Jimmie's Guide to Staining White Doors

Are you tired of the standard issue "Composite 4 Panel Door" that comes with virtually every house on the planet (except for those lucky ones who got the "Composite 6 panel" doors!), and it comes only in Banal Bland Builder White. Period.
 So, how can you fix this?

You can replace the doors with wood "slab" doors (meaning just the door). But then you would have to drill the hole for the knob locksets, and you would have to "mortise" for the hinges. This requires a router and considerable skill, and you have to exactly match the existing hinge position - or the door will bind. Cost: $400 - $600 per door.

You can replace the doors with "pre-hung" wood doors. This means the door is supplied with matching door jambs. It's a lot easier to mount this assembly, but you have to remove the existing door moulding on both sides, and this moulding is usually caulked in place and is difficult to remove. Cost: $700 - $1000 per door, much more if you have it done.

You can stain the doors! Cost: $10 per door, $40-$50 if you replace the hinges and locksets too.

And you're probably thinking "Stain?? But thay ain't wood!" No they're not, and indeed staining won't work if the doors are completely smooth. (But of course you can paint the doors instead, and at least eliminate the dreaded Builder white.) However most of these kind of doors have a "woodgrain" effect, and it's sufficiently deep so that the doors will look really good when stained. No, really. Take a look at the three finished doors below, compared to the standard Builder White door.
 So take a look at the procedure described below and see if you might want to try it. Final cost for my 8 doors: Less than $400, including new Kwikset Matte Black locksets and black hinges. It would have been $7,600 for pre-hung Knotty Alder doors.

Builder White vs Custom

Here's the standard issue Builder White 4 panel composite door. It's surrounded by the stock "casing" door moulding, also in Boring Bland Builder White.

And here is one with about $5 worth of stain! Note that, although these "4-panel" doors were plastic composite, they actually had a "wood grain" effect, which the grey stain brought out nicely. The inner "panels" were manufactured with a surprisingly realistic simulation of real wood. Even with just the grey stain they would have looked pretty good. But, after a little experimentation, I found that adding some reddish colored accents provided an authentic-looking wood appearance.
 I also replaced the doorknob assembly with Kwikset Matte Black "Pismo" type passage locksets, which - along with a set of black hinges - amounted to about $35.
Total: 40 bucks!
 I have also replaced the boring builder moulding with "Montana Ghostwood", (available at Home Depot). This is stained wood from pine trees that have been killed by the Pine Bark Beetle. The stain color is "Silver City". The side pieces are 1x4 and the top piece is a 1x6, which I also used for the floor moulding throughout the house.

Original door Renewed door

In case I haven't sold you on the idea yet, here's the top part of another of these renewed doors - in this case the bathroom door.

And a zoomed in shot of yet another door. Notice that the accented pattern is different with each one of these doors. This makes each of them look unique, as if they were real wood.

door door

Items Needed For This Project

To stain these plastic veneered doors, a Gel type stain is much easier to use than thin liquid type stains. I used "Old Masters" oil-based stain. It dries to a tough finish that already has some gloss, and doesn't seem to require an additional coat of any type of polyurethane or similar compound.
 The main color was "Weathered Wood", shown on the left (applied to a pine paint stick).
 The "accent color" was "Aged Oak" - the slightly reddish stain on the right paint stick. I used this to create a "real wood" look, as seen in the above picture on the right. It's the reddish areas.

To compare the results to real wood, here is one of our kitchen cabinet doors, in "Rustic Hickory". Note the prominent U-shaped irregularity - apparently a branch of the hickory tree. This is the sort of wood-look effect that I was seeking with the two stains.

Stain door

To clean and protect your hands while doing this sort of thing, here are two items:
 The hand cleaner is available in auto stores. I used to use it when I was an auto mechanic. (Another brand is "GoJo".) When you have finished staining, wipe off the excess stain with a paper towel and a bit of charcoal lighter fluid (naptha) - or paint thinner. Then wash your hands with this cleaner without water. After you have scrubbed a bit, add some warm water, scrub some more, and then rinse.
 The hand lotion is used before you begin to stain. Applying the lotion helps keep the stain away from your skin - your hands are easier to clean.

I used Matte Black door knobs and hinges. Kwikset has recently introduced their "Pismo" line of knobs. They have a unique shape that you might consider in place of the traditional round knobs or the "handle" style of hardware. They are also available in nickel, chrome, or bronze.
 The 3 pack of hinges is "Everbuilt" brand. They are available in packs of 12 for somewhat less money, but the 12 packs aren't "Smooth Action". The Smooth Action acts like the hinge is damped a bit, with a tighter opening and closing operation.
 Both items are available at home Depot, or even Amazon.

cleaner hardware

Ordering Information.

The stain is hard to find in stores! Here's some convenient links. As always, purchasing these items from Amazon helps support your Wracklineblog!

