Choosing Wood and Finish for Church Doors

Woodweb pros weigh in on material choice for a set of chapel doors. November 30, 2009

I work at a seminary and our chapel has six large front doors that we will need to replace in the next year. The current doors are mahogany and were built decades ago, but they are beginning to crack beyond repair. The decision to replace them has been made by those in charge. Our shop is tooled properly, and we have a medium sized Delta shaper with a power feeder, and we make doors like this all the time - paint grade. We are in the midst of deciding what wood to use, and with the economy crunch as it is, we really don't want to go with mahogany again. The price is just crazy. The doors are not directly exposed to much rain or sunlight due to the large overhang of the front porch.

Here is what we are thinking:
1. Fir.
2. White Oak.
3. Sapele or similar mahogany-type.
4. Cypress - too soft?

The wood will be stained dark and finished, hopefully with Cetol, if I can convince them to try it. Any suggestions are appreciated!

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor G:
I make the majority of my exterior doors from Spanish cedar.

From contributor L:
Seems to me the notion that the existing doors have lasted decades ought to give you pause as to fixing something that doesn't appear to be broken. My vote is always to go with Honduran mahogany for exterior woodwork. I vote the same whether the work is being painted or stained. The question I'd pose is how much are you really saving by purchasing a less expensive wood if the labor is the same but the doors don't last as long?

From contributor W:
I am sure cost will always be an issue however so will value and durability. Is the intent for the church to stand a few more decades? I say this as our church was built in 1839 and I sit in there on Sundays and keep thinking of ways to keep it up!

From contributor T:
I'm always confused about the Honduran mahogany issue. I have read that it is commercially extinct , yet I can buy it at my local hardwoods distributor. That being said, I agree with contributor L. You've got a proven time-tested material right in front of you. However, I think you should reconsider your dark stain. Many manufacturers will not warrant a door that has been painted or stained dark. Some even go so far as to say that dark stains should be avoided.

From the original questioner:
Contributor L - I agree with your reasoning 100%. Is Honduran mahogany just that much more durable than other woods like Spanish cedar? I know the Spanish cedar is a good bit softer, but is it less rot resistant? The current doors, especially the door panels, have split on the glue joints. I am guessing these current doors are 20-30 years old. They are certainly not the original doors for this near-century old chapel. This chapel is huge compared to most churches and is extremely well built - mostly concrete. This building will probably outlive lots of churches that are being built right now. In some ways it's an honor for me to work for this place and build the doors for such a nice chapel. Anyone have any thoughts on white oak?

From contributor L:
I don't have any experience with cedar. I wouldn't use it for your project myself, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be ok to use. It's not only much softer but much less dense as well. As for white oak, when I take on a project I first look to the existing styles and materials as a guide. It gives me something to hang my hat on. (I always like to have about 12 good reasons for doing anything I do and I keep 11 of them to myself unless I need them. I guess I've just worked on too many jobs over the years run by committees.)

Contributor T - as for Honduran it doesn't of course come from Honduras, it simply refers to the dark reddish color as opposed to Phillipine which is greyer. In my world, there are only two kinds of mahogany even thought just about everyone understands that technically speaking there are hundreds maybe thousands of varieties.

To the original questioner: as for the existing doors splitting in the panels, that, I'd guess, is probably the most common problem with big panels. The wider the panel the greater the chance it'll have problems. There are lots of resources on how to work around the expansion issues.

I'd bet my model airplane that in the existing doors, the panels don't float in the stiles and rails like they ought to. Don't make the same mistake. If you can get away with it, make the panels in the new doors narrower by installing an extra stile or two.

From contributor O:
I don't know about the cypress. I have seen very old greenhouse doors made of cypress that held up well but I don't think that quality wood is still readily available. All your other choices would work well along with the Spanish cedar. I would try to get quarter sawn stock for the stiles and rails.

From contributor S:
If you’re looking to save money you can use African mahogany it has a more ribbon-like grain but still looks ok. I like Hondorus mahogany better but it's expensive. We use both. Here's an example of African mahogany doors we made.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From contributor Z:
Use mahogany again. African is fine. You will not save a whole lot using Spanish cedar or any other wood. How many board feet are we talking about? Maybe 50 board feet per door of waste is ok. You know that if done properly these doors will last beyond your lifetime.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the responses. Contributor S - nice doors. African mahogany was one of the ideas we had. We just built a door for an entirely different building, unfortunately out of yellow pine (again I had no say in the matter) that will be painted white. It's 4' X 8' and the panels definitely float. I've built a lot of cabinet doors and I know that especially on entry doors, they have to float. Oddly enough, on the existing Chapel doors, the cracked panels do float. Most of them you can easily wiggle around by hand about 3/16" or so. We will check out the prices on African and Honduran mahogany.

From contributor V:
A few things to consider: if the existing panels are that loose, then water is getting in, perhaps even freezing, wetting the wood, and causing compression set. As it dries, they will split in the end grain. Panels should be very tight in their respective plows (though able to move), and some sort of end sealing/pre-finish considered.

