After years of sun and water damage (see above), my front door was in need of a re-stain and re-varnish.  I decided to save some money and do it myself.  Here’s my story and some lessons that I learned.

Tools and Materials

Here is a list of things you’ll need. I wish I had this list when I started because I ended up making three trips to the store as I discovered new things that I needed.

  • Orbital hand sander and sandpaper OR chemical paint stripper
  • Screwdriver
  • Dropcloth
    Whether you use a sander or a chemical paint stripper, this will be a messy job!
  • Paintbrush
    Get a decent one. If you get a cheap brush, you will be picking bristles out of the stain and varnish – a huge pain!
  • Rag
  • Stain
    1/2 pint; you will only need half of it). Picking a color that is the same or slightly darker than the existing stain color will make your life easier. If you pick a lighter stain, you will have to remove 100% of the existing varnish and stain (not easy). Note, the Minwax stain I used was for indoor use. It turned out fine since I coated it with varnish, but you might want to find a stain for outdoor use like these:
  • Varnish
    1 quart; you will use less than 1/4 of it.)  I recommend an oil-based outdoor varnish, especially if your door will be exposed to water. Oil-based varnishes are a bit more of a hassle to work with than water-based and can yellow over time, but they are more durable against the elements. (I used a water-based polyurethane with Satin finish.
  • Wood filler.
    I was forced to make an extra trip to the store to get wood filler when I discovered cracks during sanding.
  • Mineral spirits
    Get if your stripper, stain, or varnish requires it for cleanup.

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As is the case with painting, the vast majority of the work for this re-staining project is with the preparation, i.e., removing the old varnish and stain. Your patience will pay off! Don’t rush into staining too before the door is ready!

First, remove as much hardware from the door as you can. I personally decided NOT to remove the door from its hinges because that seemed unnecessary and a huge pain. I recommend removing all other hardware from the door including the door know, the peephole viewer, and the bottom door sweep.

Next, spread out your drop cloth so that it is under the entire swing area of the door. Things will be getting messy soon. As air blows into your home, it will blow sawdust inside, so you might want to cover your furniture as well.

Patch any holes or cracks in the door with your wood filler.

Removing the existing varnish

This is the most important and difficult part of the whole job.

I chose to remove the old varnish with an orbital hand sander. Another option would be to use a chemical stripper. If you go that route, I would recommend a non-toxic citrus-based one (I have used those before and they work and actually smell good!)

If you are going with a lighter stain color, a stripper might be the only way to go. It is very difficult to remove all of the varnish in corners and crevices with sandpaper.

Using a chemical stripper is very messy though. With the door still on the hinges, the stripper and liquefied varnish will drip down and make a mess that you will be walking around in. I did not want to track that into my home. So, I opted for sanding, since I was going with a darker stain color.

I experimented with different grit sandpaper until I found one that seemed to get the job done (it was surprisingly rough). I was also surprised at how much sanding it took to cut through the varnish, even with the orbital sander.

It turns out that I didn’t have the sandpaper taught enough against the sander, which made it not as effective. I assumed that the pre-cut sandpaper that came with the sander was the right size, but actually, they were a little too big and had slack. The vibrating sander wasn’t moving the sandpaper very efficiently, as a result. Only after a couple hours of sanding did I realize this and trim the sandpaper, with much improved results.

The important thing is to remove all of the varnish in the large flat areas. If there is some in the corners and crevices, that is OK if you are going with a similar stain color.

In retrospect, I didn’t do a great job of removing all of the varnish, even in the large flat areas. I got lazy and tired of sanding. The only thing that saved me was that my new stain color was darker than my old one, so I was able to cover up the “splotches” with extra stain.

So be sure to remove absolutely 100% of the old varnish from the large flat areas of your door!! It’s OK to leave some of the old varnish in those hard-to-reach corners and crevices.

When I was done sanding, I vacuumed the door to remove the sawdust, then used mineral spirits and a rag to clean it.

The Staining

Remember to wipe off excess stain.
Remember to wipe off excess stain.

OK, now to the easy part – the actual staining! The key part of staining is to wipe off the excess after you apply it. Stain a section, then wipe.  The longer you let the stain soak, the darker it will be. Apply the stain to a panel, let it sit for a bit, then wipe it off with a rag. You do not want a heavy coat of stain.

This is where my previous so-so sanding job came back to haunt me.  There were some splotches of lighter areas where some varnish remained.  I was able to hide these by applying more stain in those areas, but I recommend doing it right and doing a better sanding job than I did!

Door staining in process
Door staining in process

The Varnish

After the stain dries (I let it dry for two days just to be sure), you’ll be ready to apply the varnish. I purchased a water-based urethane designed for outdoor use (Minwax Urethane).

The instructions said that this varnish required a whopping three coats, and four was recommended for outdoor surfaces! In addition, they recommend re-applying every year!

I discovered that it was because I used water-based varnish. For most folks, I would recommend an oil-based varnish, which would be more durable, but can look slightly yellowish.

For me in Los Angeles, my water-based varnish will be ok, but for places with more rain, I’d recommend an oil-based varnish.

Sand the door lightly with a fine-grit sandpaper. It’s kind of scary, because it looks like you’re ruining the finish, but it will be fine. Wipe off the dust with a damp rag.

Apply a thin coat of varnish. Be sure to look at your door carefully at different angles against the light to check for drips, brush bristles, missed areas, etc.

The varnish I used dried surprisingly quickly, in just a few hours. Sand, wipe with damp cloth, and re-apply as directed in the instructions!

Keep the remaining varnish so you can apply a new coat as the finish wears.

The Final Product

My new door finish
My new door finish

Your door is now done! Mine still has some spots of old varnish on there, but no one has noticed them besides me, and the end result is pretty kick-ass. I saved about $200 by doing it myself (and I put on more coats of varnish than a hired hand would have done).

Re-Appplication: A Fact of Life

After a little over three years, I noticed that the bottom of my door was showing signs of wear from the weather (mainly from rain, not sun). Some of the varnish was coming off, leaving the stain exposed. The label for the Minwax varnish I used recommends re-application every year, so it went way longer than claimed.

So, I did a minor touch up by re-sanding the door, applying the stain where needed, then applying new coats of varnish.  This is a lot less work than staining the door originally, so it wasn’t too bad. At the end of the re-application, my door was as good as new!

With water-based varnishes, re-application on outdoor surfaces is a fact of life. An oil-based varnish will last longer.  In either case, save your stain and varnish. I recommend labeling them so you know which ones you used for your door.

Good luck with your project!  Let me know how it went in the comments! – Brian

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