Refinishing an old exterior wood door. There’s just so much to say! Refinishing and repurposing an old wood door is a great way to maintain the charm around your home if the integrity of said old wood door remains underneath layers of paint or years of abuse (even if it doesn’t, there’s a chance you could revive it!), but I feel a responsibility to warn you that if slightly laborious, fussy DIY jobs aren’t your thing, this isn’t one of the more quick, effortless projects we’ve shared here on the blog. Well maybe it is for restoration pros, but for the average (albeit totally enthusiastic) DIY lover like me, depending on the condition of the door and what’s goin’ on with it, it can take some good old fashioned elbow grease, a whole lotta patience and some fortitude to restore an old wood door that requires some serious love to bring it back to life. The wood door we restored and that we’re talking about today is the side door to our office, so refinishing it and bringing it back to life was part of our overall office exterior remodel, which is all done now! We assume that the door is original to when the office was erected on our property, which according to the records was sometime in the 1970s, so it may be about 50 years old and had about 8 layers of paint on it to demonstrate that age and its evolution. The goal of this project was to strip it down to the bare wood and stain it so we could have a nice, stained wood door on the side of the office to (sort of) match our new wood French doors on the front of the office. And I have to say, we’re pretty pleased with the finished product!
Left: The Door Before; Right: The Door After
Sure it’s not perfect, but we certainly learned a lot along the way. The door had a lot of imperfections we were up against, like tons of layers of peeling paint, quite a bit of water damage leading to dark stains in the wood that we had to lighten and then some termite damage that had eaten away at a small corner of the door at the bottom (in the pics, it’s the bottom right corner). And you can see that the door itself has that plywood panel at the center below the lites, which isn’t really a great surface for taking stain as evenly as the surrounding wood on the door, so that looks a little bit less than perfect, too. Nevertheless, we got the job done, the door is filled with character and charm and now we have a pretty wood door here instead of a water stained, peeling, beat up old painted door that adds so much warmth to both the interior and exterior of the space!
This was my first time tackling a wood door restoration project, so I had a lot to learn. Luckily, the door restoration community is alive and well on YouTube, and particularly strong across the pond in the UK. I think I watched about 675 videos of those handy restoration pros in the UK putting on a masterclass in door restoration & let me tell ya, it was super helpful. From the right tools to tricks of the trade, those lovely people over in the British Isles really have this door restoration thing down. By watching these videos I quickly realized that the people doing this seem to have a lot of passion for restoration, and proper restoration at that, and specifically the careful restoration of Georgian doors, so if you’re willing to take a deep dive it’s totally worth it for the education and the eye candy.
What’s more, this is also kind of a messy job if part of your process is getting rid of layers of old paint, as is any job where you’re stripping paint in my opinion. Stripping paint is one of my least favorite things to do on the DIY front and no matter how many times I strip something, it never gets more pleasant for me. Nevertheless, if you want to stain wood that was previously painted you really need to get every single scrap of old paint off of it, sand it and properly prep it to take that stain evenly. So to take an old painted wood door and transform it into a beautiful stained wood door, there’s really no way around the whole stripping process. Time to put on the big girl pants and get to work!
Before I dive into the tutorial for how we restored our old wood door, I should say that this process may not apply to your old wood door depending on what shape it’s in. Maybe yours doesn’t have any old paint on it, or doesn’t have water damage, or has a host of other structural issues that you need to work to fix, and that’s why YouTube is a great place to find guidance for your specific door issues. I swear there’s a video tutorial for the restoration of doors in almost any kind of shape! Also, if you’re simply re-painting an old wood door, this is all a much easier process. Sure, you still need to sand (or strip if you like), prep and prime the surfaces to take your paint evenly, but you won’t have to worry about going to pains to lighten water damage stains, you can patch or fill any portion of the door that needs patching or filling and just paint right over it, etc.
I also wanted to share some of my favorite door restoration vids that vary in approach so you can see how different pros tackle the process on different doors with different issues. The biggest variation in approach that you’ll see is in the stripping process, and in general, there are a few methods that pros like this use. I’ve found they all have their advantages and disadvantages. I think it just comes down to your experiences with that tool or that solvent, your preferred process and maybe your access to these tools. So if you’re diving into this project, start by watching these and getting a frame of reference:
The Three Ways To Strip Paint
Paint Stripper – Fast, but slightly toxic (although less toxic than it used to be). Can soften wood and compromise its integrity if used improperly or excessively, but gets the job done efficiently and thoroughly.
Heat Gun – Need a powerful enough heat gun to get the job done sanely, but it typically includes less mess, less stink and no chemicals.
Sander – This can take a long time, or alternatively be relatively efficient depending on how many layers of paint you’re dealing with, but it gets the job done sans chemicals or another major tool like a heat gun.
