Warning: this post is full of disappointment and personal shame. I pretty much feel like a fraud of a home-improvement-y blogger, a terrible neighbor, an awful friend, a poor example, a cheap whore…all the bad things.
So here’s what happened.
Don’t you just love a front door? I love a front door. I mean, it’s the first thing you see walking into a house. It sets the stage and the tone. Front doors are important things. You’re welcome for these pieces of valuable information.
More than front doors in a broad sense, I really, really love my front door. Doors, rather. Before I even SAW the newel post and the banister and the original interior doors and moldings and windows inside the house, I fell in love with our front door. It has a beautiful knob, great proportions, gracious windows, fancy molding work both on and around it, a transom window above…the whole set-up just makes my heart swell, even after walking through it nearly everyday for over a year now.
I wanted to show this before shot of the house just to show what we’re working with, here. The major problems I see are 1) the stupid exterior light mounted to the molding, right above the transom window, 2) the 50s mailbox attached to the front of the door, and 3)the overall lack of dimension and interest.
I have lots and lots of plans, big and small, for restoring the exterior of the house. It’s a HUGE job—a renovation unto itself, really—so almost all of it has to wait for a while. The good news is that the roof is done an the house looks good, so it’s not pressing. At least whoever decided to put the vinyl siding up had the good sense to keep it white.
ANYWAY. Fixing up some doors is a pretty manageable project when compared to, like, tearing off a house-full of vinyl siding and repairing rotted clapboard and missing trim work and all that. That’s a Someday Project. So, at some point in early summer (yes, I’ve been holding out on you…), after I’d finished the laundry room and was itching to get outdoors, I decided I really wanted to give the front doors some attention. They’d been slathered in layers and layers of paint over the years, which left more of an impression of the intricate detail work lurking underneath than a real view. I always kind of knew that the best option for these doors would be to fully strip them down to the bare wood.
This is where things start to go south, FYI. I knew I didn’t want to take the doors down to strip them—either to have them sent off to be dipped (which is a service I can’t seem to find up here for the life of me anyway…anyone?) or to chemically strip and paint them from the ease and comfort of my living room. This would have involved closing off the whole entrance to our house temporarily with plywood, and carrying really heavy doors, and none of it sounded all that fun or practical. The outermost layer of paint was applied very recently (when the house went up for sale), but layer upon layer upon layer underneath? For sure lead-based. I knew this. It wasn’t even really worth testing because…duh.
Now, the responsible way to deal with lead paint is pretty much to not deal with it at all—paint over it and let it be. Since that wasn’t an option here (I mean, sure, it was, but a shitty option), the next most responsible way to deal with lead paint is to chemically strip it, carefully containing and disposing of stripped paint to keep it out of your home/environment. Lead paint actually can be scraped and sanded as long as it is kept wet to contain any particles, and then properly disposed of, but it isn’t really recommended. There is a supposedly fabulous product widely used for historic restorations called Peel Away which is a chemical stripper that’s made specifically to take off TONS of layers of paint and contain the lead, and that was always loosely my plan for the doors.
I didn’t do that. For some reason it got to a point where I was itching to strip the doors so badly that I was willing to make all kinds of bad decisions and own up to them on the Internet rather than order the paint stripper and wait for it to get mailed to me like a grown-up. Go me.
So, I pulled out my trusty heat gun. And got to stripping. Bow-chicka-wow-wow.
You shouldn’t use a heat gun for lead paint. You shouldn’t really use a heat gun for paint removal generally because of the risk of fire, but you really shouldn’t use it for lead paint. Not only does it release small pieces of toxic paint, but the lead can also vaporize and be released into the air you are breathing as you heat gun. So do as I say, not as I do.
Anyway. I wore a mask. So there’s that? And cleaned things up as I went along. So there’s that? And vacuumed up the pieces with a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter…so there’s that? I handled my guilt by telling myself that I don’t have children, I’m not pregnant, and my dogs were safely tucked away in the kitchen throughout the whole ordeal. So…there’s that. I’m about to get lacerated by comments, aren’t I?
Anyway, heat gunning may be bad but it is relatively quick and relatively satisfying. It still took several hours, but it was exciting to see the detail on the doors really reveal itself as I went along. Also, the odor was delicious.
