Tag Archives: antique doors

Planning the Most Important Thing, Doors

The old plan was to do the best I could to spruce up my circa 1990 Victorianesque front door this winter. I gleefully abandoned that plan when I found a door that’s close to period correct that’s almost narrow enough. Almost. I’m a small bit nervous about trimming allowances.


Obviously the door needs to be stripped. I’m thinking I’ll pick out details on the outside of the door by painting it 2 colors. Nothing too high contrast though; that can get garish. Or if it winds up too nice to paint maybe I’ll stain it instead. I love the fancy little ledges below the glass that are so common on old doors, so I might add one to mine. I’m also hoping to get nice beveled glass, but if I have to choose between beveled and laminated (the best for burglar resistance) I’ll have no choice but to go with the latter.


Now that the door is going to be authentic, I’m going with clear glass, which makes me feel much better than hemming and hawing over textures that I wasn’t that thrilled about. For privacy I’ll get a sheer curtain panel hung on 2 rods. Basic, plain, traditional, and lets most of the light through.


(Speaking of light, have I said lately how excited I am to take down the awnings?)


Then there’s the hardware, my favorite thing. I’ve said before how excited I was to get the one and only old door that came with my house back up, along with its glass knob and Art Deco back plate. I also scored another matching back plate at Philadelphia Salvage. They’re a South Philly thing apparently.


Across the room, I put in a vestibule door that a neighbor gave me, salvaged from his house. It came with hardware in a different style but I’m guessing it would be from the 1930’s like mine.


At first I thought I’d make all the hardware match downstairs, install the Deco back plates on the vestibule door, and put something else on the back side of the basement stairway door. Then I thought maybe it was better to honor the history of the vestibule door and put its original hardware back on and hold the third Art Deco back plate. But now that I have an old front door with a mortise lock I prefer a third option. First off, I’m kicking myself a little bit for splurging on Baldwin hardware that I won’t be keeping.

But anyway, I’m putting a fauxriginal knob on the outside of the front door just like I have upstairs. The door came with cast iron roses attached and I have white porcelain knobs to spare. My parents have a pristine deadbolt that I’ll install. It’s conspicuously shiny, but it’s Schlage and I’d rather not carry an antique skeleton key in my pocket. Even though that would be cool.


Inside, I’m planning to install one of my 1930’s back plates on the inside of the folk Victorian front door. That will give some vague cohesiveness to the first floor, and it’s something people actually did to their Victorian doors at the time. My new plan is to use the vestibule door pattern in the vestibule and the Deco pattern in the living room. I think that gives me the best combination of cohesiveness and letting my neighbor see his hardware when he walks into the house.


The front door is now on hold until the other exterior work is in progress. Phew. But if I have the ambition and it stays warm enough to leave the vestibule door open, I just might restore it in January. The better everything else looks, the more I notice bits of nasty like this.

Farther Down the Front Door Rabbit Hole

I really should have been starting the kitchen, but that got held up this weekend so instead I decided to go to Philadelphia Salvage. Just to look for a skeleton key for the vestibule door and set screws for some old porcelain door knobs. Really, that’s all I was looking for.


But, no luck. The few keys they had didn’t fit my lock and I couldn’t find set screws in the right size. My dad has a tap and die set though so I’ll get set screws and make them fit. Oh, did I mention I browsed the door aisle? But there were no exterior doors narrower than 30 inches. The guy there said that the kinda Art Deco doors seen on narrow houses in South Philly are called Hollywood doors and that they get them occasionally.


“What does occasionally mean?” I asked. “Because I’m trying to decide if I want to spruce up a door I don’t like that much.”

He said it’s a craps shoot. Anyways, back home I went. But after 4 years abstaining from the door aisle… I needed more. And, there’s… another salvage yard. Better yet, this one has more exterior doors! This blue door was just about the right size. I was ready to jump on it, until I noticed that it’s half rotten, that the fancy ledge below the glass is just a piece of contemporary chair rail, and that most of the panel sticking is missing with caulk in its place. I may as well just buy a new door at that point. Neeeext.


Then this one. It’s 28 1/4″ wide. I was hyperventilating now. All I’d have to do is make it a quarter inch wider and it would fit in the jamb I already have!