Here's a link for the "Weathered Wood" stain:

And one for the "Aged Oak" ("wood accents") stain:

And here is one brand of the hand cleaner:

Stain Stain Hand Cleaner

The Staining Procedure

But first a bit of "Door Terminology":

The vertical sections on the left and right side of a door are "Stiles"

The vertical sections in the center of a door are "Mullions"

The horizontal sections on the top and bottom, and the horizontal section that separates the sets of panels, are "Rails"

And the decorative sections are "Panels".

Staining can be tricky. Following the sequence shown here will help you avoid uneven results. For example, if you apply stain on the upper part of one of the long vertical Stiles and then maybe stop to stain the panels on the upper part, and then finish staining the lower part of the Stile, the stain on the upper part will have dried a bit. This leaves a pronounced irregular area at the junction of the upper and lower part. You can't blend the two sections because the stain is partially dry.
 Been there and done that (on my first attempt)!
 As a matter of fact, when you start this project, stain the back side of a door first - especially if it is a door normally left open. This way, only the wall will see your Learning Curve Sins.

Should you have some initial failures, and find yourself discouraged, the few paragraphs at the end of this article might help. . .

stain tip

Staining Tip 1:
 If you try dipping the stain rag into the can of stain - even if you try to dip "just the center part" of the rag - you'll get stain on the edges. This excess will smear, especially if you are near the panel borders - the part that is sunken into the door.
 So dip a spatula into the can and just put small amounts in the center of the rag each time.

 NOTE: If you use some of the stain and then store it for a few weeks or so, a thick solid film may form on the surface. Simply lift it out and discard it. The stain underneath will be fine (stir it a bit before using.)

Staining Tip 2:
Use smooth rags! Old towels DON'T work. They leave ridges in the applied stain, and you can't smooth them out. So the light colored rag on the right is better than the blue towel on the left.

stain trags

1 The Accents
 The simplest and easiest thing to do is to just use the one color of stain on the whole door. This would be the "Weathered Wood" of my two stain color choices.
 But for a really authentic effect, you can apply the "Aged Oak" - a slightly reddish color - in certain areas of the panels, following the shape of the "grain". If you decide on this, apply the accents first. Do one side of the door, then stand the door up against the wall and apply the accents on the other side.
 Try to have the outer edges of the accents line up with the grain, as shown in this picture and the next one on the right.
 Right after applying the accents, wipe the outer edges with a dry rag to help blend them into the overall appearance. You are "feathering" the edge of the stained area.
NOTE: Allow these accents to dry overnight before applying the overall "Weathered Wood" stain. This stain is oil-based, and it's slow to dry. If you attempt to apply the second stain too soon - even after a few hours - the accents will smear when you try to apply the second stain.

2 Here's another example of applying the accents. Note that I have even applied the accent down into the sloped area of the panel, giving the appearance that the irregularity extended down into that area!
 Note again the feathered edges.

accent first accent second

3 The Overall Stain
 Start with the panels. Wipe the outer edges of the panels. This is the stepped areas in this particular type of door. If you use a generous amount of stain here, it will fill the channels and create a darkened border.
 Wipe stain on the curved areas next (surrounding the raised section).

4 Continue into the raised section. Here I have applied stain around one side of an accent. If you get some inside the accent, just gently wipe it off with a dry rag. However an interesting effect is to gently wipe near one or both of the ends of the accent, leaving a lightened area. (See the finished door pictures above.)
 Also, overlapping some of the grey around the edges of the accent stain gives it an outline, which can also be seen in the finished door pictures.
 If you have extended an accent section down into the curved area, make sure you have wiped off the grey stain if it covers the accent. I found it easier to just stain the whole curved inset area and then just wipe of the grey stain from the part of the accent that extends down into the curved area.

first second

5 Finish the panel. Check all areas for excess stain or unevenly applied stain, and wipe gently with your staining rag. The staining rag should be just "damp" with stain at this time.
After finishing a panel, wipe around the edges with a dry rag. This is important because excess stain will dry before you have a chance to stain the stiles, and will leave an irregular area due to this partially dried excess. But you can leave the edges of two adjacent panels wet, since you are about to stain the partial stile between them.

6 Here's two panels stained. Their outer edges have been wiped clean of most of the excess stain. But note that the edges next to the partial stile do not need to be wiped, since you are about to stain the partial stile - (the "Mullion").

third fourth

7 Here I have wiped stain onto the short vertical stile - the Mullion. No need to wipe off the excess stain at each end because the top and middle rails are next.

8 The bottom rail has been stained. Note that the left and right edge excess stain has been wiped dry.

Fifth fourth

9 The middle rail has been completed, and the excess on the edges has been wiped dry.

10 I have stained the longer Mullion. Its edge excess can be left because I am about to stain the top rail.
 "6 panel" doors will have, well, 6 panels. So there will be 3 mullions.

