There are some projects I take on because of a particular need. Or, if not a need, then a want. For instance, a couple years ago I upgraded an old Sauder media cabinet with this beauty. It was not the easiest thing to build, and it certainly has lesser capacity than the old cabinet, but it also looks so much better being built out of maple and walnut, and even if there are some flaws to it — my dadoes could be better — I’m still proud of it.
Then, there are those projects we take on simply for the challenge of it. For instance here’s a small angled box I made, just for the thrill to see if it would work. To some extent, this design might make a pretty interesting coffee table. Eventually this design morphed into two other items that, again, I made just for the thrill of making them. But, because these were all unneeded, and somewhat impractical — the red and black one is only 8 inches high — they are basically art pieces. Especially the red and black one, which sits on my desk at work. Of course, the tallest of these art pieces is such a piece of art that it serves as a stand for a fan in our living room.
(By they way, my advice when making things that are wholly impractical, or just for the fun of it, is thinking of it like an art piece. It’s amazing how calling something ‘art’ will justify the existence of pretty much anything).
Then, finally, there are the projects you wind up doing not because you needed it, or wanted something, but because some bozo decided something truly unnecessary needed to be done around the house. In this case, the bozo is my son, and the truly unnecessary thing is new bedroom doors.
He’s what you need to know: I live in an old house. In this case, old is 100 years. And our old house has all the ups and downs you expect in an old house. It needs better insulation and plumbing and electrical. But we also have actual solid wood doors, and hardwood floors, which most people pay a premium for, but which came as standard equipment in our neighborhood.
Unfortunately, all that hardwood is hidden under linoleum and paint that some jerk applied decades ago. Which I’m pretty sure is also standard equipment in my neighborhood. Anyway, little by little we’re trying to undo some of that, but these things are expensive and take time. Anyway, the other side effect of having an old house is not a single door frame is straight and all the doors are cut a little wonky to fit them.
And here, as expected when talking about wonky doors, we come to the point where my son enters the picture.
Because it is here that, for some reason, he suddenly decided he couldn’t take his bedroom door being a bit wonky anymore. Or, at least covered in paint. So he decided to strip it and refinish it. Unfortunately, with all the years of paint on it, and the myriad dings and dents, getting paint off it not that easy. Not to mention the curve details around the inner panels make paint removal a removal near-impossible.
In the end, after scraping and sanding for what seemed like hours, he came to the notion that he’d just rebuild. And, since we have multiple bedrooms in our house, I joined him in the build.
When building new doors, or upgrading a piece of furniture, it is expect you’ll upgrade it in every way, including in the materials. So, while the doors original to the house were likely pine — they are soft — we decided on a hardwood that would take on some character. In this instance, that wood is cherry.
The doors we built began life as rough lumber. My son milled the wood for the rails, but because my joiner is small, and the doors are long, I paid a professional supplier to prepare the boards for the styles. Sure, this cost a small fortune, but in for a penny, in for a pound.
With milled lumber in hand, my sun used the table saw to cut tenons on the rails, while we took our own turns cutting mortises for the joiners. (We also cut grooves down the appropriate edges of the boards with a router for the center panels to fit into).
The question you may ask yourself is: were the original doors mortise and tenon? The answer is: probably not. But would we make the new ones mortise and tenon? You bet we would. And would we cut those mortises by hand? Oh, very much yes.
And here’s a lesson: cutting mortises six inches wide and three inches deep is excruciating. A true fools-errand if ever there was one. But, it taught a valuable lesson: if you can get away with using dowels, you should use dowels. Or, pay for a power mortiser. Also, when doing mortise and tenon, get to the point where the two almost fit together, then adjust the tenon to the mortise, not the other way around. It’s so much easier that way.
The only part of these doors that’s not solid hardwood are the panels — these were made with half-inch cherry plywood. Given the very real danger of wood movement in an old house, using stable plywood was the better choice then trying to source up a floating panel of the size needed.
So, now that we have doors, you can’t just stick them in the old frames. You either have to (1) cut the door to fit the old frame, or (2) straighten the frame. Since cutting the door to fit a wonky frame seemed a sacrilege, that meant straightening the frame.
Straightening the frame is surprisingly easy. First, remove the old door and the trim. Second, make sure the hinge side of the same is plump. Third, square everything to the hinge side.
The process of straightening the frame was messy, but fairly straightforward. No, not everything came out perfectly square, but it came so much closer and really only required the strike-plate side of the frame to be lifted about an inch. In the end, the door itself needed only slight trimming along one edge to get it in there, while I did take a block plane to the frame over the course of the next week as the wood swelled up in an unexpectedly humid September in Michigan.
Actually hanging the new door in place proved simple. Take the leaves of the hinge off the old door, leave those leaves pinned into the frame and free-swinging, and wedge the new door in place. Close the hinges, drill a couple holes and — voila — new door perfectly hung.
Of course, before reusing the hinges and the door hardware from the old door, they needed to be cleaned. Because they were also painted they got stripped and polished up. Now, a person of a different mindset would go hog wild trying to get all the paint off them, digging into every nook and cranny. But, I’m not that person. So, instead of going crazy with it I left the hard-to-get spots in there for no other reason than they give the hinges a lovely patina. And, since the hardware is original to the house, you kind of want that patina.
The only difficult part of the hardware installation was the handle mechanism of the door knob needed to be mortised into the door — the mortise needed to be right about where I’d already put a mortise in the door, then filled with a tenon. Which meant mortising into the tenon I already mortised in.
In the end, it all came out looking great and, even if I’m proud of it, I assure you I am in no hurry to build another door any time soon.