The other exciting discovery was that, while the top layers of paint were all whites and off-whites, the bottom layer of paint? The original paint color? BLACK. AS NIGHT. I really don’t see any evidence that the doors were ever stained wood, but at this point they need so much repair work that it isn’t really an option anyhow.
This isn’t at all surprising. People think of black as this color invented by sad people in the 90s, but Greek Revival houses generally heavily employed either black or dark green paint in various places: on the exterior of window sashes, on shutters, and on doors. The idea is that the black helps these elements sort of recede, which in turn makes the house look more like a Greek temple—which would have just had voids for windows instead of moveable sashes to protect from the elements and whatnot. Cool, right? I’d pretty much planned to paint the doors black regardless, but knowing that it was the original color made the decision even more of a no-brainer.
After using the heat gun to remove nearly all of the paint, I used my mouse sander to wet-sand the doors, still wearing a mask. Again, not the best plan in the world…but it is what it is. It worked. It’s been a couple months and I’m alive.
Seeing as the wood on these doors is somewhere around the 150-year-old mark, and some of it was a little rotted and a little dry and brittle, I wanted to give them a little extra boost in the hopes that they’ll last another 150 years without some jokester deciding to rip them out to put something shitty in their place. Anna recommended this Minwax Wood Hardener (please, get your mind out of the gutter!) stuff, which she’s used on window sashes with great success, so I figured I’d give it a try.
You guys, I have no idea what’s in this stuff. Probably cancer. Probably explosions. Probably the brain cells that it kills on contact. I don’t even care, because it’s kind of amazing. You just brush it on (with a brush you’re OK with throwing away). It dries almost immediately. The wood looks amazing—kind of like it’s just been polyurethaned—and it feels…hard. Yes. My wood was so hard. I’d like to tell you more about that, but maybe there are kids out there reading this.
HARD. WOOD. INSTANTLY. I wanted to rub it all over everything.
I know some people will say that the doors looked really beautiful at this point and I should have sealed them and left them as-is. If I were running some hip Brooklyn restaurant, then yes, you would be correct. If I’m trying to restore an old house that already looks a little like it’s falling down? No. There’s also the issue of this being outside, which means Mother Nature, which means rain and snow, which means rot, all of which does not add up to doors that have already seen about 150 winters and some rot and large gaps having a whole lot of future longevity. Sorry, Charlie. Paint, caulk, and wood filler is the answer here.
I used paintable silicone caulk (which should hold up better than latex) to fill in all the voids where water might collect, and Bondo as a wood-filler to reconstruct the rotted corners. Bondo isn’t really recommended as a wood-filler, particularly for exterior wood since it doesn’t expand and contract like wood does, but I know lots of people who have used it on rotted wood with great success and swear by it. It’s also relatively inexpensive and easy to work with. I buy the type that’s marketed as an auto-body filler, which is pink instead of a more natural wood color: it’s cheaper and I’ve been told it’s the exact same thing, aside from the color, which you’d be painting anyway.
Bondo is really great to work with. It’s a two-part epoxy that smells like toxic death, but basically you just have to smear it on with disposable tools (I like a paint-stirrer), wait for it to dry, and then sand it into the correct shape/finish. When I need to achieve a certain shape (like reconstructing the rabbet in the inside edge of the door), I like to use a piece of wood temporary to fill the negative space and wrap it in cellophane, which the Bondo won’t adhere to. Once it’s dry, it’s easy to just remove the piece of wood and the cellophane and sand down from there. It’s pretty much impossible to get a smooth finish during the application, but it sands very easily. I like Bondo.
ANYWAY. After the doors were Bondo’d and caulked, I primed them. Since I’ve used it so much in the past with great results, I went with Zinsser’s B-I-N shellac-based primer. This stuff is super thin and dries almost immediately, and can go over both latex and oil-based paints as well as seal in unpainted wood so that the knots don’t “bleed” through the paint over time. In my experience it’s always provided a great base for fresh paint to adhere to. I plant to use it on our interior moldings before painting them, just as an added precaution against future chipping/peeling. It’s great stuff…for interior. It even says on the can that it’s only for “spot” exterior work. Maybe I should have read the can. Maybe I should be less dumb.
