The Art And Science Of Refinishing Exterior Doors

Exterior wooden doors in Chicago take quite a beating in this weather, what with the driving rain, snow, salt, and beating sunlight. And unfortunately, most exterior wooden doors have not been properly refinished so homeowners find themselves completely redoing the work every year or two or just resigning themselves to living with crappy looking front doors. I know because I’ve been that homeowner. But the good news is that I actually found what I believe to be a reliable process for refinishing exterior doors that should yield much better results.
You can look at the slideshow below to see what my front door has looked like at various stages of my dealing with this problem. The first photo was just before we bought the house. The door had been neglected for years and was totally shot. I had it refinished but within a few months you could already see it start to deteriorate all over again. The second photo shows what the door looked like 2 years later. At that point I figured there had to be a better way and I started to research the proper technique for refinishing exterior doors. I did a lot of Internet research and also made a few phone calls. Here is the secret formula I discovered but be warned that this is extremely labor intensive and can cost as much as $2500 depending upon who you bring in to do the work.

Materials And Number Of Coats

One of the problems with most refinishing jobs is that they coat the door with run of the mill polyurethane or varnish, using maybe 3 coats at the most. That just won’t cut it because most of that stuff out there is just not weather resistant. In fact, I found the can of polyurethane that my contractor used on my front door and it clearly says not to be used for outside applications. No wonder the door went to hell so quickly.
Instead you need to use spar or marine varnish – the stuff they use on boats but not the part that is actually in the water. Epifanes High Gloss Clear Varnish was recommended to me. In addition to being water resistant it also protects against ultraviolet rays. And they tell you right on the can that you need a MINIMUM of 7 coats. A woman who does a lot of front doors for people told me she goes with 10 coats.

Door Preparation

The door needs to be completely stripped of all old varnish/ polyurethane and thoroughly sanded. You can’t leave any trace of the old topcoats behind. Steel wool can be used to clean out tiny crevices that you can’t otherwise get to. And you have to make sure that all the stripper has evaporated before applying the varnish. You can also apply stain if you want.

Applying The Varnish

The instructions I’m about to provide for applying the varnish come from Epifanes so I can’t attest to the proper process for other products but Epifanes clearly has a lot of very specific requirements regarding temperature, humidity, wind, and sunlight: Epifanes application directions. The basic concept is that the first coat of varnish is applied with a lot of thinner to make sure the material soaks into the wood and forms a tight bond. After each coat the varnish is allowed to dry for 24 hours, after which the door is lightly sanded in preparation for another coat. Subsequent layers of varnish are applied with successively less thinner to make sure that the top layers are very thick and durable. Also, notice that as you get to the later layers of varnish you are supposed to use finer sandpaper between coats.
One of the more confusing aspects of the directions is the thinning ratio, which isn’t really explained. Just to clarify…the percentage represents the amount of thinner to be added to the varnish as a percentage of the varnish. In other words a 50% thinning ratio means one part thinner to 2 parts varnish. Frankly, unless you hire a major anal retentive type they are going to get this wrong – especially as they start adding un-thinned varnish to leftover thinned varnish – so you might have to just do this part yourself – unless you are equally inept, in which case you are just SOL. The guy I used was pretty good but I could tell he had not read the mixing instructions so I don’t know if I will be paying the price for this transgression down the road.

Gloss vs. Matte Finish

The only downside to using the Epifanes high gloss varnish is that it leaves your door extremely glossy. I guess that’s why they call it high gloss varnish. The last photo in the slideshow below shows what the door looks like now that I have had the work done. I’m going to live with the gloss for a while because I believe that as the weather works it over it’s going to lose some of that shine. However, I believe that you can finish with a top coat of Epifanes Wood Finish Matte instead of the high gloss and leave your door with a matte finish. It’s just that you need to go with a gazillion layers of the high gloss underneath because of its superior durability.

Annual Maintenance

Well, apparently even doing everything right isn’t good enough when it comes to Mother Nature. I hear rumor that you have to check out your finish every year and possibly sand it down and add a couple more coats of varnish. But if you keep up with it you won’t have to go through the whole stripping, staining, and 10 coats of varnish ordeal again.
It’s only been about 1 month since my front door was refinished but it sure looks more durable than it did the first time and the water really beads up on it when it rains – not something I noticed with that sorry ass polyurethane I had on it before.

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