For nearly 100 years the thick oak pocket doors separated living and dining space in a charming craftsman style home. But the years and several different owners’ taste in interior finishes had not been kind to these once proud examples of turn-of-the-century woodworking.

The doors’ panels had dried-out and separated at the seams. Years of dirt, old varnish and white paint were in-grained in the doors’ surfaces and molding profiles. Brass fittings scratched, tarnished and screws missing.

In a past life, the doors had already been stripped but the current homeowners realized that taking these doors back to their Victorian-influenced roots and restoring them to their former glory was not a DIY project.

We attacked the splotchy and scarred door’s surface with a chemical stripper, sandpaper, a few carefully chosen hand tools and a healthy dose of patience. Within a few days, the old oak doors were ready to receive a new finish: Two coats of Minwax Aged Oak Gel Stain sealed with three coats of Helmsman® Spar Urethane.

Down to the Bones

All hardware, moulding and fasteners were removed

Patience and elbow grease removed years old finish.

Sanding quickly removes old finish and stripper haze.

The first step was to remove everything. A large temporary worktable was setup in a well-ventilated area outside the shop – out of the weather, but exposed enough to provide a good amount of natural light. Spot lighting was setup to make sure none of the old finish could hide in the shadows. Once all the molding, hardware and fasteners had been removed, it was time to take the door down to bare wood. Since old oil-based paint in the grain of the wood was the primary offender here, the best choice was to use a chemical stripper and a few carefully selected hand tools.

We like Zip Strip, a marine-grade varnish and paint remover for getting down to the wood. The gel/paste goes on with an old brush. You just lay it on – working it too much interferes with the stripper’s ability to do its job. It works best when left on the wood’s surface for 5-10 minutes. Armed with a good quality putty knife, the door’s flats were scraped. This was followed-up with a good rub-out using 00 grade steel wool lubed with mineral spirits. The process was repeated on a more granular level using a small brass brush and dental picks to dig out the white paint in all cracks, scratches, and profiles. The door was wiped with mineral spirits and left to air-dry for a couple of hours.

With the door resting stand-offs (bench cookies) we used a random orbital palm sander with 80-grit paper to remove what remained of the old finish and paint flakes in the wood. Sanding was repeated using 100-grit then 120-grit. You don’t need to go to fine on a project like this because you run the risk of polishing the surface (closing the pores) to the point where the surface won’t take a finish properly.

The moldings removed from the door were stripped in the same manner as the flat surfaces and then hand-sanded using 80-grit paper folded to fit the form of the molding. A 100-grit sanding sponge was used to prep for stain. Brushed clean, wiped-down with mineral spirits and left to air-dry.


Panels joints were failing.

Cracks, holes and chips were filled and sanded.

After a thorough cleaning (blowing, vacuuming and wiping with mineral spirits, the door body was ready to take a finish.

Two coats of Gel Stain were applied.

Stripping and sanding were just the beginning. Portions of the molding were cracked and splintered. Using Elmer’s stainable wood glue, broken trim was reassembled and sanded. The most prominent problem with the doors was the panels. Humidity and temperature changes had taken their toll. The panels were separated at the center seam – not completely, just enough to allow dirt and grime to get into the joints and force the seam open.

The first task was to separate the component panels and clean the joint. A sharp utility knife was used to cut through the glue/grime and a 4″ putty knife used to separate the panel components. Once separated, with palms firmly on the panels they were moved back and forth (with the help of the putty knife in the joint) until the panel halves moved freely. Next, the inside edges of the joint was scraped and hand-sanded clean.

Gluing the panel halves back into a single panel is fairly easy – applying clamping pressure is another matter. There is also the the issue of filling in the gaps at the seam. It was not going to fit back together like new, since material has been removed. To deal with this we opted to use epoxy for combination adhesive and filler.