Then I saw the next one, which is identical. And it’s tagged “$800/pair.” My heart sank. I had already planned out spending the rest of my life with this door. So I asked, “Don’t guess you’d let me have just the one for $400?”

No dice. But really, I shouldn’t be spending $400 on a door, so all the better. This set would never, ever work, but I want it anyway.


Then I saw this one. It’s fitted with a mirror but it looks way to thick to be a closet door. And on the back side, the mirror is held in with nice glass bead. I said, “This looks like a front door! And it’s only 30 inches wide!”


Alas, 30″ is still not 28 1/2″ and the stiles aren’t nearly wide enough to cut that much off. And home I went, thinking about that plan to spruce up the front door that is all of a sudden way less exciting than it used to be. I meant to take a nap, but instead I spent an hour on my phone looking at photos from streets department work on PhillyHistory.org, a mapping website that allows users to search for, view by location, and purchase thousands of historic photographs dating back to the late nineteenth century.

I’m sorry for destroying your productivity for the day. (philageohistory.org does the same thing with maps. Sorry again and/or you’re welcome.)

I said before that truly original doors are extinct in South Philly. I wouldn’t even know what they look like. The “Hollywood doors” are the oldest I’ve ever seen there. But in among photos of curbs, sewers, and excavation for the Broad Street Subway…

1300 s colorado st.jpg

Colorado Street, above, is very much like mine. And that house with the picture window appears to have… an original door! But now look below, in the 800 Block of Moore Street. This is a slightly fancier house type than mine but I guess not that far off. Note that the oldest doors all seem to have more glass than pretty much anything today.

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The 2300 Block of Federal Street, farther west, still retained 4 original doors in a row in 1956!

2313 Federal St.jpg

And all I could think about was a door that I had passed over. It was old, but with 2 panels at the bottom and 2 panes of glass at the top, it was looking less like a back door and more like something precious and rare. It was all I could think about. And the next day I was back at Provenance again.


But what’s this to the right of the door I was talking about? A basically identical door, in slightly better shape,  without the horizontal muntin that I don’t like. At 29 3/4″ wide and 83″ tall, this door needs to be cut about an inch narrower and 3 inches shorter. That has me a little skittish. But the guy liked me. He told me he could let me have it for $80 because it’s missing its glass, and so my new car lost its door-ginity.


So, I hope this door works out. It would mean that my monomania got us somewhere yesterday.

The Front Door – The Plan and Cold Feet

I’m hoping to start facade restoration next year as soon as there’s no risk of frost. In the meantime, I need to take my front door off and refinish it while the awnings are still up. I will be locking the house with an old fashioned skeleton key in the vestibule door in the meantime. Can you see how bad the varnish stain is right now?


But this gets me to something I’ve been ignoring. I get a lot of compliments on this door, some of them from people I care deeply about. And this style of door is all over the place. But I look at it and think, “meh.” So anyways, if you strongly disagree with me here, please call me crazy since that crazy sounds better than a huge snob.

This is not how I react to old doors. In case you need a reminder, I said that the day I found a matched set of 5 doors that were pretty much period correct was the happiest in my life.


And I spent about 100 hours refinishing them. (These doors are in fact a smidge too fancy with reeded details on the panels, but I can live with that.)


I used trigonometry, the arctangent function, to cut framing lumber for this sloped ceiling in the back bedroom to make the room fit these (definitely not period correct but definitely awesome) closet doors.


I carried these home when I had literally no use for them just because the idea of them going in the trash upset me. They got passed around to 3 different people but have hopefully now found their forever home. Important: the parallelogram panels in between the triangles were originally glass.


And when the renovation got me stressed out, I laid out my door hardware and looked at it just to cheer myself up.


So, old doors get an emotional reaction out of me. And actually so do the hollow core doors I started with.


But a mahogany door in a not quite historically accurate Victorian style? Meh. But I’ve already put money into things that revolve around keeping it, and I still can’t afford to back out of that and dump more money into something else. The Irishman built nice jamb extensions and casings on the inside and when I needed a new lock I went one from Baldwin, the closest approximation I could find of the mortise locks I covet with the modern tubular design.


For perspective, the oldest doors on my block or the next, which has identical houses, appear to be from the 1930’s.


