Learning to Make Full Size Doors

Some detailed information and some commentary about context, for a woodworker who wants to break into wood door construction. May 15, 2014

We have a customer who wants us to build multiple entry doors, both interior and exterior, for a nursing home renovation they are doing. They want them all made out of red oak. I have a couple of workers who built doors in the past so we are in the process of gathering the machinery to do this work. Over the past few years we have turned down this type of work since we were not equipped to do it, but having the shot at doing upwards of 20 similar doors, it seemed worth it to gear up, then we can add this to our list of products.

We are planning on building these with mortise and tenon joinery reinforcing the cope and stick design. Our big concern is that they want 3 narrow (about 6" to 8" wide and say 2 - 3 feet tall) windows in the top half of the doors. Each side window would have half of an arch on the top and the center one would be arched both directions on the top so that it all visually ties together. They need the leaded glass look as well, so we are searching for someone who can do that portion for us.

Overall the doors will be between 42" and 48" wide and 7 feet tall. Any suggestions on the best way to build the sections with the windows in them? One guy used a shaper and templates for curved sections but he just did what they told him to and doesn't remember the actual shaper setup. We do have a Shopbot.

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor D:
I am a professional custom door maker and I have strong opinions about general woodworkers making passage doors. My experience indicates that it is fine to get into it slowly and methodically, but it is not for everyone. I have long advocated for seeking the help of a professional for work outside your experience zone.

Everything comes together in a door, especially an exterior door - appearance, hardware, weather stripping, weather sealing, glass codes, hardware codes, thresholds, security, longevity, finish, design and execution, plus a warranty. There can be no weak spots. For many years.

Red oak is a poor wood choice for exterior doors. One can blow bubbles through a 12" long piece of red oak, and those vesicles will wick up water like a straw. This places red oak at bottom of the list of good door woods. It also moves quite a bit with normal changes in RH, and exterior doors are in constantly changing RH.

You may say it is okay since your customer has selected the wood, but do you have responsibility as a maker to point out potential problems? Are you aware of the other potential pitfalls with those glass openings? Code compliance gets complicated when introducing art glass panels. And what type of sealants will react with insulated glass sealants? Who will be responsible for code compliance? Codes are very specific and restrictive for nursing homes or any health facility.

The problem is that you don't know what you don't know, so it is very hard to include such things in your price/contract. Same for anyone contemplating such work. You will leave things out, and look like a hero on paper, but suffer when push comes to shove in the execution. And if you want this job to pay for new equipment to do the work... good luck.

I'm not saying you are incapable or irresponsible. Quite the opposite - you know to ask some good valid questions. I would recommend starting much smaller.

From the original questioner:
If red oak is a very poor choice for wood for the exterior door, what would be a good material to use? Mahogany?

The glass art is going to be inside a tempered glass insulated window. As far as sealants go, I am looking for suggestions. I will get a recommendation from the glass supplier, but is there something that works better across the board?

I am not expecting this one job to pay for the new equipment but if it leads to more work, the equipment will pay for itself over a period of time. And it allows us to expand the services we provide. Not to mention it is equipment that can be used for other areas of work.

Many shops have been closing down in our area the last few years. Those of us that are still here can either stay as we are or change with the times and expand into new areas of need.

From contributor I:
I would also advocate that you purchase the doors, add a markup, and make the easy money. No mistakes to learn from and no call backs. The only time I had a GC ask me to bid something like exterior doors, it was because he thought he could get by cheaper somehow, since he had already priced them out. It never worked out for me!

I have made them, and my favorite job was the front doors of a strip club. They just built a new place, and those doors are now on display inside, as the backdrop for a shadow box. 20+ years outside and now inside on display. I am very happy with those results. I got that job because they wanted the look of Champaign bubbles, in colored glass, in the field of the doors.

