Durable Wood for a Screen Door

A craftsman's question about screen door materials kicks off a long discussion about the qualities of various wood species, old growth and second growth. October 4, 2005

I have a client who is interested in some custom screen doors. I wanted to use something stable like quarter-sawn white oak, but my local hardwood supplier just informed me that quarter-sawn white oak is in short supply right now.

I was wondering if anyone had any opinions on the stability of plain-sawn white oak for this sort of application or could offer better alternatives? I'm also considering mahogany, but the door will be painted and it almost seems a shame, and I hear mahogany doesn't take paint well.

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor F:
For decades screen doors have been made of pine. I would suggest using poplar. If sealed properly it should hold up fine.

From contributor C:
I agree that poplar would be an excellent choice. I re-manufactured the doors and windows for a 200 year old stone house. When we removed the original millwork, made of poplar, most of it was in reasonable condition.

I would use full mortise and tenons, and apply oil primer prior to assembly. There is documentation of some really great Victorian designs for the screen door. Is this what your client has in mind?

From contributor L:

I have to say I would never use poplar as an exterior grade wood. The old growth wood might have held up well, but not the stuff we get today. I would give the doors a five year life rating even if they are sealed well. Spanish cedar is a great outdoor wood, it is similar to mahogany, and it paints well as long as you don't mind seeing the pores of the wood. You can always use a pore filler to make it a flat surface. Spanish cedar is also one of the lesser priced woods (less expensive than pine and mahogany), and a great value.

From contributor M:
I agree with Contributor L. We've built a lot of exterior doors in the last few years and would never think of using poplar. Poplar just rots too easily. There is nothing wrong with C-select pine though. That's what we use.

I also recently noticed that there's an exterior grade MDF available now, in thicknesses up to at least 1 1/2 inches. It's supposedly waterproof. We've never used it, and I'd be a little wary, but, theoretically, it could be used for painted exterior screen doors? Has anyone tried this?

From contributor F:
I have used poplar in a couple of exterior applications. It has now been seven years (exposed to everything mother nature has) and it looks as good as the day it was put there.

From contributor G:
Contributor L and Contributor M, have you actually experienced poplar rotting within five years?

From contributor S:
If one performs a search of this site for exterior woods, or poplar rot, or similar, you can see the answers and opinions posted previously.

There is a big difference in the responses from professional woodworkers that have spent a working lifetime observing how wood behaves in exterior situations and the responses of well-intentioned, thoughtful woodworkers that have opinions based upon hearsay or short term narrow observation.

Quarter sawn white oak is a good choice, and flat sawn is ok, as is Honduras mahogany (not the mahogany substitutes). Poplar is the worst (I have seen it deteriorate in less than five years many times).

Screen doors, storm doors or combination doors are all about exposure and finish and maintenance. Hardware and closures matter in the big picture. And realize that you may be making a solar collector, so the space between primary and secondary doors needs to be ventilated.

From contributor L:
Contributor G - I have seen poplar rot in two years, I have seen basswood rot in 1 1/2 years, and I have seen modern soft pine rot within five years. Granted most of these were not properly taken care of, but this is what happens in real life. A paint job on something as exposed as a screen door should be renewed every two or three years. But most people will not do that until the paint is coming off in huge flakes. Woods such as white oak, redwoods, and Spanish cedar will withstand many years of weather abuse unfinished and still come out unscathed, a little more silver-gray but still solid.

From contributor F:
I agree about the MDF. Even if it was waterproof, trim work needs little strength (MDF molding) but a door needs a lot of strength. As to wood species choice, it depends on each doors situation.

I built a nice screen door of poplar a few years back. I wasn’t concerned about it because it is protected by 10 feet of porch over-hang in front, and plenty on the sides as well.

It really is a fact that the lumber that came from those original American trees that grew in thick, established forests and had to fight for water and sunlight with the mature trees as they grew had rot resistance properties that will probably never be seen again.

I live in the Pacific Northwest and I can still get my hands on a chunk of old growth Douglas fir log left behind in the forest, and that stuff is still sound inside of the sapwood. The same goes for old growth redwood. New growth redwood rots away pretty fast as does fir.

From contributor S:
Contributor F has touched on the foundation of the confusion over poplar durability. The old growth, dense as can be, dark green poplar heartwood is very durable. Here in Indiana, there are 150 year old cabins, siding, exterior trim and more that is sound and secure. It came from the giant poplar trees (6'-8' diameter) that grew slowly over a period of centuries. Today's poplar is more like corn, only slightly denser, but about as durable.

Density as a quality is also being observed in some of the recovered lumber coming up from the Great Lakes and other watery environments. 100 annual rings-per-inch makes for superior materials for musical instruments. This is wood like no one alive today has ever seen.

