By Steve Cymbalski

The following has been written for homeowners who would like to apply a maintenance or refresher coat of Paint or Varnish on their wood doors before the existing finish has begun to fail; that is, before it begins to crack or show wear.   These instructions are not intended for varnish which has failed.

(this page is under construction and may have usage, grammer, spelling and technical errors. Besides I attended public schools)

Our job at the Tinker's Wagon is the full restoration of wood doors - this means the removal of the doors, the stripping of old finish, cutting out rotten wood and old repairs and the splicing in of new wood, installion of new glass and in some cases moldings, and sanding, finishiing and teh reinstallation with the old locksets or new locksets.  Any finishing we do is directly related to the woodwork we perform; we are woodworkers, we generally do not perform site work or apply maintenance coats to wood doors.   We are sorry, but there is  not enough time for us to respond to all of the calls we get to perform general maintenace and refinishing and, in some cases, small repairs, to historic wood doors.  As the owner of this company, I really enjoy the shop work - the jigsaw puzzle work of cutting and fitting wood.  As it is now, we get dozens of calls a month from people as far away as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut (and one from Ohio) as well as everyone in Brooklyn,  Manhattan, Westchester and Nassau Counties who hope we can apply a maintenance coat of finish to a set of doors; if I attempted to take all of these jobs I would need four crews of two people each; in essence I would become a business manager and I might as well fold it in and sell Amway Products for a living or manage a McDonalds.  I am contemplating speaking with some wood strippers and finishers in the Brooklyn area in an effort to seek out those who will work on doors in situ and posses the knowledge base and know-how to perform refinishing work, while making me feel confident enough so as to recommend them here.  But short of having done that, I am also aware that there are a lot of intelligent and creative people in my service area - and elsewhere -  whom I trust can perform routine maintenance on their own doors with the very same results I achieve, provided they take the time to learn a little about the materials and the process involved.   As many of you have found over the years, when you call or email me about maintenace, I will ask if you are somewhat handy yourself and if you would care to attempt this yourself and I offer up the steps on how to maintain a wood finish.  Some people have reservations about tackling this minor work, but trust me, anyone I have ever worked for in Brooklyn and anyone who has ever contacted me from Brooklyn is at least as capable (and intelligent) as I am and should consider performing this maintenance themselves; previous customers of mine should feel free to pick up the phone and call me if they have questions.   Now, if you were to tell me time is the issue and that after working all week, you would rather just spend the money and have someone do it, I would agree, but we still don't have a list of people willing to come out and spend an hour or so sanding the doors, dusting them off and returning over several consecutive days to put successive coats of finish on them.  So hear goes:

What you need to know about wood doors and finishes:
The finish on doors, be it paint or clear coat over wood or stain should last for years provided it is maintained.  The natural enemies of wood and wood finishes are sunlight, temperature changes (and extremes), and mositure in addition to the wear and tear we put on them when we allow strollers and bicycles to bang against them.  The sunlight we have to deal with where we find it and if we use proper finishes with UV protection or paint, we can at least hope it will last three or four years without showing age.  Now, for temperature - it is really the changes in temperature (and moisture/humidity) that cause the wood to move - either contract or expand- which combined with severe  cold, hardens the finish causing it to become brittle and crack.  Once it cracks, moisture can be absorbed into the wood.  Moisture as we know provides a bacteria freindly environment which brings about rot (some woods are naturally more rot resistant than others: mahogany, white oak, walnut) and there is something else about moisture which may or may not be true; I have always imagined that once inside wood, mositure will want to get out and does so by pushing up behind the finish, forcing the finish away from the wood itself; I am not sure if this is true or not, but it is something I have begun to suspect after watching some finishes fail.

For the above reasons, exterior wood finishes are made with certain attributes making them suitable for intense sunlight, extreme temperatures, and changes in humidity.  Most important is the varnish used to clearcoat wood.  We use genuine marine spar varnishes and so should you.  If you wish to use Minwax Polyurethane or some other interior product (or Minwax "Spar" Urethane) then what I have written here is not worth the effort I have put into it and you should stop reading this and consult someone wearing an orange apron about exterior wood finishes.   No doubt he will sell you Minwax Spar Urethane withough ever telling you that there are a litany of other finishes out there - the least expensive of which will far outperform the thrid rate Minwax product.  As for the Marine Spar Varnishes we use, we often buy them at marine supply stores, not the local hardware store.  this is not entirely the case because some hardware stores carry Ben Moore's Spar Varnish and Mckloskey's Man O' War, which are acceptable, but the finishes that only get used on boats are only found at boat yards.  The include Interlux and Pettit Captian's Spar, and Epifances; I cannot say that any of these brands will outlast the hardware store brands; we often rely on professional products for low odor, dry times, or becuase they are easier to use and more relaiable.  I cannot say they are inherently better.  What makes marine varnishes special?  Contrary to what we may think, they are actually softer than interior finishes. The softness makes them elastic, so they move with temperature changes and do not crack and pull away from the wood. Marine varnishes also offer UV protection, something which makes them hold up under the sun's ultra violet rays.  I am not a chemist, so I iwll not speak any further here.