This is a timelapse of someone using a heat gun to remove old paint from a wood door and they used those handy dandy contour scrapers a lot to get into the crevices of the moulding on the door, which I talk more about in my tutorial. I salute this guy because this looks like a much less messy way to strip paint than using the standard paint stripper/solvent.
Well this is just beyond. Chris and I are pretty much This Old House addicts and always consider their tutorials the gold standard of home improvement tutorials because they take their time and always do it right. No cutting corners with these guys! This door restoration is beyond pro level and although I salute and admire their work, this level of perfection and restoration detail would be a bit out of my depth (or just beyond my patience threshold).
These guys used a grinder with wire brush on it to remove multiple paint layers at once, then sanded it with orbital sander, then just removed almost all trim because they “had no time and patience to take the paint off of the trim” and simply replaced all of the trim. Bravo! Excellent time-saving and sanity-saving hack, in my opinion. Then they stained and said the whole process took about 15 to 20 hours. Still a lot of time, but seriously cuts down on mess and frustration of trying to strip or match old trim.
How To: Restore An Old Exterior Wood Door
Supplies For Restoring an Old Wood Door
Painter’s Tool or Wide Paint Scraper
100-grit sandpaper (these are the clamp-on sanding sheets I use with my sheet sander – grab the sandpaper that works for your particular sander or a sanding block if you don’t have a sander)
Wood Stain of Choice
How to Restore an Old Wood Door
- If you have lites (windows) in your door, I recommend taping those off first so you don’t get any solvents on them or accidentally damage them with your sander.
- Of course we have to start with stripping your door. This was hands down the hardest and most arduous step in the process for us. This solid wood door was most likely born in the early 1970s when our office was constructed (our home was constructed in the early 50s), and had about 8 layers of (probably lead-based) paint on it. Seriously… it was a lot. With some surprising color choices in the mix! I absolutely hate stripping things because it’s smelly, messy, toxic, takes a ton of patience and just generally not a super fun job no matter the product/stripping solution I’ve tried (and I’ve tried them all, trust me), so I was determined to find a way to make the process of removing all these layers of paint easier. In pursuit of that goal, first I tried a heat gun. I thought a heat gun would make for less mess, less goop everywhere and less yucky smell. The heat gun seems to be a favorite of the pros across the pond and they definitely make it look so effortless in the videos, but long story short the heat gun didn’t work very well for me. That said, I was using my grandma’s decades-old, pretty low power heat gun and that may not have been best suited for this job. I think today’s models are much more powerful and effective. I just wasn’t up for heading out and purchasing a new heat gun for this project. Next, I tried Citristrip, which is what we’ve used often as a less toxic and smelly alternative to the standard paint Stripper. The only problem is that with less toxicity in Citristrip as a solvent comes less potency, which usually means it takes a little bit longer to eat through those layers of paint so they scrape off like butter. What’s more, I’ve found that it can actually leave a little bit of a pink/orange tint behind on the wood depending on how old or damaged the wood is, which was no good for this particular project. The wood was so old and porous, I knew that any orange/pink tint left behind would soak right in even after sanding. So fed up with all of my other less messy and smelly stripping methods, I finally caved, went into the shed, made sure to suit up in my heavy duty respirator and stripping gloves and grabbed old faithful – the standard paint Stripper in the aluminum can. Of course it was still messy and smelly and all of the things I hate, but gosh darn it it works. As soon as I started applying the Stripper, the layers of paint started bubbling up and scraping off like soft butter. Never stripped anything? It’s really not a complicated process, it’s just messy and you absolutely MUST properly protect yourself and prepare before you start because you’ll be dealing with some pretty potent solvents. I always strip my furniture outside, but I still suit up big time. Then I Just line a metal bucket with heavy duty garbage bag and use that to contain the goop while I scrape the paint off of the surfaces and into the bucket.
- Once I stripped and scraped the larger, flat panels of wood on the door with my painter’s tool (that’s just my personal favorite paint scraper), I had to get in and scrape the little contours in the moulding on the door with my new favorite paint removal tool, the contour scraper. This handy dandy scraper comes with 6 unique blades/scraper heads that you can swap out on the handle as needed and are SO useful when scraping the contours in mouldings without damaging them. It seems that all of the Georgian door restoration pros use this or scraping tools like it, and it really is a lifesaver for getting paint and goop out of those tiny crevices around moulding without damaging the wood – and remember, not only is this old wood soft and porous already, but after the stripping process your wood is going to get even softer. For the kind of detail work properly restoring an old wood door requires, this is an absolute life saver and a must-have that I wish I’d used for many a furniture rehab project in the past instead of my big clunky scrapers (and their corners).