And there are others behind storm doors that look more like this wider door on a wider house. Note the starburst cut into the glass.


Meanwhile, the fanciest houses in the neighborhood seem to hold onto their original doors more often.


Even this weird effort to suburbanize a brownstone makes one side of me almost happy. Yes, I’m a fan of that mid-mod/colonial hybrid door if not the rest of what’s going on here.


So, I’m not counting on ever looking at my door and being in awe of it.


But can we drag its appearance a little closer to the doors I really love?


Because when I take a second look at it, I realize that what I like least about this door is the faux-Victorian glass.


So, like I said, I’m taking the door off to refinish it. And I’m thinking about my options here. What do you think? I’ll post some ideas next time but maybe yours are better than mine. For now, let’s just say that I have mixed feelings about clear glass.

Projects that Aren’t Stucco

Yes, I’ve decided to drop everything and do something else. You’re probably wondering what I was thinking. Well, first I was having trouble with my garbage disposal. It would drain slowly and clog up often, so I’d have to run it just about every time I used the sink and use the little wrench to un-jam it about once a week. This was almost enough to get me to remove the garbage disposal entirely. And then Saturday it WAS enough! Because when I tried to un-jam it, it fell off the sink! So when my dad came down, we flushed it out with the hose (which was super disgusting and probably a biohazard), got it back on, and now we both learned from YouTube that filling your disposal with ice cubes and running it about once a week will knock gunk out of it and prevent this from happening.

And after this, the next project? Stop moldings on the upstairs hall doors. They’ve been under my bed for like a year now. And I’ve had the Irishman’s table saw and pneumatic nailer in the middle of my living room since my parents were done with them. So I wanted those things out to make the kitchen look good? Not exactly – it’s already a mess from the other two half-finished projects. But my roommate is moving out so it was time to make some room for her stuff.


So the first thing we had to do was the roller ball catch on the linen closet door. My upstairs hall doors all match, but the bathroom and linen closet doors are thinner. I think that’s because they were originally closet doors and Victorian closets were more like cabinets than rooms, so they had cabinet-like hardware on the doors. But installing the roller ball catch was scary because it meant boring a 7/8″ hole into a 1-1/8″ door. I let my dad do it.


What a relief. The door split just a little when I drove the catch in, but I’ll touch it up with the stain/finish and no one will be the wiser.

Then onto the stop moldings. These doors are old and warped so I had to flex the stop moldings in tight to them. That makes everything look clean and the doors don’t rattle when they’re closed. I learned somewhere on the Internets that shimming them out with 2 layers of cereal box cardboard gives you just enough of a gap to close properly.


This, the bathroom door, was particularly fun because it’s badly warped. The Irishman tried to warp it back the other way to no avail. I don’t really care since it was important to have a few imperfect things in the house anyway. The way this trim runs at an angle is a little bit fun. Except that now I have to fill the screw holes that it was supposed to cover.


As for the stucco, I’m crossing my fingers that the PREP can be finished while it’s still August. That would mean it took 2 months.

4 Year Anniversary Tour – Upstairs (Hall)

Upstairs, the house had the original Victorian trim. I was kinda thrilled to have unique woodwork in not 1 but 2 unique styles. Sadly, almost half of it was missing or butchered, I made changes that required more, and what did survive I couldn’t get off the walls unbroken. So out it went and I got a very good (and expensive) reproduction.


All the doors had at some point been replaced with stained flush doors. Then later on, exactly half of those were replaced with the cheapest hollow 6-panel doors you can buy.


I decided that new solid pine doors would miss the mark with the period look I wanted, so I was planning on putting in new flat doors and recreating the mid-century era update. (The surviving flat doors were shot.) But then I found a set of 5 4-paneled Victorian doors at Philadelphia Salvage and used them instead. This was one of the happiest days of my life.

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Refinishing them was a chore.


But now they’re my pride and joy. Some of the white porcelain knobs came from my mom’s old house, which was the caretaker’s quarters on an estate in South Jersey built around the same time as mine.


Part of the second floor had oak floors probably from the 1930’s remodel, but I had to take most of them out. Instead of reinstalling them, I re-exposed the original random-width heart pine. By doing this, I’ve attempted to get the second floor back to something like its original look while the downstairs has a reconstruction of the 1930’s remodel. These floors creaked really badly, but while the ceiling was out downstairs I glued all my scraps of plywood up onto the back sides of the floorboards, and now (except for one bad creak right outside my bedroom) the problem is fixed.


