Building our Walnut Dutch Door (or “DIY Door-ty”)
We already had a list of house projects we wanted to do before we had even finished moving into our new home. The front entryway was one of the first projects and we knew that we wanted to replace the front door. Dutch doors were very appealing, but they were only available from custom door builders which drove the cost way up. So, of course, what else were we to do except design and build our own!? This was our initial sketch of the design, which turned out to be surprisingly similar to the final product.
The next task was to decide on a wood species and determine how much wood to get. African mahogany seemed like a popular choice for a front door, so we went to a local hardwood dealer with this in mind. While looking around, we found the walnut and realized that we much preferred the colors of walnut to the usual red hues of other hardwoods. We picked through the boards to avoid knots (and thus waste) and brought it home.
Next, we rough cut the boards to length. This made it much easier to transport the pieces and verified that we had enough wood. The width of the boards were cut to the final dimension now on the table saw. (Since the width of the boards varied, we were quite particular in which section of the board to use in order to avoid knots and cracks and to obtain the best grain patterns.) We ran all the boards through the joiner and planner before proceeding.
The panels came together pretty easily. The most difficult part was ensuring that the size of the panel was accurate before cutting it to the final width and height. (There was no easy fix if it was cut too small, and the frame wouldn’t be built for weeks, so the measurements had to be correct.) The boards for each panel were joined with tongue and groove joints and glued, sanded, and finished before construction of the frame continued. (This prevented the perimeter of the panel from being unfinished and unprotected from the elements, as would have been the case if we assembled the door completely before finishing the panels.)
For the frame, the groove for the panel was cut first. The groove was cut with multiple passes of a dato blade. Since the panel was already completed, it could be directly test fit into the groove. However, a little extra room was still allotted to account for the finish coats which would be applied inside the groove before assembly. Grooves were also cut into the bottom of the frames for each half of the door to accept a track for weatherstripping. The inside walls of all the grooves were lightly sanded with some sandpaper stapled to a piece of scrap.
The tenons were cut next. These were also done with the dato stack, but on a table saw with a crosscut sled. This went quickly to shape the tenons, but they still needed some cleanup work with the chisel. (Although, this was probably due to imperfections in chiseling out the mortises rather than problems with the tenons themselves.)
Next, the rails were cut to length and the mortises marked out. Unfortunately, the boards were too tall to fit in the mortising machine we had access to. We ended up drilling out most of the waste with a brad point drill bit in a drill press, then cleaned up the mortises with chisels. This took quite a while to get the frames to dry fit together nicely. In hindsight, we probably should have found a way to use a mortising machine, but we were in a tight time crunch and underestimated how much chiseling it would take to get the mortises cleaned out.
Once the frames fit together, most of the tenons and haunches needed to be trimmed in order to get tight joints on the face of the frame. This was probably due to too much variance between the opposite sides of the frame rails when cutting the tenons. A stop should definitely be used to ensure both faces of the rails match perfectly. (The stop was broken on the sled at the time and the precision necessary for these cuts was definitely underestimated.) After trimming the butting end of the rails, the haunches and tenons also needed adjustment. The accuracy required in cutting the haunch of the tenon can’t be stressed enough; take your time on these cuts. Inaccurate cuts here will very likely lead to more time adjusting (as well as a slightly narrower door). After the frame face joints looked good, each panel was entirely dry fit together and clamps applied.
The last part which was cut was the shelf. We used a scrap of packaging styrofoam placed on our current front door to determine the size and edge angle that looked good (and that cleared the door frame). We then transferred the measurements to the board and cut the edge angles on the table saw with the crosscut sled. After marking the same curve on the front corners, they were rounded out on the drum sander. Slots for three biscuits were cut into the face of the door and rear of the shelf to provide for easier alignment during gluing.
Before the glue-up, all finish coats were applied to the groove and the inside face of the frame parts. Masking tape was applied to protect the areas of the stiles which would be glued to the rails. A metal putty knife was used to remove any finish which bled over the corner to the frame faces. (This technique seemed to work very well. There are no visible signs that indicate the inside edge of the frame was finished before the face of the frames.)
Even though the dry clamping “practice run” allowed for a smoother glue-up, gluing the first panel was still stressful. We used Titebond III and applied it with a small silicone glue brush from WoodCraft. Each tenon has multiple surfaces, and the frame still required a good amount of clamping pressure to bring it together. As expected, the glue-up of the second panel went a little smoother. After the frames were clamped, the extra glue was tacky enough to scrape off with a putty knife. Any glue which was visibly filling a gap was removed to just under the surface while still tacky. Those gaps were then filled with a mixture of Titebond III and fine walnut sawdust.
After a full day in the clamps, it was time to sand. The joints required a lot of sanding to remove the extra sawdust/glue mixture which had cured on the surface. (If you use this technique, be sure to clean off as much as you can before it fully cures to save on sanding time.)
The mortises for the hinges and latches, the holes for the knobs, and the notch for the latch to connect the doors were then cut out. These were done at this stage because cutting them after finishing would expose areas of raw wood which would be more susceptible to weather damage.
It was then time for the final finish! We wanted the door to look like wood and wanted to avoid the gloss look attributed with many exterior doors. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds because most protective coatings impart a fairly glossy final finish. After some research, we came across Modern Masters Exterior Dead Flat Varnish, which is the topcoat we used to keep the door’s “wood” look. Beneath the varnish, we applied a coat of Minwax One Coat Polyurethane. (Our original plan was to use West Systems 105/207 epoxy as the base coat because of its superior weather protection, but the Dead Flat varnish wasn’t able to reduce the sheen enough to our liking. But since we’ve been looking for an excuse to make something with epoxy for quite some time now, this was actually a great reason to make the purchase even though we didn’t use it on the door.) When we tested the final finishes, we went based on which look we liked the best. An epoxy base coat may provide a more durable, longer lasting finish in exchange for a more glossy sheen.
Final before and after photos. Thanks for reading!