- After you’re done stripping and scraping all of your old layers of paint, you can use After Wash, another solvent, to clean up the surfaces of your door and make sure that no paint or Stripper residue is left behind on your wood.
- Now you can sand with a lower grit sandpaper, sanding block or sander if you’ve got any stubborn paint that just wouldn’t strip or scrape off. Hey, it happens! Sometimes that paint can be really, really stubborn no matter how many times you reapply Stripper in order to soften that paint and scrape it off. I used my sander, and while sanding every inch of the door to get nice smooth, even, bare wood surfaces all over, I also sanded the bottom of the door where those pesky termites had done their damage. After sanding the rough edges where they did the damage and cleaning that area out, I just left it as is instead of filling it in with any kind of wood filler because it didn’t compromise the seal of the door (they hadn’t eaten all the way through, just a little slice of the front of the wood on the door). It’s quirky, but I found that I actually didn’t mind the character!
- Then I had to tackle those dark stains in the wood from years of water damage. For this job I used Barkeeper’s Friend. The oxalic acid in Barkeeper’s Friend helps significantly lighten those dark stains, and I just added a little bit of water to a bowl of Barkeeper’s Friend to make a paste, and then applied it onto my stains using a soft cloth rubbing it in a little bit as I did, and let it sit to let them lighten for about 30 minutes. You can absolutely repeat if necessary – I had to repeat a few times on the darker stains to get them to go away. Once those stains are lightened to your satisfaction, you can sand until those spots blend in with the rest of the surrounding wood.
- Once you’ve got every single scrap of paint off of that wood and your dark spots are sufficiently lightened, you can prep the wood to take your stain evenly with a higher grit sanding block or sander/sandpaper. I used a 220-grit sanding block for this and the door truly looked so beautiful when I was done! So satisfying to see all of those even, bare wood surfaces.
- Then you can wipe your door clean with a damp, soft cloth to make sure you wipe away all dust and debris from your wood surfaces.
- Now you’re ready to stain. I’m gonna be honest here – I just don’t love the stain I used, but I got really, really burned out on this project by the end, mostly because I was finishing it in the dead of summer in the blazing heat here in Arizona. So I grabbed an “oak” stain we had in the shed and called it good. More on that below. BUT you can choose whichever exterior wood stain you love and I highly recommend testing some choices on a piece of similar scrap wood before you land on “the one”. From there, all you need to do is follow the stain’s application instructions, which for us is always wiping it onto all of your surfaces with a soft, dry cloth and immediately wiping it off with another soft, dry cloth. Simple as that! It’s actually pretty easy and satisfying to apply stain once you’ve done all the prep. Most semi-transparent stains will darken the tone of your wood in some way and if you had dark water damage spots that you lightened, those might soak up the stain and darken a little bit again, but you can always sand, apply more oxalic acid and re-stain if you’re willing. Some of the dark spots on our door popped back up a little bit again after staining, but I just didn’t have the energy to care and they’re still certainly better than they were.
- Once our stain was dry, we applied four, yes four coats of Spar Urethane to protect our door from the elements. I love the Varathane Ultimate Spar Urethane in the clear satin finish or really all of their polyurethane products because they don’t darken or yellow your stain or paint, they go on so smoothly and effortlessly and they do an awesome job protecting your projects from wear and tear. We always apply ours with a 3″ wide dense foam brush, simply covering each area of our surface in smooth, long strokes (no need to go back over spots unless you’re getting any little bubbles out), then let it dry for 2 hours, and apply the next coat the same way. Yes, it’s tedious, but it’s so worth it. I find that it’s also a surprisingly relaxing process.
Something I Would Have Done Differently in Our Wood Door Restoration Process
Like I mentioned, by the time we got to the stain portion of this project I was completely wiped out. The prep was so labor intensive and it was in the dead of summer in Arizona with temps pushing 120, so all of my intentions to try to perfectly match the stain or wood tone of our new French doors on the front of the office went out the window. I had major project burnout. Nevertheless, after you’ve done all that prep, the stain part of the project is what can really bring a wood door to life (or kind of disappoint you). For me, it was the latter. First, I don’t love the stain color we used. It was an old stain we had hanging around in the shed and when we tested it, it seemed tame enough and like it might give the door a really subtle, natural oak finish, but it ended up more yellow/orange than I’d hoped. Maybe I might have forgone the stain altogether and simply sealed this door with several coats of a clear Spar Urethane topcoat like I did the French doors to maintain the beautiful, natural tone of the wood. Or more likely, I would have gone with a little bit richer, darker stain to match the French doors. Who knows. All that said, lessons were learned and I might approach that step differently next time or just take more time to feel good about my choice.
Does your home have a exterior wood door? Let me know in a comment below!