The use of smaller parts is a good strategy. These big exterior doors with one panel over another, whether by fashion or economy, are not long for this world. Smaller one-board parts, integral moldings, cope and stick joinery, haunched mortise and tenon will all contribute to the longevity/stability.

Dark finishes do cause problems if the sun hits them. All commercial door manufacturers will exclude dark finish, stain or paint, from their warranty, should they have one. Overhangs (bigger=better up to a point) will prevent UV attack as well as water. Think about how a finish will fail (it will), and how to deal with that as long-term maintenance. Cetol is the better finish choice. "Staining" good wood is foolish behavior in my opinion. Let the real wood, the best material, show in all its beauty and warts. This can get into the philosophical arena real quick (how appropriate for a seminary), but we can root it in pragmatism to say that clear finishes are easier to apply and maintain, especially long-term.

White oak is an excellent choice for exterior doors, particularly rift or near-quartered. Pattern grain Honduras mahogany is better, teak is better than mahogany. The white oak is where I would go, with what little I know about your situation.

True economy (now referred to as green) is gained by using the best materials available along with good design and practice. Good materials age well (think copper, limestone, clay or slate roof tile, etc). Poorer choices just age, and do so quickly (think T-111, or anything finger-jointed). Replacing or repairing the doors every few years is false economy, though it may keep someone employed.

From the original questioner:
I had forgotten one thing about the doors. The outside of the doors (and whole chapel for that matter) will be white paint, so that solves that problem. The interior will be dark stain, which won't matter since sunlight won't hit them.

As for why the panels are cracking, there is another set of doors (same style, size, age, and mahogany) that lead into the actual sanctuary from the breezeway in between. They are cracked as well. I do not know why they would crack, and I don't know how long they have been that way. I have been here for two years and they have been that way since long before I got here.

All I can suspect is that the wood wasn't properly dried. The Chapel is used and air conditioned every day, so I guess the HVAC has kept it so dry in there over the years that the wood has just lost a lot of moisture. Structurally I cannot see why the door panels on those interior doors would have cracked b/c they are definitely floating.

From contributor L:
I understand the existing panels are movable (that'll teach me to bet my model airplane). You haven't mentioned what area you're in. I'm curious to know your location and even more curious as to the current humidity there.

From contributor P:
The alternative to doing something correctly is to do it incorrectly. Are you sure you can't repair the existing doors? I for one am not crazy about the African mahogany. It seems to move too much from the experience I have with it. The best thing might be a stave core with vg fir or mahogany. Seal all parts with epoxy sealer prior to painting. Old growth or reclaimed materials would be best, vertical grain even better. The cypress has a beautiful grain for stain on one side and takes paint well for the other side. Again search for old material.

From the original questioner:
I suppose the existing doors could be reclaimed (the lumber, at least). They are all very functional but they have enough damaged areas to warrant full replacement, simply for the fact that the building will be getting a full remodel soon. The doors aren't so bad that they have to be done right now but they might as well be replaced now while we are remodeling. Old doors would look a bit odd. The epoxy thought is a good one. Would you suggest West-System 105 with the clear-coat hardener? Does paint bond well to it?

From contributor O:
I agree with contributor S on the issue of movement in African mahogany. Some boards seem to twist much more than others and it’s hard to identify which ones will move before you cut them.

From the original questioner:
Contributor L, we are near Raleigh, NC. Humidity around here is not quite "tropical" but it can get pretty humid. Note the interesting thing is that the doors that are worse cracked are the ones in the second "row" of doors that you walk through that are 100% interior doors. The ones that go from the foyer into the sanctuary are the ones that have sustained the most damage. The HVAC runs 24/7 on this building since it gets used very frequently, so I guess over the years the dehumidifying effect when the actual AC is on has taken a toll on the wood. The exterior doors have some damage, but it's not too bad.

Does anyone else think white oak would be a suitable choice? It is harder than most mahogany that I've seen, and from what I can tell it's almost as rot resistant. We certainly need a good combination of hard and rot-resistant, which is why I am hesitant to go with fir or cypress (although they are beautiful).

From contributor G:
I have complained about African mahogany being a very unstable wood on a few forums only to be shot down by dozens of patrons who say that the wood is stable and beautiful. I have had two 300+bd ft loads and both of them I nicknamed wildwood. Most of the boards, when cut, planed and jointed would change their shape dramatically. I had some 5/4 that I had a hard time getting straight, flat, true 3/4" thick boards out of.

From contributor V:

A few more thoughts: I'll bet contributor L's model airplane that the degraded doors, both interior and exterior, are degraded more by the original use of non-kiln dried (or properly dried) lumber. Churches are susceptible to well-intentioned but misguided or less than professional volunteers that miss important details, though their heart is in the right place. 20% moisture content donated lumber, or something like it, then worked into doors would fit this cause/effect.