From contributor O:
I agree with contributor D and would add that white oak is a far better choice than red. Mahogany is a great choice for doors, but a completely different look. You said cope and stick reinforced with tenon. Hard to do without a tenoner. They are expensive, dangerous, and tricky to set up. A loose tenon or dowels with the cope may be easier with limited experience. In Florida, to make an exterior door that meets code is complicated. It must have an engineer's stamp and be tested for impact and typically cannot be made in a traditional way. It must be built up of cross laminations, say 3 - 3/4 layers. Otherwise they will be shuttering opening for storms. With a commercial door there also maybe electronics and panic bars that have to be accounted for.

From contributor J:
Not sure what exactly is going on here but everyone on this site had to build their first door at some time. There are many (millions of?) exterior doors made out of red oak that hold up just fine, tenons can be made using many processes and aren't going to kill you (or use dowels and yes, it's okay), finishes aren't rocket science, and if you are doing something you suspect is wrong, it probably is.

Personally your first mistake is asking in a public forum where guess what, most guys build doors. Research it on your own, go to other door manufacturers' websites, look in some old books, look at tooling manufacturers, look at machinery sites, look at Youtube videos, go to your local glass guy, research hardware, stop in at the local paint store. If by then you can't get a clear picture on how to properly machine and assemble a door and need to ask basic questions on an open forum, then you may not be suited to build doors. Other than that, go for it!

From contributor D:
The quality and knowhow that goes into doors made today is so much less than what was once common practice, common knowledge, that it has revolutionized the door industry of today. Accountants and managers rule and the dedicated, knowledgeable woodworker is relegated to being just a guy in the shop, and no one cares to listen to him or know what he knows. The old technology that was once inherent with door making is largely ignored by today's makers, both large and small.

Once upon a time, anyone near the business of making doors knew not to use red oak for exterior work. The old guys that I learned from referred to red oak as firewood since it was not as desirable as white oak for exterior doors. Today, red oak doors are made by the millions. As well as poplar and alder. And they fail - early, often and predictably. And then the metal and plastic and MDF guys step up with their "won't rot, crack, warp, split or fall part like wood doors" mantra, and the public moves en masse away from wood doors to gawd knows what.

The photo shows an alder door that had been installed locally, and this is after 2.5 years. One and a half years after the warranty. The company that makes the door has changed its name three times that I know of, to avoid lawsuits - I presume. They laughed when the homeowner contacted them. He calls me, and I tell him what he does not want to hear (no repairs possible, tear it all out and replace it all). Then he has them all removed and plastic doors put up in place.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From the original questioner:
Thank you for all of your input! Lots to learn and I am working on it. I still think it is worth getting into as another avenue for our company. But if we give up and don't do it, and then the next guy gives up, then the next guy, pretty soon there is no one building them and the public only has to choose between Lowe's or Home Depot.

From contributor O:
I have made a thousand doors over 30 years, and I also do historic building restoration. Our downtown historic doors were cypress with old growth pine frames. Construction was mort/tenon done on tenoner with cope and stick. Sash typically had a couple galvanized steel headless nails driven through the tenons from the painted side. Finishes were typically Vandyke crystal stain on inside with garnet lac exteriors, always oil primer and finish paint. I am convinced one of the reasons the exterior doors held up so well to weather for more than one hundred years was/is the asphaltum primer under the oil paint primer. Maybe the asphaltum - still gooey after a hundred years - allowed for wood movement but let the oil primer adhere.

From contributor G:
One tool to look at is the new Domino machine for doing large tenons. It may be a good way to do the tenoning for exterior doors. We have a small Domino machine, and the accuracy is very good, and easy to use.

From contributor H:
Username: johnnyllama
I think your reasons for asking these questions are sound and your desire to start building custom doors may well be a good one. However, I'm not so sure that this project is the one to start on. I have had some experience both in custom door making (mainly interior doors) and also nursing home construction including door installations (commercially produced doors). I think your biggest issue will be code issues. All the doors we installed, which numbered in the thousands, were required to be rated doors by a certified rating company. The nursing home industry and other health related facilities carry some of the strictest regulations you can imagine. If this were a residential or some other commercial project, I'd say do some homework and jump in. In this case, you really need to do your homework and check into all code and rating requirements. It may be so costly to comply that it makes no sense at your scale of production.