanded all the surfaces. Because I wanted to obtain an aged look, I didn't really need to spend a lot of time…maybe 30 minutes total on sanding each side. Being an exterior door, that was enough, and it was a relief not to have to do extra sanding. 

The main things to address on a new unfinished wood door are scratches, nicks and rough areas that were not finished well in the milling stage of manufacturing. Your hand can feel rough areas and your eye can see dings and scratches.

Rough wood can absorb more stain than smoother wood, so uniformity is important. Wherever wood absorbs more stain, it appears darker and can ruin a clean, professional look. Scratches are enhanced with stain and show up dramatically. So, be sure you are completely happy with the smoothness and uniformity of all the surfaces.

Don't sand too much! An extra smooth surface will not absorb stain as well as a rough surface.

removing dust from your new door before staining it.

I went over the entire door with 150 grit sandpaper on all the flat parts and "0" grade steel wool over the trim, slats and harder to reach areas. This was sufficient for this door which was stain grade (which never is completely ready for staining). Because it's an exterior rear entry door, only about an hour of sanding was all I needed on the bare wood door before staining. I did all of it by hand.

Finally, I used my portable air compressor to blow all the dust off the door. You could just use a clean soft cloth slightly dampened with mineral spirits, followed by a long haired soft bristle brush, but blowing all the dust away is much faster and way more fun. Besides, using forced air clears nearly all of the dust, which is the goal.

The old wood door that this one replaced was originally 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 had throughout the kitchen, which was not replaced.

Choosing The Right Stain & Applying It

quality MinWax Wood Stain works well for most applications

Deciding on what stain to use can be tricky. When thinking about how to stain a door, there are a lot of high quality brands on the market to consider. Much of it is pure preference. There are gel stains, and liquid, oil based stains. I have used both, and find that they each have unique features. However, the differences are slight, and for this project I used an oil based liquid stain. 

I purchased a cheap natural bristle brush (pictured) to apply the stain. I then followed immediately behind the brush with a clean shop rag for wiping and color continuity. Once the rag was fairly saturated I was able to work the stain a little easier and achieved the color I wanted after about 30 minutes of brushing and rubbing. The 5-gallon buckets I used to lay the door on gave me access to the edges of my unfinished door.

How Long Does It Take For Stain To Dry?

Depending on where you live, there are basically only two things that contribute to drying time for stain. The first is humidity. The higher the humidity, the longer it will take for your stain to dry. Second is temperature. Higher temperatures will help stain dry faster.

For my project, no worries about turning the very slightly wet door over to work the other side. 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. Humidity is low in Texas and the heat helps stain dry quickly.

You can apply additional coats of stain for a deeper color, but it's usually not necessary. Finding the right color to begin with is better. You can also leave the stain on longer before wiping, which gives it more time to penetrate. You should be able to accomplish the color you want with a single coat of stain. Your finish coat will deepen the color slightly as well.

Finishing The Stained Door

For the finish 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. Nothing special here. Just make sure the polyurethane doesn't sag or run.

I leaned the door up against the cardboard box it came in, so I could work  the first finish coat with the door upright. I brushed the polyurethane while the door was leaning against the wall. After a day, when the first coat was dry, I went over the entire door very lightly with 150 grit sandpaper and steel wool again. This was to remove the dust bumps and bubbles. Then, I applied the second coat of polyurethane.

applying polyurethane to a stained, unfinished wood door

After the two coats were dry (a full day for each coat) 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 laid the door down on the buckets I used for sanding and staining and used a Preval sprayer filled with thinned down polyurethane. You need to thin the polyurethane in order for it to flow through the sprayer. It won't spray at all if whatever you're spraying is too thick.

Paint thinner works best for thinning varnish. It doesn't need much added in to get it to spray evenly. I started with maybe 1 part thinner to 4 parts polyurethane and adjusted the mix along the way. I used 5 gallon paint buckets again so that I could take advantage of gravity and eliminate any worry over sagging. Light, thin final coats work best.

stained and finished wood door.

The sprayer I used was heavy duty enough 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. I don't stain and finish exterior wood doors very often in my business. If I did,  I'd get a heavier duty spray rig. You can stain and finish an entire wood door with no real heavy equipment or major power tools. The cost is minimal considering the entire investment.

Reset The Door Into The Casing

The last thing you'll do after your door is refinished, before taking it to the installation site, is to rebuild the door back onto the casing. Be sure to replace all the shipping braces, brackets and plugs that were supplied to hold everything in place squarely and securely. 

You're basically getting everything back to where it was right before you started taking it apart.

That's it. You're ready for installation.

Final Tips For Staining And Finishing A Wood Door

  • 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. Of course you can sand away some imperfections, and if it's really bad, return the door for a new one. Small imperfections will generally 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 about 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 cleaning the glass! A tiny nick in a razor blade can easily score glass and it'll be there forever.

Wrap up

The final product turned out really nice. My next article, "Exterior Door Installation: Preparing The Doorway For A New Door" is a continuation of this project if you want to check it out and follow me through not just how to stain and finish a wooden door, but also how to prepare the doorway and hang a pre hung door properly. More pictures are there too.

I do wish I'd covered most of the glass before spraying the finish coats. My intention was to make sure the finish coats got deep into the corners for the best final result. Then, scrape the glass clean after everything was dry. However, I had to scrape a LOT. I should have taped all of the inside of the glass, leaving just the very inside corners exposed for the final coats.

Anyway, it's finally ready to install.

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