The fact that HVAC is on 24/7 only means the environment is stable. For lumber to shrink in a stable interior environment means that it was not properly dry to start with. As it reached EMC, it decreased in cross section dimensions, opening up cracks. If these are paired doors, build flatness and long-term stability are more important than a single swing door. Twists have a way of magnifying in paired doors, and they show more prominently. It makes lumber choice and build quality more critical. Paired doors, depending upon latching, astragals, etc, will benefit from intentional crowning.

Solid wood v. built-up stiles: I favor solid, but then I have access to great lumber, properly dried, and our process weeds out the pieces that may cause problems. If you have good wood, and/or can laminate for thickness (3 ply), then this would be your best bet. Built-up stiles require more parts, all accurately made, and more joints. There are more things to go astray, unless this is what you do every day.

Seal the bottoms and tops of the doors with West epoxy before hanging, after fitting. You will never get a better chance to do so, and the painters won't touch those surfaces. Don't believe any myths about letting wood 'breath.' No need to paint the doors with epoxy, unless you are on the beach, in the Tropics. Proper paint and Sikkens will be fine, and easy to renew in the future - very important.

When you do remove the existing doors, do yourself a favor and do a bit of forensic investigation (cut into the joints, take moisture content readings, etc) to see if you can determine the cause(s) of the problems. Post your thoughts here so we can all benefit. Then, recycle the wood into an attractive public area cabinet or other use that can acknowledge the good work these doors did perform for many years. At least you know the wood is at EMC now, and is stable to use.

From contributor R:
To the original questioner: by now your mind should be jelled. Aren't you glad WOODWEB has so many professional on it?

From contributor P:
Wow, some good thoughts and experiences being exchanged here. As far as the epoxy sealer goes we use Smiths from CA. Glad to see I wasn't the only one not having a good experience with African mahogany. There are of course several good methods to fabricate the doors; choice of material is critical and the idea of extremes of temperature and humidity on opposite sides is a strong factor to consider.

I feel that no matter what wood you use it is subject to damage. Some will damage more readily than others but the damage is almost always going to be at some squared off edge or at the bottom rail. Avoiding the damage on the edges is tough, at least the kick rail can be, although I don't like them covered with a piece of bronze for protection.

From the original questioner:
Contributor V - you are probably right about the doors not being made from properly dried lumber. While this is actually not an official church (it's a seminary chapel, so it has no congregation only students) it is possible that the lumber was bought at a deal from somewhere. They were either made by our campus or made locally, I can't recall.

Contributor R – “jelled" as in becoming gelatin, or "jelled" as in becoming firm regarding what we should do? I've been coming to WOODWEB for years, and I love this place. My plan is to print this thread out and give it to the man who will make the final decision.

Contributor P - yes the doors will suffer damage, it's inevitable. With 1500 students marching in and out 2-4 times a week, plus conferences, etc. there's just going to be some wear.

From the original questioner:
I am still partial to the idea of using white oak. Anyone else have any opinions on this? Is white oak as rot resistant as Honduran mahogany?

From contributor P:
We have worked on several restoration jobs that had white oak exterior trim, usually tudor style places from the 20's and 30's. The trim has held up remarkably well for the 80 years plus that it has been there. There are several possible reasons. One might be that in some of the situations the wood had been treated with what appears to be creosote.

Other situations had the wood in a fairly sheltered application. Maybe it is just the fact that these were fairly high end houses and they may have been taken care of better than most, such as painting on a regular basis. White oak does have a history of durability and it is certainly hard enough for your needs. If it is appealing to the powers that be, then use it. I cannot emphasize enough that you should know your supplier and how the wood is dried and de-stressed. The last thing you need if you use the oak is to cut it on the tablesaw and have it tie itself in knots. Again, I might check out someone who reclaims old material, can saw it rough to the approximate sizes required and perhaps kiln it to make sure of the MC and kill the powderpost beetles.

From contributor I:
I've been reading this discussion and it sounds like the white oak is the greatest, so why is it that Honduran mahogany became so popular as to make it hard to find? Is it all the rage or is it really such a superior wood?

From the original questioner:
Knowing what I do about Honduran mahogany, basically it's one of the more rot-resistant woods out there and pretty stable so long as it's been cured properly. I've built a few interior products with it, and it's very nice to work with. It planes, sands, and stains wonderfully (although I prefer it natural, not stained). It's one of my favorite turning woods. I love to make bowls out of kiln dried Honduran mahogany, but it's not easy/cheap to find in 3" thick material.

From contributor S:
Honduran mahogany is a limited export from Brazil, apparently due to external pressure/internal discord. It is also known the world over as a superior wood, and has been distributed as such. White oak is harder, heavier, harder to dry, and not in quite as wide a distribution, and in good supply. While the popularity of the mahogany contributes (high demand) to availability, the other component is low supply, hence expensive.