From contributor S:
I’m not sure about using poplar as an exterior grade wood. People like to think mahogany and Spanish cedar, not a true cedar, are good exterior materials. I think it has to do with the mahogany wood boats we are all use to seeing. I have seen and visited mills in South America that harvest these two species and there is no one down there that can tell what is what and most of the time the order is filled with numerous species as long as they appear similar. The choices for exterior use are simple: redwood, a little brittle, bald cypress, almost impossible to get not the same as golden which is plantation grown today and is no better than pine Western red cedar, the least expensive, best machine-ability, and best decay resistance.

From contributor F:
I live in the forest where Western red cedar grows. They log around here all the time and I get to see the western red cedar logs that carpenter ants eat like candy while they are still standing.

The truth is, only the old growth redwood and western red cedar that took 60 years or so to add an inch of growth in diameter is truly decay resistant. I see western red cedar decks (second growth) rot in a few years and when I was further south in California, I saw redwood decks rot in a few years (second growth). An old growth section of Douglas fir will outlast second growth redwood or western red cedar in the weather.

From contributor S:
If you buy from reputable lumber dealers, then the Honduras mahogany you pay for will be Honduras, not a generic red tropical. With the CITES certification hassles, no logger is going to substitute another species when he can easily sell that species without CITES paperwork. Since Brazil is not currently shipping Honduras, he'd be unable to move the substitute if he listed it as Honduras.

The reason those boats we are so used to seeing are made of mahogany is the same reason(s) for making screen doors and other exterior work our of the wood; stability and movement (very low) in service are superior, then there is the rot resistance.

I have a nice moldy collection of woods and joints and glues that dates back 25 years in some cases, and the Honduras still isn't showing any sign of rot or movement. Some of the other woods vanished years ago. There is no substitute equal.

From contributor S:
Let me say again that Western red is far superior to mahogany. As far as decay in the forest, what’s posted above is correct. If western red comes in contact with soil the acid in the soil along with sustained moisture, typical on the floor of a rain forest in B.C. or Washington State will accelerate decay and invite carpenter ants or other forest floor dwelling insects. Cedar from Canada is the best choice, but it must be coastal old growth though. As far as mahogany goes it works fine as long as the finish is maintained, but could never be used as a siding or shingle material like WRC.

From contributor S:
To contributor S: The fact that the WRC cutting is coming under good management plans is attractive. This is something that is needed for any species, mahogany being one of the more important. The CITES is a help, but has caused a large amount of illegal logging - something most of us would rather do without. The situation is complicated by corruption and the system. I really have seen WRC rot here in Indiana, and after as little as 15 years such as deck parts (balustrades, newels, and boards), louvers, and exterior trim. The same goes for redwood. You say the old growth WRC is better, and I would agree, but it is under pressure for no more logging, as I hear it. There is no substitute for mahogany for the bulk of our work.

From contributor B:
I will be making a replica screen door (mortise and tenon, etc.) to replace my old one, and then it will be primed and painted. Of interest, the original must go back to the 1930's, and it was put together with dowel pegs that have now snapped. It will see water back splashing up from the small porch, but it will not be in standing water. About ten years ago, I made a screen door in select pine (that you get at a regular lumber yard) and this has held up well. I never gave it much thought. But with sites like this, I am this time.

There is a big local lumber yard here with hardwoods (better than what I used last time), but the bottom line in our service-less society and with clueless employees will be that I have to pick from piles of wood vaguely identified as popular, oak, pine, etc.

The choices listed here are pine, Spanish cedar, popular (I clearly won't be able to specify old growth), Western cedar (but I doubt that I'll be able to insist on first growth at my local lumber yard), white oak (again, no way my supplier would have quarter-sawn), and I see Western hemlock listed as the material for one commercial site. My big concern is warping. I can plane/shape the wood so it will be good on day one, but I'm going to be annoyed if it's warped next spring.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor E:
As in most species, the rot resistant extractives are in the heartwood. I'd give heavy odds that the 200 year old poplar millwork was all heart. All the poplars big enough for commercial harvesting of heartwood are long gone. Commercially available poplar is virtually all sapwood, loaded with carbohydrates to feed insects and without extractives to resist fungi.

Comment from contributor R:
Here in the Northwest, we are lucky to have so many good choices when it comes to rot resistant lumber. My family has been building in Oregon for over a hundred years, so I have seen first hand what lasts and what doesn't.

Oregon white oak will last forever. I have seen white oak fence posts that were split by hand and driven into the ground that are as sound as they were when they are put in over 120 years ago. WRC is another good choice, but steer clear of the sap wood. Port Orford cedar, also known as Lawson's cypress, or white cedar (loggers call it yellow cedar too), will outlast WRC, and is stronger. Both coast and giant redwood also work well, but in painted applications, it can become brittle, or be subject to dry rot. My advice would always be to spend the extra $1.00 a bf for a wood that will last. Save the poplar for interior applications.