One of the things I noticed when I stripped the doors down was that it looked like, at some point, there was some additional molding work on the doors that kind of framed the windows. See the outline? Kind of? It was more apparent in real life. It looks like it had been removed long ago, but all of a sudden the doors looked kind of incomplete without them. And since I clearly like to torture myself and replicate original molding work and it wasn’t so hard to deduce what the molding probably looked like by looking at the moldings on the panels below…why not?
Unsurprisingly, the dimensions of wood I needed were not easy to come by. I figured the molding around the windows probably matched the outer two pieces of trim on the lower half of the doors—sort of an oblong half-oval shape and a very thin piece of molding surrounding that. I found something resembling the thin outer piece (close enough!), but the half-oval stumped me. I thought maybe I’d use my router to make something, but then it occurred to me: base shoe! Base shoe molding is different than quater-round because one side is longer than the other. Maybe if I took one piece of base shoe, and glued it to another piece of base shoe…I’d get the right shape?
People, it totally worked. All I had to do was glue the long sides together (I used Gorilla brand wood glue), use painter’s tape to tape it together tightly while it dried, and sand the whole thing one it was dry and the tape was removed.
This was my singular stroke of genius throughout the whole project. I used 3/4″ 18 gauge brad nails along the length of the new glued-together trim piece for some added support, and then I was able to cut them to the right lengths, just like a regular solid piece of trim. I placed a thin line of construction adhesive along the back before using my nail gun to affix them to the doors, and then used the same paintable silicone caulk to fill the voids and nail holes.
I don’t want to self-congratulate too soon since I’m a little concerned that the half-oval piece will separate over time, but so far, it’s holding up great and looks completely legit. I don’t think anyone would ever look at my doors and pick out that the molding around the windows isn’t original. I’m pretty proud of it.
During this, I also filled in the hole where the old exterior light fixture had been installed. This fixture was removed when we had the new exterior lights installed (which are much better placed now, I think! they really illuminate the house beautifully at night), leaving a large hole in the top of the molding surrounding the door. I used my jigsaw to square-off the opening and then screwed a small scrap piece of lumber to the inside of the molding. Then all I had to do was cut a 5/4″ thick scrap piece of lumber to the right size, screw that into place (attaching it to the scrap I’d screwed on inside the molding first…for some reason I don’t have a picture of it—ARGH!), and cover the whole thing in Bondo. Realtalk: I still haven’t gotten to sanding down the Bondo, priming, and repainting this area. Call it dysfunction. Call it distraction. Call it sucking at life. Call it whatever you want but it’s the truth! Excuse me while I go burst into tears.
While I was at all of this nonsense, I decided to also replace the doorbell. The old doorbell was actually really cute and understated: the problem was, there were two! Since we’ve pretty much done everything else to take this two-family home back to a single-family, taking the second doorbell out of the second floor was kind of the last thing on the hit list. I’ll admit that I felt a little sappy and emotional with this one…the house has come such a long way in the past year, and having just one single doorbell at the front door as the final nail in the coffin for this house being an on-again-off-again rental for the past almost 80 years felt really exciting.
Changing out a hardwired doorbell is SUPER easy. The voltage on the cables is so low that you don’t even really need to turn the power off. It’s all pretty self-explanatory.
I ordered the new doorbell from House of Antique Hardware (I got the “antique brass” finish). The price is good and I think it looks really cute, but I have to say that the quality is just OK… one of the screws did snap during installation and the button doesn’t work flawlessly. It’s fine, though, and it works well enough that I’m definitely not rushing to replace it unless it breaks. I had to patch in some of the molding with Bondo, which now needs to be primed and painted…I’LL GET TO IT, OK?
I also removed this weird situation in front of the original transom window! At some point, somebody added a stationary storm window of sorts in front of the transom (just a piece of glass with some small molding holding it in and a “decorative” center brace…). Not only did it look bad, but it blocked all access to paint or maintain the transom window itself and the surrounding trim. I know this was put in to help with heating, but honestly…the doors are so drafty that I’m pretty much positive it wasn’t making any real difference. What really needs to happen is for the doors to be properly weather-stripped, and maybe a heavy velvet curtain hung on the inside of the house right inside the doorway in winter to keep the drafts out. Since we don’t have a vestibule, I think that’s going to be the best answer to the whole heat-loss problem. Sure, a brand new airtight door would also do the trick, but…no.
