An article I wrote for the WESTVIEW 2008
Restoring the Historic Doors of the West Village
Published 06/01/2008 – 12:00 p.m. EST
Entrances welcome and beckon, as well as shelter and protect. Doors are not only critical from a functional standpoint, e.g., keeping the local cats out of the kitchen, but they also make a powerful statement to the community. A well-defined doorway reveals a home’s identity and tells us about its owners. Different door styles, such as Federal, Greek Revival and Italianate, grace Greenwich Village. Most of the doors here are from the Federal period (1780–1830), a time when the population grew rapidly with the expansion of commerce. It is important to preserve the architectural details of our homes, including doors, which are often the most vulnerable to outside elements and human abuse.
Before the end of the 19th century, hardwoods were being devoured on the eastern seaboard for shipbuilding, home and dock building, heating, cooking, and manufacturing. Meanwhile, everyone had to deal with the inevitable discoloration of the interior and exterior of their homes due to soot, pollution and cooking fires, causing demand for hardwoods to outstrip supply. Therefore, homeowners used inferior soft woods and had them painted and grained to resemble fine hardwoods like mahogany, birds-eye maple, walnut and white oak.
During this period, a traveling painter would grind the pigments and add binders, fillers and solvents to make paint. Pigment grinding was very time consuming, and paints were hardly perfect. Filling putty made of linseed oil and chalk was used to fill the grain and obtain a glass-like surface. Farmers and laborers would have used milk paint and lime wash since it was easy to make, contained inexpensive ingredients and could be applied easily.
Vulnerable architectural details deserve to be protected because they contribute to local pride, property values and neighborhood appeal. Today, the four greatest threats to wood doors are ultraviolet radiation, pollution, moisture and mold. As a craftsperson who focuses on wood restoration, I suggest monitoring the health of your doors and trim. Peeling paint or discoloration is a good indication of water damage. Water swells the wood and eventually creates operational difficulties. Determine the condition of your doors and decide whether or not you want to restore them to their original state or alter their appearance. Check the hardware, weather stripping and caulking to see if it needs addressing. If you live in a historic district and want to change the color of your door, you will need to get permission from your local landmark committee. Some finish choices include stain and varnish, graining, antique and distressed glazing, oiling, and lime waxing. You will also have to choose a sheen (high gloss, matte, satin, etc.) for the finish.
In my work, I use a state-of-the-art German sander and hook it up to a high-powered vacuum. This system eliminates dust at the surface, which produces a swirl-free finish, saves sandpaper costs and frees the environment of chemical paints and dust particles. I also use a cabinet scraper, which I find to be a superior stripping device. A scraper cuts away at the old finish and leaves little sanding to be done. When needed, I use Swedish putty, which acts as a gesso to create a super fine porcelain finish. The paints and varnishes I use are produced in the Netherlands, a country with strict environmental standards, high quality commitments and a long history of paint making. I also work with a professional ebonist who repairs damaged wood and hardware.
While not every door can be correctly and completely restored, with intensive and meticulous care, most doors can require a fine finish that enhances their original beauty, respects the tradition of the trade and helps maintain the appeal of Greenwich Village.