In order to apply clamping pressure, we cut small pine blocks that were large enough to hold the foot of a 6″ quick clamp yet a small enough footprint so that it would not interfere with the process. The blocks were attached with a hot glue gun. Once set the epoxy was mixed and applied to the joint. The panel halves pushed together as tight as possible using hand pressure. Clamps were then attached and pressure applied pulling the panel parts together. Too much pressure and the blocks would separate from the surface. They were tightened using a gut-feel.

Once the epoxy was set, the clamps were removed and the blocks snapped off. The palm sander was employed to remove the remaining glue and pine splinters. The seam was also sanded and cleaned up.

Cracks, crevices and small chips on the flat surfaces and trim were filled with Elmer’s stainable wood filler.

Finishing Touches

When you have a beautiful wood door like this, a clear finish is the finish of choice. We chose Minwax Aged Oak Stain because it best complimented wood’s natural patina. Using a gel stain allowed us to blend areas of the door that were repaired into the whole finish. The initial coat of Gel Stain was put on using a brush and allowed to setup for about 15 minutes. Given the temperature and humidity on that day we thought that was about as long as we dared push it. A lot of woodworkers don’t like gel stains because they get tacky and are difficult to wipe after only a few minutes. The result is usually a blotchy stain job.

Gel stains require a bit more finesse than the ‘wipe on – wipe off’ method used with penetrating or wiping stains. We find it best to “work” the stain. We allow the stain to set on the surface to have an the opportunity to soak into the woods surface a little.

Years of neglect disappear(note panel seams).

Gel stains predominantly cover; they do not penetrate the wood to the extent of a penetrating stain. That is why they work on surfaces like fiberglass. That said, they do a better job of soaking in than a pure wiping stain. Once it feels right, we begin blending the stain by rubbing it out with ‘0000’ steel wool, lubed with mineral spirits. We wipe up excess stain as we go, blending with those strokes as well. The result is a uniform, but still slightly imperfect coloration or stain job. Here we walk away from the project for 24 hrs.

We wipe the project down with a cloth dampened with mineral spirits, blow it down with compressed air, wipe it down again and then re-apply a second, less liberal, coat of gel stain – using a brush. Same setup time and the same follow-up with lubed steel wool, a soft rag and we did some ‘spot’ treatments in some troublesome areas that were not taking stain at the same rate as the rest of the door. And again, a 24-hour waiting period. Another serious blow-down/wipe down, followed by hitting it with a tack cloth and we are ready for the clear coat.

What Finish to Use

SPAR varnish has long been the finish of choice for exterior doors because of its elasticity, toughness and ability to standup to UV rays.

These doors are obviously interior doors but the living space on one-side is equipped with a fireplace and when closed, the temperature differential to the dining room is significant. A finish that can flex with those changes is a priority and to be honest, our experience with Helmsman® Spar Satin finish Urethane makes it the logical choice for any application.

We applied three thin coats using a high-quality brush. Urethane has s surprisingly short working time, so brush strokes need to be even, consistent and in one-direction – careful not to pickup the finish you just laid down. Sanding was done between coats with 220-grit and, like the gel stain, we rubbed the finish out with ‘0000’ steel wool, lubed with mineral spirits. The air compressor, vacuum and tack cloth were all employed to ensure with got the smoothest finish as possible. The occasional dust bunny or brush fiber would get stuck in the finish – things easily remedied with a razor blade and tweezers.

The moldings were finished in the same matter and were attached before the third and final top clear coat.

The brass hardware was cleaned-up using ‘never-dull’ brass polishing cloth and we hit the architectural salvage yard for replacement screws that matched exactly. The door’s locks were disassembled and all working parts cleaned with solvent and buffed out on the grinder equipped with a wire brush wheel. To ensure good and lasting operation, the re-assembled parts were lubed with white lithium grease (spray).

After allowing the doors to cure for a week, we re-attached all the hardware and re-installed the doors. A total of four (4) doors were re-finished. The homeowners hope they will easily last another 100 years.