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Selecting Doors for your Historic Home

One frequently neglected step when restoring a historic home is the selection of millwork that is appropriate for the building’s age and style.  This includes interior and exterior doors, which are often hastily chosen after thumbing through a catalog or browsing in a showroom.  Few salespeople in home centers or millwork outlets know the differences between building styles such as  Queen Anne, Greek Revival, or Eastlake and are unable to help homeowners make informed decisions.  The result is doors that look out of place and detract greatly from the character of a historic home.

If you are considering replacing doors one of the first steps should be to identify the age of the originals.   Around 1700, frame and panel doors appeared in America and quickly replaced board and batten doors in all but the most rustic buildings.  Frame and panel doors are the type we see all around us today.  They are composed of vertical boards called stiles, two or more horizontal pieces called rails and a number of floating panels fitted into grooves.

Frame and panel door from The Practical Woodworker, Bernard E. Jones, ed., showing stiles, rails, panels and mortise and tenon joinery.

One way to determine the age of a door is to find out whether it was hand-made by a house joiner (a joiner is the 19th century version of a finish carpenter who first made and then installed doors, windows, molding, stair parts, etc.) or was machine-made in a factory. Before about 1850 much millwork was still made by hand using saws, special planes and chisels. Hand-made doors from this era have a few characteristics that make them relatively easy to spot.

Hand-made doors often had pinned mortise and tenon joints where the tenon was secured in the mortise pocket with a  round or square wooden pin.  Joiners frequently used a technique called “draw boring” where a hole was bored through the mortise and tenon for a pin, but the hole in the tenon was bored slightly off to the side.  When the pin was driven through the mortise and tenon it pulled the joint together very tightly.  This made the joints extremely strong and glue was unnecessary.

Circa 1855 door with two pins securing its tenon in mortise.
Another way to identify hand- made doors is to look at the way the panels were raised (for an explanation of panel raising using hand tools, look at this earlier post).  Hand-made door panels from the Federal, Greek Revival, and Gothic Revival styles often show tool marks that indicate which tools were used to make them.   Hand planes sometimes leave subtle marks called “tracks” where there is a line left by the edge of the plane’s cutting iron.  These marks are especially visible on flat, Greek Revival style doors where the cross-grain and long-grain meet at the corners of panels.  The edges on the raised fields of the panels are usually square rather than rounded (which was common on later, machine-made doors).
The faint horizontal lines on this ca. 1853 door were made by the edges of a plane iron when the joiner raised the panels. Note also the square edges on the raised panel field.

Planes marks can also been seen on the molding profiles, or sticking, in the rails and stiles surrounding the panels.  Unlike machine-made molding, which is perfectly even, hand-made molding sometimes will have subtle facets, chatter around twisted grain, and the occasional “tracks”.

Industrialization quickly changed the way millwork was produced in the U.S.  Aside from isolated rural areas, most doors produced after the Civil War were either machine-made or a combination of machine and hand work.   Steam powered factory equipment was well suited to the production of stock doors as it eliminated the need to pay legions of craftsmen to cut, saw and plane hundreds of rails, stiles, mortises, tenons and molding.

Although difficult to see under years of encrusted paint, wedges have been driven into the ends of the tenon to secure it in the mortise slot of this ca. 1870 door.

Another way to identify Victorian-era, machine-made doors is to look at the ends of the tenons.  Rather than securing the mortise and tenon joints with pins, machine-made doors usually have two wedges driven into the ends of the tenons.  This causes the ends of the tenons to fan out slightly and hold the joint together.  Although wedging was done by joiners, pinning was more common in early hand work.

Another feature of machine made doors is the coped joints.  Machines that cut the molding in rails and stiles had two cutting heads: one struck the molded profile that was visible and another struck its exact opposite or negative.  This allowed the joints to fit together, where the oppositely struck piece was able to fit snugly over positively molded  section.  This is the way doors are machined today.

The right piece is the stile with a machined cut molding profile. The left piece is the rail with a machine cut coping profile, which is struck as a negative of the molding and fits snugly over the positive profile.

There are exceptions to this, however, as some plane manufacturers did make coping planes that were paired with door and sash molding planes.   These struck the opposite of the molding profile just as machines did.  However, these planes are rarely found today, suggesting they weren’t used often.  When they were used, they were normally used to produce the muntins on windows.

I hope this quick primer will help you determine the age of interior and exterior doors.  Knowing these details will allow you select replacements that are appropriate for the age and style of your home.   The next step is to select the door configuration, including the number and arrangement of panels, the type of sticking or molding, and the dimensions of the rails and stiles.  If you are unsure what configuration you need, contact Historic Design Consulting to see if we can help.

 

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