Now on to the hall, the first thing I called it was “comically narrow.” It’s about 26 inches wide and I left it that way because I didn’t want to lose closet and bathroom space.


Upstairs hall

And I said I wanted to restore this floor to at least the architectural style I started with even though I reconfigured it a lot. Here it is now from the same angle as before.



And a friend of mine offered me a huge abstract painting for free. Unfortunately, it took me 4 months to pick it up and during that time he and a friend had some wine and tried to paint a pagoda over it. I took it and hung it up anyway. It’s super bizarre looking but the scale is great.


And one big change I made to the hall was adding in a big square skylight. I can’t tell you how much it changed the house, including the living room below. The back of the living room doesn’t get much light so every bit helps.


If you can’t tell from my photos, the walls are just primed right now. I’m thinking that with the exposed brick, the stained doors, the flooring, artwork, and every room up here being a different color, I’ve got enough going on visually up here to paint the walls the same color as the trim, but less glossy. But feel free to change my mind. No decision is set in stone until it’s paid for.

The big reveal – all 7 refinished antique doors

What a weekend! Meaning it sucked. I got 3 coats of finish onto all 7 doors that need it. Plus 2 on the banister. The doors are a little bit shiny. I wasn’t sure of this at first because they have a distinctly rustic look, but now I like it just fine. I’m also super excited about seeing hardware on them! Like, you have no idea. I think the white porcelain knobs could be historically accurate for the house, but there’s no way to know for sure.


And then there are the front bedroom closet doors. These took the stain differently and remain a little lighter than the other doors. Also, I had trouble with the finish drying before I could wipe it off, so there are a few noticeable streaks. I think I’m ok with. It’s all just character now right?


And don’t forget the giant fancy pocket door pulls I put on them. You can also see how I tried to faux paint over the old patch where there once was a lock.


And in the back bedroom I’m using these Georgian brass knobs because the closet doors came with one and I was able to trade in the porcelain knob I had for another one. There was a dent in the rose, which you might be able to see in this photo. I ground it off with the Dremel so it wouldn’t scratch the door when I put it on. And made sure the bad spot would face down. There is no wood behind the screw holes for the escutcheon, so that’s something to figure out later.


And the smaller pocket door in the upstairs hall coat closet got this darling little window sash lift. One small problem with this door though. The stile running through the middle of the door to the right of the pull never cured right – the finish is sticky. I think the devil might be trapped in this particular piece of wood. While I was stripping it I kept thinking one of my neighbors was cooking with fish sauce. The third time I realized it was the door. And then that one spot on this door didn’t take finish right. I’m hoping if I let it cure for a little while it’ll either cure right or I can put an extra thin coat on and take the tackiness out.


I noticed that the window alcoves were not completely stripped so just skipped them. They need to be stained before the floors are redone, but the other doors were all I could stand to do anyway. They’re up soon though. And yes, they’re getting stained.


And that sweet little pan light that shorted out all the lights on my second floor? Down it came. Womp womp.


I’ll get a pigtail up when I get a chance, but at least the other lights on the second floor work now. This isn’t going back up until it’s really fixed, and I couldn’t tell you when that will be. Maybe I’ll be motivated to do it in January. Maybe.

(And a quick shout out to my major sources for this hardware. The giant fancy pocket door pulls came from Charleston Hardware. One of the porcelain knobs came from my mom’s old house (before my dad) and the rim lock came from eBay, but all the doors and most of the other hardware came from Philadelphia Salvage.)

2 steps forward, 1 step back

The doors are done! But I’m holding out on you. Next post you can really see them. For now here’s a bit of the process. I already said I’d be using General Finishes High Performance top coat in satin gloss with TransTint dark mahogany dye mixed into it. I applied this with rags. My parents have an abundant supply of old rags, but my dad gave me even older rags that he was hoarding in the garage. I could tell from the size of his underpants that these rags were REALLY old. The idea was to make a stain that would sit on top of the wood and even out all the different colors. Which means I had a few moments of truth.

