Monday, August 31, 2009

Heritage Door Update

Getting into the Oak

The door build is getting back to it's before summer pace and things are coming along as planed. For anyone following this project (Dan!) I should apologise for not updating sooner...wanted to get some of the summer project down first. I left the door frame seven weeks ago with the tenons sawn and mortises chopped, nothing was fit, no haunches or shoulders cut or dressed...this is what still needed to be done to complete the main frame and get on with the panels. This is where I started to get back into the Oak.

A frequent reader commented on the amount of moisture in my basement shop over the summer and was asking if and how much the wood swelled up these past few weeks. I had been thinking this same thing during my time out East and was surprised to discover that nothing seemed to really change. My moisture content was still between 9 and 11% which is ideal in my work and the wood looks as straight and flat as when I left in late June. This is a good thing...a really good thing.
I use a Wager Extended Range Moisture meter, I purchased it at Lee Valley a couple of years ago and it was one of the smartest investments I ever made. Because I use as much reclaimed and salvaged lumber as I can in my work it's a practical tool in the wood shop. Here is a pic I borrowed from the Lee Valley website along with a little blurb about what they say about the unit.

This non-invasive meter uses advanced electromagnetic wave technology to accurately measure wood moisture content without damaging wood surfaces. It instantly scans an area measuring 1-1/2" x 2-1/2" to a depth of 3/4", computes the average moisture content for the area, corrects for the specific gravity of the species being worked and then shows the result (from 5% to 30% in 0.1% increments) on the large digital display.

Its continuous scan ability allows measurement of numerous board feet within just a few seconds. For testing in hard-to-reach areas where you can't read the display, a handy "hold" feature lets you take the measurement and then remove the meter to read it. The specific gravity correction is push-button programmable within the 0.20 to 1.0 range in 0.01 increments, making it suitable for use with domestic and exotic wood species.

So to get back to the door procedures I have to say that it's a real bonus being able to work these shoulder cuts with my new Bad Axe back saws. They make quick work of the hardwood and I move on to some fine tuning and removing the small waste left behind from my cuts. I try to keep this process as simple as I can while maintaining as close to perfect execution when cutting to my knife lines. When we stop and think about this concept it can really be as easy as it sounds; make a nice deep knife line and cut down to it. Never past it and never leaving a trace of fat on top of it...simple enough right? Certainly sounds like it could be but care and patience must be taken when removing the wood from these joints. A small slip with a chisel or a few too many passes with the shoulder plane can quickly turn a tight fitting joint into a loose one. (and who enjoys loose joints right?)

I start of with one of my long paring chisels at the lower shoulder line and carefully place the tip into the still visible knife line. I pare away the waste leaving a clean and polished shoulder. A small combination square quickly tells me things are as they should be and I can move onto my medium shoulder plane which is presented in the top picture of this post.

This small shoulder in turn becomes a perfect fence or perhaps guide is a better word for my plane to ride against. With the shoulder plane I remove the waste from each cheek of the tenon careful not to pass my scribe lines and then I'll switch over to a small low-angle block plane to get the end of the tenon to size. ( I think the Rabbet Block plane Lie Nielsen manufactures is somewhere in my not so distant future...a close friend in Cape Breton has used one for a few years now and swears by it) A quick chamfer on the leading edges and I'll test fit the pieces.

This door design has a lower rail, a locking rail, a header above the window and finally a top rail. Four rails in all with slightly different mortise to haunched tenon configurations in each. Why make them all the same right? That would just be so boring! Seriously though, a bit of research into the history of door making through books like The Practical Woodworker by Bernard E. Jones and Modern Practical Joinery from George Ellis were quite indispensable and really helped me when deciphering my options in exterior door examples from the past. My joinery options are all pre-determined by the history laid out before me.

Because I'm building a door for a 'Heritage' home I cannot in any way deviate from the original design. This was kind of a painful aspect for me through this project but is turning out to be a kind of pleasure as well. It's all there in front of me, the information I need. Solid, living examples all through this historic neighbourhood we call Cabbage Town. I strolled through the street like a man with a purpose, knocking on doors asking if I could take a 'closer look' at things. Some faces seemed to fill with fear and others a little skeptical of me on their door steps asking if I could 'look at their doors' (at least I wasn't building a heritage bed or bathroom project) A few of my clients neighbours were welcoming and forthcoming, curious while I studied a few of the doors that are still in use. A few are in rough shape (potential future clients I hope!)but some look as if they were build in the last 20 to 30 years. We're talking about doors that are over 100 years old here! A great testament to the true power of solid wooden joinery. Standing through these Upper Canadian winters and then the sweltering, humid heat of these Southern Ontario summers- they're perfect in their use and beautiful in purpose through design.

When I mentioned that this process could be a bit on the painful side for me it's mostly due to the fact that my shop has a working footprint area about 12' x 12'. The door is in the 3' x 7' ball park and is already gettin' as heavy as sin. This is the frustration in my small basement shop. I'm thinking ahead to my final assembly, the glue up, the finishing-my back is starting to ache! My dining room is calling me up from this space. Sounds funny I know but sadly I'm not kidding. Hey, a drop cloth and some saw benches, a nice thick sheet of some 3/4" plywood and I'll have a make shift work surface to get this project finished. Speaking of finishing, once I had all of the tenons dry fit I dis-assembled the frame and started to lay out the dados for the door panels. The panels are a full 1" in thickness but will have rabbets all around bringing the edges into the 1/2" range. The panels are flat which may also be a surprise to some. I test run and pleaded with the old plough plane I've been tuning but sadly the results are not up to par.

