All About Wood Entry Doors
Strong and secure, they offer unlimited design flexibility along with solid good looks. The TOH team helps you select and care for a front door that's right for your home's style—and your budget
Anatomy of a Wood Door
Most have free-floating center panels surrounded by stile-and-rail frames. Joints are glued, either with dowels or mortise-and-tenon construction.
An entryway is the focal point of a home's facade. And the front door, its most prized asset. Dressed with a fine lockset and handsome knocker, the door extends a friendly welcome while also discouraging intruders and shutting out the weather. It's the first thing we grab when we arrive and the last thing we touch when we leave. So it's easy to understand why many of us still like our doors to be made of wood. Nothing else matches the material's warmth and satisfying heft. Or offers so many design options. Steel doors are stamped; fiberglass pops out of a mold. But a wood door can be custom crafted in virtually any shape or size and incorporate whatever molding profiles, panel configurations, glazing options, or carvings that you please.
The knock on wood doors—that they warp—well, that's largely a thing of the past, when they were made of solid stock. For the past 25 years, most major manufacturers have crafted their entry doors with glued-up engineered-wood cores, which overcome solid wood's tendency to twist and cup. That handsome outer layer is actually just a thick veneer. Don't think of this as cheaping out; with regular care, such a door should easily match the life span of your house.
That extra effort—in the form of a fresh coat of paint or polyurethane every couple of years—is the price we pay for choosing wood. But it's a small one, considering the visual and tactile rewards a wood door gives us every time we come home.
Slab vs. prehung?
Prehung doors come hinged to a weather-stripped frame, eliminating the need to square the door in its jamb, and with holes already bored for a lockset. They're best for new construction (below), when rough framing is exposed. Slab doors, sold without hinges and often with no lockset boring, are generally used to replace existing doors when jamb and trim are in place.
What's it cost?
A stock slab door at a home center starts at $150, a prehung around $400. Custom prehung doors can run more than three times that, starting at about $1,500.
What's the warranty?
Defects in materials or construction are covered for two to five years. The factory finish is usually warranteed against failure for two years.
How much care?
Sunlight is the number-one finish killer, causing clear coats to degrade and paint pigments to fade. Sand and recoat varnished doors every year, polyurethaned doors every other year. Painted doors should get fresh coats every five to six years.
Is a Wood Door Right for You?
Consult this handy list to see if a wood door makes sense for your house.
Is it protected from rain?
A wood door holds up best, and requires less maintenance, in a covered entryway. To be effective, that roof should project at least half the height of the door, including its sill and any overhead windows, such as the transom shown on the right. If the roof is 10 feet above the door's landing, for example, it should project 5 feet. Also, the roof's width should be at least 1½ times the door's.
Is it exposed to the sun?
Doors that bake in the sun for more than 4 hours a day will quickly lose their looks without routine care. Clear-coated doors must be recoated every one to two years, and painted ones require a fresh coat every five to six years.
Is the sill high enough?
It should clear a porch landing by 4 to 6 inches to prevent built-up snow or pooled rainwater from causing rot.
Is fire a concern?
Check your local building codes, particularly if you live in a place prone to wildfires. A few doors are rated to withstand 60-minute infernos.
How cold does it get?
Standard 1¾-inch-thick wood doors have an R-value of about 2.5, close to that of a double-pane window. That's far lower than a foam-filled fiberglass or steel door, but with tight weatherstripping you can boost its ability to stop air infiltration.
Alternatives to Wood
Both steel and fiberglass doors need less maintenance and get higher fire ratings than wood doors. And because they have foam cores, they insulate about twice as well. MDF (medium-density fiberboard) doors, made of glued wood fibers, are relatively recent arrivals to the marketplace. None of these alternatives have as many design options for you to choose from as wood does.
Magnetic weatherstripping makes these entries as tight as a refrigerator, but they're susceptible to dents, dings, and rust. The embossed panels do not mimic wood convincingly. Steel is the least expensive wood alternative.
Better than steel at imitating wood, resisting water, and standing up to blows, but susceptible to fading. Keep it clean by wiping it down with soapy water. The cost is comparable to a high-end stock wood door.
It looks like paint-grade wood but typically costs less and carries a fire rating of up to 90 minutes. These doors must be kept painted on all sides with an exterior oil-based paint to maintain their five-year warranty.
How to Order a Wood Entry Door
Measure twice, three times even, to save yourself from installation headaches—or worse, having to buy another door.
Measure the width of the door frame's rough opening between the jack studs. Then measure the height from the underside of the door header down to the top of the subfloor. The prehung assembly will be 2 inches narrower and 1 ½ inches shorter than the opening to leave enough room for shims and insulation.
First, measure the width of the existing opening between the jambs inside the stops. Then measure the height from the finished floor to the underside of the head jamb. Your final door dimensions should be ¼ inch shorter and narrower than these measurements so that the door will swing freely in the opening. Next, determine the door's thickness by measuring from the interior edge of the jamb to the interior edge of the stop.
Finally, check the opening for square. Put a 2-foot level against the sill, the top, and both sides. If any surface is out of level or out of plumb by more than ¼ inch over the length of the level, order your door slightly larger and trim it to fit.
Talk Like a Pro
1. Width comes first. Give your door dimensions in feet and inches; first the width, then the height.
2. Use the lingo. A door 3 feet wide by 6 feet 8 inches tall, the most common size, is called a "three-oh, six-eight."
3. Know your right from left. Doors, like people, come left-handed and right-handed. A right-hand door has its hinges on the right side when you look at it from the outside. A left-hand door has its hinges on the left.
Pro Tip: Tom Silva, TOH General Contractor, says, "When replacing a vintage door with a new one, you often have go the custom route to match the 2-to-2¼-inch thickness of most older doors."
Buying a Salvage
For as little as $300, a salvaged wood door will give an entryway an authentic, one-of-a-kind link to the past. Be prepared to strip, repair, and refinish it yourself or pay about $700 more for a completely restored, ready-to-install slab. Measure as if you were ordering a new slab (above). Unless you find a door that fits your opening exactly, get one just a bit bigger and cut it down. "As a general rule, you can shave up to 1 inch off the top rail, 2 inches off the bottom rail, and 1 inch off each side, just as long as the cuts are proportional," says Bob Reed, a millwork restorer at The Stripping Workshop, in Washington, D.C.
How Safe Is Your Door?
It's a common misconception that it's easier to break in through a wood door than a steel or fiberglass one. In fact, it's not the door but the latch-side jamb that's the weak link. To prevent a forceful kick from splitting the jamb, install an extra-long security strike plate using 3-inch screws sunk into the neighboring stud.
Here are the other major safety factors to consider.
1. Door thickness A beefy 1¾ inches beats 1 3/8 inches and still accepts standard locksets. Any thicker, and you'll need a special lock and bigger hinges.
2. Hinges Use 3-inch-long screws in all three hinges to anchor the hinge-side jamb securely to its stud.
3. Glass Standard door lights made of tempered glass won't stop a would-be intruder from breaking them and opening a door from the inside. To thwart such a break-in, order hurricane-rated glass, which has an unbreakable inner layer of plastic.
4. Lockset Mortise locks are typically built with higher grade steel, and are therefore stronger than the average bored locksets from a home center.