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Buying a Reclaimed Door

The good, the bad and the pitfalls and plus points.

I’ve been dealing in reclaimed doors for over 25 years and I’ve seen them in all states from pristine to really only good for the village bonfire.

In that time I’ve stashed away a lot of experience and learned a lot about the methods used in making them through the centuries. In a series of little articles I hope to impart some helpful tips and will be pleased to answer (or try to) your queries and offer advice. You might even want to sell me some doors and you might even want to buy some.

Let’s start with that thorny old subject:

Paint stripping in a caustic bath. 

Note I’ve used the word caustic because many people call it acid stripping. It’s not – caustic soda is an alkali. Mind you it’s still not pleasant!

There used to be stripping tanks all over the place run by amateurs charging very little and always running into trouble with the local water board for contaminating everything in sight.

Old doors were invariably painted with a lead based oil paint which mixed with caustic soda is not nice but does imbue the stripped door with that classic faded look.

Strippers working today will invariably have a warm tank, this making the dipping time quicker.  This can be 8 – 10 hours or more if the paint is stubborn. Then it’s hosed down and will be left to drain dry.

The Old Wives’ tale of dipping causing the glue in the joints to dissolve is just rubbish. A decent old door didn’t use glue.  They have full mortice and tenon joints which can be clearly seen on the edge of the door. These were tightened with a small wedge hammered in. If the joint is a bit loose then hammer in another wedge.

Finally do not dip modern doors – emulsion paint is unaffected by caustic and in this case the narrow joints probably are glued and may dissolve!

Do not dip veneered doors. The veneer comes off.

Do not dip hardwood doors as it opens up the grain and ruins the natural patina. Oak is particularly badly affected.

Do not dip strip doors if you intend to repaint.  Just sand down the existing surface and repaint. It will save a lot of time.

After stripping a reclaimed door…

Removing all the paint will expose the history of the door and often show it’s on its 2nd or 3rd life with old lock and key holes.  Old splits in the panels filled with Plaster of Paris which was yesterday’s Polyfilla are also common. None of this really matters and can be sanded and waxed over adding to the character of the door. I often wonder what some doors have seen and heard.

What is not so good is uncovering rot, especially along the base of any door that’s been used in damp or external conditions. Front and back doors frequently have this problem hidden by the paint and the weather bar. A competent joiner can patch in replacement sections to make good.

Another problem is that of sap wood. This is the softer outer layer of the donor tree trunk. Perfectly adequate when the door was painted but when it’s stripped this sapwood acts as a sponge and soaks in the dirty caustic solution.

First you know about it is when the door has been washed down and allowed to dry. There will be strips that appear to be still wet. If still wet after a week or two then drastic action is required to stop them oozing out old caustic.

I’ve always believed in washing the patch several times with boiling water.  This gets a lot of it out but not all. Leave the door to dry in a breeze somewhere. In due course you can wax over this patch which has the effect of sealing in any residual moisture.

View our range of reclaimed doors here...

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