I used a walnut colored wood filler in those big holes. I figured it would be dark enough to blend in and disappear. Was I right?


Yup, it blends in pretty well! Then there were the edges of the doors that were cut off exposing new wood and the one door where the Irishman spliced poplar onto the bottom of a pine door. IMG_5850

That doesn’t stand a chance, does it?


But then I have another type of a story. You remember this vintage light fixture I put up in my front bedroom?


Well here’s the deal. The paper insulators around the bulb sockets are toast. I found pieces of them falling out before. But everything still worked so I decided that danger or not, this can wait till after Phase 1. But here’s the deal. My electrician put the upstairs lights on a ground fault interrupter. I don’t know why. But I took a door off a set of saw horses and smacked it into this light, and enough insulator fragments fell out that now the ground and neutral are shorted out and I can’t use any of my upstairs light fixtures. This also means that if I were using them this light would be live, but worrying about that is just splitting hairs. Anyways, I have a new priority 1 item added to the punchlist.

Anyways, the doors are done. I’ll be tackling small jobs and definitely owe you some pretty reveal photos soon.

Dutchmen and Disaster

Last night I was sanding my banister when disaster struck. I decided that it was time to glue on the little piece of wood that I had broken off at the bottom.


So I went over to the stove where I had stored it for safekeeping and my stomach dropped. I rooted around. I stacked up all the random crap that wasn’t lost. I threw all the random crap I stacked. I looked through the kitchen cabinets. It’s not to be found. Is it gone? Or did I just move it someplace so safe even I can’t find it? I called my dad. Maybe he’d remember.

He gasped, and then he hollered. “It wasn’t labeled? You can’t blame me for this!”

This wasn’t the news I hoped for, but it was a good idea. I hollered back, “Yes I do!”

I heard him shout about it to my mom and that was about it. But then I calmed down. There were several little fragments of wood and they’re all missing, so there’s a good chance I moved them all and forgot where I put them. And if it doesn’t turn up, I can repair the damage, but it’s extra work so I’ll defer the banister until after Phase 1. I have a bandsaw and a router, so I can probably make a piece close enough no one will tell. Or if not, I’ve seen this same banister in 3 other houses around the city, so it was obviously an off the shelf product to modernize Victorian houses in the 30’s. I might be able to hack a piece off one to fix mine.

Back to constructive progress. The front bedroom closet doors had thick varnish residue that quickly gummed up my sandpaper and threw me into the depths of despair. But then I had a breakthrough. First I wondered if the globs would come off with paint thinner. And I found that the sort of did if I scrubbed hard. But then I got a better idea. The sandpaper says it’s good for wet sanding. So I slathered paint thinner on everything! This might have been totally insane but it kept the sandpaper from clogging and I could make it last longer by rinsing the goop out of it with yes, more paint thinner.

I may have come closer to restoring these doors to like new condition than I wanted to at first, but the grain is stunning, and there’s no way I’d want to mask this.


Then the other job was on the ends where the doorknob holes used to be. I dealt with the faces by getting massive pocket door hardware, but the ends were exposed. Luckily, I still had a thin piece of wood left over from when the Irishman cut these doors down, and the holes were clean rectangles, so it was easy to make stain grade Dutchman patches. I ripped them to width on the Irishman’s table saw, cut them to length, and then glued them in.


Then I went out for the day and let the glue dry. Afterwards I put coarser sandpaper onto the sander and went at it. You can barely tell it’s there right? So I’m closing in on the end of this dirty job.


So can we hope for a few resolutions in the next post, or is that too much to ask for?

The biggest jobs left: Floors and Doors

There are only 2 big jobs on my short list right now: floors and doors. There’s also a whole bunch of little things that I’ll talk about next time.

I’ve decided to have the floors done. Because I think it’s the only way to stay sane and still finish the house before my 65th birthday. The Irishman has a guy I should call saved in his phone, but I’ve been trying to get this guy’s number for 2 weeks and I’m starting to wonder if something fishy is up, but it’s probably just his ADD in overdrive. Anyways, I’ve gotten numbers from reputable sources for three other contractors and they’re all coming in this week to give me estimates!