Fifth Sixth

11 The top rail completed. Notice that I have wiped off the excess on the right side. I am about to stain the left stile (which runs from the top to the bottom of the door).
 But NOTE: If the door is on a workbench up against the wall, and you can't go around the door to stain the opposite stile, then stain it first. If you stain the closest stile first, you are likely to smear the stain when reaching across the door to stain the opposite stile.

12 And here's the completed door! You can apply stain to the edges where the door latch and the hinges fit, if you want to.
 Allow it to dry overnight. Then turn the door over and do the other side. It might be well to lay the door on some cardboard rather than directly on the workbench.

Seventh Eighth

Mounting Your "Non-Builder-Grade" Door

13 Mount the hinges to the door jamb first. This seems to make it easier to line up the door with the hinges. Make sure the hinge pin is on top! Install the center screw first, snug it up, and then make sure the edge of the hinge is inside the mortised wood cut-out. Then snug up the top and bottom screws and make sure the top and bottom edges are fitting properly in the cut-out. Then tighten all three screws in sequence. "In sequence" is a term that we former auto mechanics use to mean tightening each screw a little bit at a time until all are fully tightened - maybe 2 iterations. This keeps things from getting bent.
 "Why so picky?" you might ask. Typically, the hinge is a tight fit in the wood cut-out of a door jamb (and also the door itself). If you allow the hinge edge to be mis-aligned with the cut-out, you will pinch the wood underneath the hinge and possibly cause the hinge to protrude slightly. Then the door will bind or tend to be harder to close.

14 Place a piece of wood under the door and then put one or more paint sticks (or small wood pieces) underneath, until the door lines up with the pre-mounted hinges. Place a center screw in one of the hinges.
 It might be necessary to move or adjust your scrap wood "door positioner". (This one's "adjustable"! I can just step lightly on the raised section of wood to move the door up or down a bit.) Making sure the hinge edge is in the cut-out, snug up the screw. Then place the center screw in another hinge and snug it up. Now it should be easier to install the rest of the screws.

hinges hinges

15 The door latch has a rectangular plate which fits most doors. But some doors have a round collar around the door latch.
 The Kwikset door hardware includes the collar. If your door has the round collar, pry the rectangular plate away from its backing as shown here.

16 Push the collar over the latch, onto the door latch mechanism. Make sure the collar is oriented right! If put on the wrong way, the latch only extends partially.

latch latch

17 Drive the collar into the door, making sure the latch is turned the right way. I just happened to have a metal spacer that was the same diameter as the collar. You can also just place a piece of scrap wood over the collar (collapsing the latch) and drive the assembly into the door that way.

18 Many locksets have the doorknob non-removable. This makes installing the two screws awkward! You're trying to turn the screw at an angle rather than straight. This particular lockset allows the knob to be removed, using the supplied allen wrench. This allows for much easier tightening of the mounting screws. When you have the screws snugged up, make sure the mechanism works freely by turning the remaining knob both ways as you fully tighten the screws. This is an excellent example of tightening "in sequence" to keep things from binding up.
 Notice that this lockset has a lock. It's the one where a small screwdriver (or the tool provided) can be inserted into the hole on the other side to unlock the door. This is called a "privacy" lockset. I used this kind on the bathrooms. For the bedrooms, the version without locks is called a "passage" lockset.

hardware hardware

Here's three finished doors in the upstairs hallway/landing, surrounded by the delightful Ghostwood trim. Sure beats Boring Bland Builder White!


Going a bit deeper. . .
 As with any project, especially one that you haven't done before, you might get discouraged. You can't seem to get the stain smooth, especially if you tried an old towel as the stain rag. (See "Staining Tip #2" above, just before Section 1). Or maybe you let the stain dry a bit on part of a stile and you can smooth out the junction when you finish the stile. (See the paragraph starting "Staining can be tricky" in the introduction of "The Staining Procedure above.)
 But soon you will see how beautiful one of your finished doors looks, even if it didn't look so in some of the intermediate steps.
 When you are satisfied with your efforts, you can then proceed with your project with greater confidence. Things will flow more smoothly and you will find yourself in the Zone. The work flows out of your hands instead of your brain.
 I find that physical projects like this are a "Life Analogue". You observe them and learn things that apply to your life in general. You may go through a period of apparent failure and find yourself dissatisfied. But after a bit of success, your outlook changes. One of your stock investments finally works, for example, and you find that you can create prosperity. Or, you finally succeeded in a complex project at work, and you find you go to work with enthusiasm and a more upright stance.

Who knows. After enough of this sort of thing, you just might finally accept yourself.
 Just the way you are.
 What a concept. . .

Copyright © 2022 J.A.