February 19, 2019

The Truth About Standardized Doors

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

I believe our backdoor was original with the house.  But whether that’s true, it’s certainly been there a long time.  This house was built in 1860.

I did everything I could to save it.  I poured on linseed oil and kept it painted, too.  But I couldn’t make it young again.  The wooden panels shrank and cracked.  The uprights grew flimsy.  One good kick and the door would be splinters.

Of course I didn’t want that to happen.

That old door leaked wind, rain and snow, too.  Reluctantly, I decided replacement, not reinforcement, was the proper decision.

Spurring me to action, the house next door had three (relatively) new doors.  One was kicked in.  Another was too ornate for a backdoor.  The third was largely glassed ― with Thermo-pane ― and perfect for a backdoor.  All of them were modern, insulated metal doors.  We’re tearing that house down anyway.

I imagined that I’d just trade.  I made plans to use that glassed door.

My friend, Scott Engstrom, helped me take the glassed door out.  While we were doing it, he pointed out rot at the base of its doorframe.  “Why not take this door and trade frames?  That kitchen doorframe looks good.  That was the door that was kicked in.”

“Makes sense to me,” I replied.  I should have known something was wrong then.

Changing doors is a lot of work.

First, I had to rip out our old backdoor.  Sure, the door itself came off at the hinges just like modern ones but that doorframe was custom-built from 2×6’s nailed right into the house.  The nails holding it were rusty, handmade and determined.  They were also huge.

But the new door was taller than the old one and narrower, too.  I couldn’t possibly use the old frame with the new door.  I ripped and tore, snorted and swore.  I ended up using modern 2×6’s to replace the old lumber and still had to shim them before I was done.  When the old timers said “2×6,” that’s exactly what they meant, not the 1½ and 5¼ that passes for a 2×6 today.

I had to take quite a lot of the inside wall out of the house to make room for the additional height.  Unfortunately I had to do the same on the outside.  Finally I installed the new doorframe, shimmed it square and screwed it down.  Then I resheathed the outside of the house, putting on new boards and shingling them over to match the back wall.  Then I insulated the new partitions and recovered the inside wall with knotty pine, inch-thick boards, all to meet and match the old woodwork.

By the time I finished, it was late.  I was tired.  Or was I late and “it” that was tired?  No matter.  The winter winds howling around me had taken on new bite with the setting sun.  I stood back and admired my work.  I rubbed my palms together, blowing between them, trying to warm them.  “All I have left to do is hang the door and I’m done!  I drop in three hinge pins and that’s it!”

The sentiment was nice.

But the door, that modern Thermo-paned, insulated, metal wonder didn’t fit the new frame I’d just installed so laboriously.

I gaped.  “Modern doors aren’t standardized?”  Belatedly I measured the frame and then the door three times.

The tape measure kept saying, “No.”  The truth slowly settled in more slowly.  The only door that would fit this frame had been kicked in.

I shook my head in disbelief and stared out over the orchard and the lengthening shadows.

Wendy found me there, sitting on the back steps in the dark half an hour later.  “Why don’t you hang the door and come to dinner?” she asked, standing back and inspecting.  “It looks like you’re all done except for that.”

“Looks nice, doesn’t it?” I asked without turning.

She nodded.  “Yes.  Yes, it does.”

“Admire it,” I mentioned.  “It’s all coming out tomorrow.”  I stood slowly, brushing the sawdust from my jeans.  “This house is going to have had three backdoors in its lifetime.”  I snorted.  “After 150 years on the first, the second only lasted a day.”

“Why is that?” Wendy asked, startled.

“They just don’t make carpenters like they used to.”