I also installed a mail slot!! No, it’s not original, but it certainly feels more authentic to the house than the 1950s metal one, and it’s also nice that our mail gets delivered directly inside the house now! Taking a jigsaw to these old doors might have been the most panic-inducing thing I’ve ever done, but I’m so happy with how it turned out. The quality of the mail slot is great—super heavy, super substantial—and the only thing I had to do was swap out the screws it came with for longer ones, since our doors are 2″ thick and nothing is really made for that anymore. No big deal.
EEP, painted doors! I do want the mail slot to look a little less…new. The brass bits are pretty shiny and I’m kind of just waiting for it to develop a little patina to blend in a little more.
I painted the doors with Benjamin Moore’s Onyx, which is a color I’ve loved for years since I used it on the doors in my apartment! It’s such a perfect black—it’s a little less intense than a true off-the-shelf black paint, but doesn’t have any trace of a blue undertone, which always seems to be my problem with paints that look off-black or charcoal grey on the swatch. I love it. Anyway, I bought a quart of the Aura exterior paint in pearl finish, which is something between a semi-gloss and an eggshell. I was SO EXCITED.
So, the doors look pretty good. Until you got up close a few days later.
HOLY BUBBLING AND PEELING. Ugh. Ugh Ugh Ugh. More Ughs.
After all that fucking work…this. THIS SHIT. I’m so unhappy. Hold me.
Admittedly, I did not really research the best primers to use on exterior woodwork…and apparently used one that doesn’t even claim to be good for exteriors. Its also just doesn’t seem like the primer and the wood hardener interacted very well, for some reason, since the paint and the primer both started bubbling almost immediately—not just the paint. Major bummers.
I also think painting exterior stuff black with latex paint when the weather is really hot WITH the sun also beating down on it is maybe just a bad plan, generally. The bubbling is definitely way worse where the sun really hits it…I’m sure it’s getting HOT, which is no good for paint adhesion. Anyway, it’s just all a horrible mystery that ended in terrible sadness. Beautiful doors. Beautiful ruin. All the sadness.
I hate that I have to redo this now. Yes, the hard part is done…all the layers of paint are peeled off, the molding is restored, the mail slot is in, the doorbell is exchanged…but do I have to strip the doors AGAIN? I know the answer is probably yes. This sucks.
One weird discovery I made during this whole ordeal was when peeling off the cheap pine stops that were providing some weatherstripping. The weatherstripping was totally dried out and useless and wayyy past its prime, but what was interesting was the paint underneath—not on the doors, but on the surrounding moldings.
BLACK. The bottom layer of paint on the doors AND the enormous molding surrounding it was BLACK.
So…was the ENTIRE door surround black? Not just the doors? Well…
I took my investigation a little bit further by chipping away the old wood filler and caulk between the base of the molding and the tongue and groove flooring that extends about a foot and a half out in front of the doors. I had delusions that I might strip and stain that bit of flooring, but I think I’m more inclined to just repaint it a better grey. This grey it too blue and I’m not a fan.
Anyway, yep…the bottom-most layer is black, even on the outer parts of the molding! Wasn’t really expecting that one…
Before, I was thinking I’d just paint the transom window frame black and the rest of the moldings white and call it a day. Like this poorly done photoshop mock-up:
Sure, yeah, it’s nice and all. I like it.
But knowing (or, at least think I’m knowing…) that the whole thing was originally black…do I just go for it? It would be pretty dramatic. Obviously I like DRAMA…I mean, I live for it. This photoshop mock-up is so poorly executed and flat-looking and therefore not very convincing, but maybe it could be amazing if I actually did it? The 50s metal banisters definitely need to go, and the exterior light clearly needs to be swapped out, so try to ignore those. Hmmm. Hmmmmmmmmm. Decisions.
I guess I’ll finish the doors when the weather cools down a little and hope the paint really sticks this time. Basically this whole thing was a semi-unsafe bummer and failure of a DIY project, but I guess I feel like the heavy lifting is done and all I really have to do is figure out how to make some paint stick. Still, going back and re-doing a job I already tried to do…lame. I guess that’s just how it goes sometimes.
Has this kind of thing ever happened to you? Words of wisdom? Good advice? Prayers for my soul?
Also, to all the lead-fearing folk out there: rest assured I have since procured Peel Away and will be more responsible in my lead abatement efforts from here on out.