As for what I want on the floors, I have 3 different types of flooring, and I think I said before that I’m planning on using water based poly and no stain. For aesthetics, my living room floor must be light. That’s really the only constraint I have. A dark stain would hide the border. And though I could use a light stain if I wanted to, no stain is a lot cheaper. Picture them lighter than this. And not wavy from a botched sanding job.

Living room, front

Living room, front

The oil vs water debate is important. My understanding is that a good catalyzed water based poly is the best thing I can get. The Irishman told me that I should insist upon a good catalyzed oil based poly that isn’t legal anymore. He wasn’t joking. I’m leaning away from his advice because I’ve read that

  1. The best water based polys are better than the best oils anyway.
  2. I like the idea of my floors being really light and oil based poly ambers them and then continues to yellow over time.
  3. Oil based poly is bad for the environment and environmental regulations exist for a reason.
  4. Oil based poly stinks to high heaven and needs to cure a lot longer before you can walk on it.

The Internet tells me that top of the line water based finishes that take pro level skill to use are great. Like Bona Traffic. Of course the Internet also tells you every viewpoint under the sun, but this is the one I think I believe. Feel free to tell me your experiences though.

Then there are the doors. I thought they were all ready to stain. But I thought this mainly because I was delusional. They had rough spots, raised grain, and globby bits of varnish residue pretty much everywhere. I’m working on sanding them and figuring out what to do with the holes. Then I’ve already decided to use a tinted finish on them to even out the color. This will darken them to a mahogany color. It looked like this would just darken them a little, but they’ve lightened up quite a bit since then. I still think it’s the way to go.


Here are some of the flaws I won’t be hiding. The doorknobs had roses and keyhole escutcheons first, then were updated with rectangular back plates. I’m going back to the original and leaving the back plate outlines. I might put a dark filler in these holes.


But here’s a hole that’s not so okay. Yes, you can see right through to the bathtub. Do you think a dark tinted filler will do here? One co-worker says I should drill it out and put a dowel, but I don’t think I want to cut out the well-worn hole that’s already there and would rather just plug it with something that won’t change the look.

All The Progress While I Was Gone

The best things always happen to my house when I’m not involved. I balked at the price at first, but in the end allowed the Irishman to work 6 days in a row on my place. He finished a nice mix of things I couldn’t to myself and things that would take me long enough to make the Crooked House my retirement home.

To start, he hung all the kitchen cabinets. He said cutting them down to size and getting them tight to the soffits were both tough jobs. I’ll take his word for it. In the end they’re in, they’re square, and the fillers are scribed neatly into the crooked walls.


Boring through 10 inches of brick for the stove vent might have been a little hard to DIY. (Note where the old fan was before we ripped the wall out.)


Then he went ahead and did all the flooring repairs. These boards came out of the 2 back bedrooms upstairs 2 years ago and have been in my basement and then my back yard under the overhang since then. I’ve said this before, but someone did a hack job shifting the stairs over so the door could be in the living room instead of the kitchen, so I want to fix their poor installation bit by bit. The awkwardly thrown together landing now looks like somebody built it on purpose. And some extra oak boards tidy up where I made the doorway to the kitchen bigger. The plan is still to sand out that old pine in there. I could have done this myself but remember how the upstairs floors took me 2 months?


Then he decided that it’s not a big deal to install all the door jambs before the floors are done after all and put the last 2 in. All the better, now I can finish them before the floors, quite a relief. The crooked door to the front bedroom was apparently a pain.


The back bedroom door needed a threshold made out of a floorboard to transition gracefully from level to crooked floors. It’s made out of an original floorboard so we can pretend I have a finished house when we look at it.


And here’s the upstairs hall now, with all 5 pretty doors in place! It’s kind of funny that after I’ve lived without these doors for years, suddenly they can go in before the floors are done. But somebody wanted to keep entertained while he was marooned in South Philly.


Does it look better than the before photo yet?

Upstairs hall

Upstairs hall

And now the biggest door mismatch is in place. I was gonna paint all my doors until I realized that 8 of them are far to nice for me to paint if I want to sleep at night. So now all my doors will be stained, except for the ones that aren’t. I think these closet doors were made to be paint grade.


And finally, he’s not 100% done, and one of the things undone is the cleanup. Nothing stays tidy in this house for long. Here’s the living room I just emptied last week. I can barely walk through this but I decided not to mess with it till he’s done.