It must be mentioned that whatever you do, you must use finishes made up with the same base as what had been previously applied.  So it really helps to know what your contractor applied when he did the doors.  I usually tell my customers what I am using - not simply because that is what they are paying for but also so they know what to use in the future. That is not to say they have to use the exact product I used, but they should use an oil base product over oil and water over water (oil generally can go over water based, not vis versa).  Now, I have just confused everyone, right?  I talk about all of these great Marine finishes which are all oil based as though i would never apply a water based product.  There is a great water based product out there now and after haveing used it for the first time 3 years ago, I am realizing that it is as good as the manufacturer claims; it is as good as the day I applied it.  what is better is it dries fast for recoat.  It is General Finishes OutDoor ???.  Now, do not use this over an oil based product.   At this early time, I suspect most of the work done on the older houses is still oil based - but soon we will see more water based finishes , just as soon as the purists ( of which I am) get it into their heads that some of these water based products do last and in the progression of modern chemistry may become more durable than the oil based.  FYI:  I keep a book of what we use on each set of doors we do - including stain colors and top coats and I keep that book not so I know what to apply over an old coat but so that way when you or your painter calls and wants to know what I used, I can tell you.

Now, when we paint doors, we use primers with linseed oil in them to help keep the wood from drying out.  The paints we use are also designed for exterior use - they are oil based and have other attributes which make them suitable for out doors work.  If you are touching up a painted door which has bare wood on it, you too may wish to use a primer with linseed oil in it.

Both the Marine Spar Varnish and the oil base primer and the oil base paint require Mineral Spirits for clean up.  When we work on a house, we always have a can of mineral spirits or turpentine nearby in case their is ever an accident and we must clean up spillled paint.  

The Materials You Will Need to Apply a Coat of Finish to your wood Door:

Genuine Marine Spar Varnish or Oil Base Paint.  
Primer if you are painting and may have to treat bare wood

Sandpaper - 150 and 180 Grit.  Maybe 220.  If you will treat bare wood, 120 grit.  We generally use paper and the sanding sponges.

Tack Cloth;  years ago these were gummed cheese cloth.  now we use microfibre dusting cloths but you can use t shirt material moistened with mineral spirits.  whatever cloth you use, be sure it is clean and does not leave threads or fibres on your work, if it is find a better cloth.

a 2" paint brush. 

Abott Paint on Eagle Street in Brooklyn carries all of these products (though I am not sure about their range of varnishes) and the manager, Charlie, can suppliment my instructions with his own knowledge - he used to refinish Brooklyn entry ways and doors for a living.   Mazzone Hardware carries Varnishes (and the Ben Moore product they carry works nice).   Tarzan Hardware carries McKloskeys.  This is not meant to be a shout out for any particualr hardware store and if I left your favorite (or your store) out, I am sorry; I would be glad to include it if it has at least one genuine marine spar varnish; feel free to let me know.

The Process for Maintaining The Finish on Exterior Wood Doors
You now possess the materials and know as as I do about them.  Well, not really, I know some of the issues which can arise and know how to deal with them, but let's hope you do not encounter them.    I will make this as painless and mindless as possible:

1.  Clean the doors.  The doors should be reletivly clean and dry and free of any adhesive, such as that from tape.  if they are not, if they have soot (you would not believe what auto exhaust does to our doors and windows and I imagine a hundred years ago it was coal soot).  if they are not clean, take a rag and wet it will mineral spirits and clean the doors.  fast, you will be sanding them lightly anyway, you do not have to clean them as though your mother-in-law were coming to visit.  And if she gets there when you are still working, maybe she will leave.

2.  sand the doors lightly.   We do not always start with the same grit sandpaper.  we look at the job.   too heavy a paper might go through the existing finish and if there is stain under that finish, we do not want to sand it away.  too fine a sandpaper, say 220, and we will not leave ridges for the new finish to mechnically bond to (yet on furniture, we may sand out to 320).  and bare wood (I have not really written this for bare wood; except for repairing a painted finish, you may not achieve the desired results with bare wood because stains and age come into play with clear varnish and the color may not match; a bit more experience is needed here and it can be troublesome for me) I do not recommend sanding bare wood finer than 120 grit, again, for reasons of adhesion.  if you are working with a good surface of paint or varnish; I would try to use 150 grit paper.  Now, we would never use 150 on fine woodwork as you may see the marks left in the finish.  But if you use 150 in one direction - WITH THE GRAIN - with any luck you will not leave any marks.  if you do find fine lines left visible, try 180 or 220.    Sometimes when I sand wood work, I sand it out to 120 or 150 grit with the machine to get the damage out, and then back sand by hand with 100 grit going with the grain to give the finish a good bonding surface.  You have some choices to make here; the heavier the grit you can get away with, the better the adhesion but you may see the sanding lines.  Now, I have just taught you something that a lot of supposed "pros" running around Brooklyn are not aware of and we have seen several finish coats fail due to over sanded wood; you are now smarter than half the people out there.

