How to restore an exterior wood door

How to restore your old wood front door

refinish exterior wood door

A wood front door is a great feature when it comes to your home’s curb appeal. However, years of exposure to sunlight, rain, snow and frost can significantly damage an exterior wood door and leave it looking worn out. With regular maintenance, your wood door can last for decades. But if your exterior door has been neglected for some time, it may be time for some serious restoration.

refinish exterior wood doorHere’s a quick view of the steps to refinish a wood door

  1. Remove the door from the hinges and lay flat on a pair of sawhorses
  2. Remove all door hardware
  3. Sand down the door
  4. Remove all traces of sawdust with a shop vac and wipe down
  5. Apply stain, if desired
  6. Apply exterior (spar) varnish
  7. Reinstall hardware and hang the door

Remove the door from the hinges and lay flat on a pair of sawhorses

refinish exterior wood doorThe first thing you’ll need to do is remove the door from its hinges. Solid wood doors are extremely heavy so you’ll need some help for this step. Open the front door and lay some wood blocks under the bottom edge in order to help support the door. Remove the hinges by taping the pins upwards with the help of a flat head screwdriver. The door should now slide out from the hinges. Lay the door flat on your sawhorses. Ideally you should work outside in the shade as you don’t want to expose the door to the sun while staining or applying varnish.

Remove all door hardware

refinish exterior wood doorIf the door is still in fairly good condition without significant deterioration, you may be able to get away with just re-coating with some spar varnish. Otherwise your best bet is to strip down the door completely before refinishing. The first thing you need to do is remove all the door hardware, including the handle, deadbolt cylinder, mail slot, knocker, kick plate, etc. Sure, you can get away with leaving the hardware on, but you’ll be disappointed by the finished look. After all, if you’re going to do all this hard work, you might as well do it right.

refinish exterior wood doorTip: if you have an antique mortise lockset, you can remove the deadbolt cylinder by first unscrewing the 2 small screws situated on the face plate on the inside edge of the door (no need to remove them completely, just unscrew 3-4 full revolutions), then insert a heavy duty flat head screwdriver into the key hole and turn counter clockwise to unscrew the cylinder.

Sand down the door

refinish exterior wood doorNow that the hardware is removed, it’s time to sand everything down. You can use a power sander for the flat surfaces, but you’ll need to sand the woodwork details by hand. The more intricate the carvings, the more tedious this process will be. Start with 60-grit paper and work your way up to 180-grit paper. Make sure you strip off all the previous finish.

Tip: Be careful when sanding wood adjacent to glass as sanding will scratch the window (I learned the hard way). Use painter’s tape to protect the glass. This will also come in handy when it’s time to stain & varnish.

Remove all traces of sawdust & apply stain

refinish exterior wood doorNext, you can apply a stain of your choice, if desired. But first make sure to vacuum away all the the sawdust and then wipe down the door. Use a paint brush or rag to saturate the wood with the stain, then wipe it off with a painter’s rag. I used Varathane “early american” stain, as it was similar to the original door color. Apply a second coat if desired.

Apply exterior (spar) varnish

refinish exterior wood doorAfter letting the stain dry, the most important step is to coat the door with exterior varnish. Exterior varnish (sometimes referred to as spar varnish, although it’s not real spar varnish like used on boats) is different from interior varnish as it has special additives that help protect wood from UV rays and from the elements. You’ll want to apply at least 2-3 coats of varnish. I went with a satin finish to give the door more of a mat look, but you can get varnish with a glossy finish if you prefer.


Reinstall hardware and hang the door

refinish exterior wood doorAfter letting the varnish dry according to the instructions, reinstall the door hardware. It’s also a good time to polish any brass fixtures if you have some, like my door’s highly tarnished brass kick plate. I used Brasso metal polish to restore the kick plate. Don’t be fooled however, restoring brass to its original shine is hard work and requires a lot of elbow grease, and then some. Nevertheless, the final result is highly satisfying.

refinish exterior wood door

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