I have the small plough plane made by Veritas which I really like using but this plane only offers a 3/8" iron as it's widest. I went to visit Dan Barrett before the summer began and he hooked me up with some irons and a wedge for this great old plough plane I had been trying to get back into working order.(Dan makes incredible wooden planes at his shop here in Ontario...DL Barrett and Sons link on the side bar)

It was really my hope to be able to use this antique plane to carry out this part of the build but the fence is still just a bit too finicky so I decide to go ahead and use the small plough plane. Having to take a few extra passes (almost double the amount of work) I also used my side rabbet planes and my large router plane.

All in all the dados went really well taking a few extra hours of my morning and I'm able to move onto the panels. Another dry fit and I cut and dimension a few scraps to test fit the corners of the dados. This is getting exciting as things progress onwards.

Cross cutting the panels is a real pleasure with my old saw and this Oak. I've been working with this wood now for awhile and it can still stop me dead in my tracks and reminds me to consider just how lucky I am to be working with it. These 1" by almost 9" quarter sawn planks for my panel stock is truly an amazing specimen; straight and clean with a nice blend of rays throughout the panels I find myself staring at it while I work and drifting away down deep into the wood grain. (maybe that's just the funky cream in my coffee talking?)

At any rate I'm jointing two thin strips onto the pieces to make up the width needed for the openings. I'll have lots of room for wood movement underneath the heavy mouldings that'll come to wrap the panels.

Most of the heritage door examples in the area all show me that the builders back then did this very thing; nice wide panels, no visible joint lines all made up from solid timber.

I'm sure they moved and they shrank-they slammed and they welcomed. The quarter sawn Oak is one of the more stable woods and I'm confident there will never be an issue with it. So I'm onto the hand plane routine again, from surface to shooting board I get four panels all to size, flat, square and true.

Again the wood shavings quickly pile up and the sweat falling off of my forehead these past few days is giving me a nice raised grain effect!

So here I sit at my computer tonight, writing instead of working this wood-
I have two of the four panels fitted and the frame structure suddenly went from really heavy and strong to-'brother, this thing will be around for another 100 years!' Really, the panels add so much integrity to the frame, just a real solid feel and all sitting nicely with an even gap around the edges. Lots of room for movement without any danger of exposed seems due in part to the mouldings that'll cover the jointed edges and the large rabbets. I'll get some shots in the morning and keep going on the other two bottom panels. My double-thermo glass panel is scheduled to be in this Thursday so it'll be onto the mouldings early next week. In another two weeks time, depending how the finishing goes, we'll be driving over to the nice part of town to install.
More to come...


  1. This as to be a lot of fun!?! I have to at one day! I wonder how heavy the finished door will weight at and what kind of hinges you are thinking of using?
    Thank you Tom!

  2. Tom,

    Last year my wife and I toured an historic home in the Akron area when visiting her family in Ohio. Every door in the mansion was 3-panel or 4-panel QS white oak and looked as hefty as yours.

    One feature on every door that I immediately took note of was the moulding applied to the insides of the rails and stiles for each panel. The top and sides were all detailed ogees, nailed to the stiles and rail and mitered at the corners. But the bottom piece of moulding was always just a strip of wood with a 45 degree chamfer that met up with the top of the rail and, again, perfectly mitered into the two moulding strips on the stiles.

    I asked one of the museum attendants about the design and she said it was to reduce the amount of dusting the house maids had to do and that I would find it throughout the house.

    Sure enough, every door in the entire house, along with every single piece of paneled wall or wainscoting had that same trim detail.

    It was not only a useful design concept, it also added some great architectural detail to the doors. Just thought I would pass the idea along in case it generated any thoughts on your end.



  3. Thanks for the comments interesting element for sure.

  4. David,

    I'll guess the door to be in the 80 to 100 lbs range but that's just a guess.
    I'll be using some heavy mortise hinges to carry the load.
    Three in total.
    I'll let you know how it goes!
    Thanks for the comments..

  5. Hi Tom,
    I am happy to see your door project as I am building a set of "antique" doors for a fire house. The doors are around seven feet tall and 36 inches wide. I chose a flat panel design with a simple quarter-round detail cut into the rails and stiles. I have been getting nervous that the white oak may warp with seasonal changes and cause alignment problems. The modern design seems to be a glue-up core with a veneer skin which is obviously more stable. Its good to know there are few of us still doing it the old way.

    Harlan Barnhart
    New York City

  6. Thanks for the comments Harlan,

    Would love to see some pics of the doors when you finish!
    Best luck-keep me posted.


  7. Hi Tom,
    I'll try to post a picture when the doors are finished. Do you worry about seasonal changes causing alignment problems with large, solid wood doors?


  8. Harlan,
    I don't worry at all about seasonal changes...wood moves and will always do so. The quarter sawn Oak is one of the more 'stable' species as far as exterior applications go and I've made some allowances for movement in the panels...a little over 1/4" extra width in the dados that the panels fit into.
    This is the only area I can really see moving, the large mortise and tenons should hold everything else pretty good.
    Time will tell but no, I don't worry about it.
    If my client calls me in six months time saying his door is stuck and he can't get out of the house then I'll start to worry.
    Till then,
    thanks for the comments.

  9. Made by Hand: Furniture Projects from the Unplugged Woodshop

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