When sanding, try not to wear down the profiles in the millwork.  go light on the sharp edges and use finer paper.  when I use a machine on an edge, I always use 100 grit or finer paper - unless I really want to round an edge then I might use 80.   Folding paper and working the crease inot the wood will also dig into it a bit - so be careful.  A sanding sponge rated "fine" or "150" is a good start for the edges and profiles; the sponge will flex with the profile and be less likely to damge it.  

3.  Dust the doors off.  We use air in the shop.  you can use a clean paint brush after which the doors must be "tacked" with a cloth.  We can still buy old fashioned tack cloths in the hardware store but with all of those microfiber cloths out there now, I think the old tack cloth is going to go the way of some of the slower things mankind has had the benefit to experience such as the dodo bird, the commodore 64 computer, and George W Bush.  Take the tack cloth and run it up and down on the surface of the doors, turning it to expose clean and sticky surface.   if you are using a microfiber cloth, shake it out now and then AWAY from the door you are working on.  and if you are using a cloth with mineral spirits on it - or really trying to do it the way our grandfathers would have and are using turpintine, turn the cloth now and then or you will start ploghing up a ridge of dust that will get left on the door.    

You now know more than a good number of the "pros" out there - the ones who do not believe in tacking off their work when they are working in a "flipper" house and they end up leaving all sorts of stuff in the wood finish; this is the step they skipped.   I will clue you in on something the professional boat builder who taught me a good bit of what I know said, "don't bother tacking until you get to your final coat.  then you can sand it out with 220 and get all of the dust out and tack it off and be done with it".   I have done that on some bar tops in Manhattan and they have all come out fine, but I do not like to do that on the doors as the marine varnish does not dry as hard and will not release dust and other impurities as easy; it tends to move around more than it sands off.

4.  Apply the Finish to the Doors.  This step will work for Paint or clear Marine Spar Varnish.   Now, how many times have we heard someone say 2 light coats are better than one heavy one?  How many house flippers do not care to honor that adage?  Ever sit at a wooden bar and see a chip in it?  I am not saying all of my bar tops are as neat as they were the day after I did them, but applying too heavy a coat is bad, bad, bad- kind of like George W. sitting in the classroom holding the children's book upside down while doing nothing for five minutes after being told about the 911 attacks.  Putting heavy coats of paint on is what someone who does not know what they are doing does; you would be better doing nothing.  Applying too heavy a coat does not allow the material closest to the wood to dry properly and it remains forever soft until someone hapless homeowner comes along and smacks something against it at which time it dings or chips.  Apply thin coats with nice long brush strokes.  if you are planning on applying two coats, which I hope you are (btw, unlike floor finishes, which will chip if we apply too many coats, we can apply extra coats of Marine Varnish as it builds without the risk of chipping like the harder, indoor finishes will),  don't worry about every little mark left in the finish.  you can sand them out a day or so later when the product has dried and you recoat.   and a note about drying - allow this stuff a minimum of 12 hours dry time for the better stuff and longer for the less expensive - upwards of 20 hours; high humidity and low temperatures will impact dry time.  When you go to sand it for the second coat, if it does not "white over" with a layer of white powder produced by the sanded away finish, it is not dry.  If you recoat a coat which is not dry, the result is subject to chipping.  And, if you are recoating, do not forget to tack the finish off before applying the second coat.  if you so nto allow the varnish to dry, the second coat can easily become damaged.

You are done.  now clean up and and dispsoe of the rags outside of your house.  and if you used any primer with linseed oil in it or were using a genuine marine varnish, be sure those rags are disposed of in a trash can away from the house.  Linseed oil soaked rags stacked upon one another will catch fire.

This page is under construction

Phone 347-813-9635
Did You Know The Tinker's Wagon now offers door maintenance services to those customers who have had us perform a full restoration on their doors.

 Please feel free to Inquire.
Email pictures of your doors to:

and we can give you an estimate over the phone! 
while we wish we could answer inquiries from the general public on how to go about applying a maintenance coat to doors, time would not allow that and would take me away from my income earning work.   that said, if you have done business with us or would like to apply a maintenance coat to a door we have restored for you, we welcome your questions and would be more than happy to assist via email or the telephone.