Hanging, Painting and Staining Unfinished Doors

Coffee shop door

Last updated on June 1st, 2020 at 03:01 pm

Unfinished doors offer a lot of options when it comes to interior design: they’re like a blank canvas. But we all know how intimidating one of those can be! Well fear not, because whether you’re interested in how to finish unfinished oak doors, or how to paint unfinished veneers, we’re here to demystify the process so you can truly unleash that artistic vision.

What Is an Unfinished Door?

An ‘unfinished’ door means a door that has been manufactured but hasn’t yet been stained, varnished, painted or waxed. Only wooden doors can be finished in this way. An unfinished door will usually have been sanded (although you might choose to sand to a finer finish) but any staining or painting will have been left for the attention of your own artistic talents. By contrast, a ‘prefinished’ door is one which has already been completely prepared for installation. A prefinished door will have been sanded and painted or stained at the factory, and all the required holes for the hardware will have been cut.

The main advantage of an unfinished door is being able to customise its finish exactly as you’d like. Perhaps the colour you want isn’t available from the factory or maybe you’d prefer to stain a door that is only available painted; an unfinished door could be the way to go. But do bear in mind that an unfinished door will require more time, effort and skill to prepare it for installation.

Unfinished pine door

How Do You Finish an Unfinished Door?

As well as bringing out the natural beauty of the wood, finishing unfinished wood doors is also really important for their longevity as it’ll protect the surface from stains, finger-marks, knocks, shoe scuffs and so on.

To begin with you’ll need to choose the oil you’ll use to finish your door (you might choose a particular oil for finishing unfinished oak doors, and another for cherry etc.). The next step when it comes to how to finish an unfinished door is to prepare the area. This means laying down dustsheets, throwing on your old clothes and making sure the area you’re working in is well ventilated. Make sure your unfinished door is clean and dry, tape off any glazed areas and lay your door flat on two trestles to avoid runs in your finish.

Next, it’s a case of painting on the oil. Use a wide brush and always go with the grain. Once you’re done, carefully remove any excess oil with a lint free cloth and leave the door to dry. Before you apply the second coat, you’ll need to ‘denib’ the finish of the first. This means rubbing the door down lightly with a finishing pad to remove any imperfections. Once your second coat is applied, you can follow the same procedure to finish the reverse of the door. This procedure will be the same whether you’re interested in how to finish oak doors, or cheaper veneer ones.

Just before we move on, a quick word on finishing unfinished veneered doors. Many veneered doors come with a warning not to use oils, wax or varnish. This is largely inherited from a time when it was feared certain products would cause the doors to delaminate (the veneer to peel off). While we can’t say for certain that these warnings need not be heeded, we can tell you that oils, varnishes, stains, paints etc. don’t penetrate more than 1mm into a veneer, and it is very unusual for a veneer to be less than 1mm thick. So the chances are, you’ll probably be okay!

door finishing tools

How Do You Hang an Unfinished Door?

Hanging unfinished doors can sound like a rather complicated job, but with the right tools and a bit of patience, it’s very straightforward.

Your first task is to place the new door into the frame and check the fit. You’re looking for a 2mm gap at the sides and top of the door, with enough room left at the bottom for the depth of your carpet. If your door is a little out, you’ll need to assess whether it’s the door or the frame that isn’t true. Adjust the frame with shims, or the door with a plane.

When you’re happy with your fit we come to the trickiest part of how to hang an unfinished door: the hinges. First of all, get someone to hold the door up to the frame for you (if there’s on-one around, you can sit the door on a couple of wedges so that it’s the right height from the floor), and mark the hinge recesses on the door. Then use a chisel set to create the hinge recesses in the door and attach the hinges, just using one screw per hinge to hold them in place for now. Next bring your door back into the frame and screw the other side of each hinge into its doorframe recess. Again just use one screw per hinge and then check the door opens and closes smoothly before you fit the remaining screws. And that’s how to hang an unfinished door!

How Do You Paint an Unfinished Door?

As with finishing a door, painting an unfinished door is best done with the door on its side resting on trestles to avoid drips and paint sag.

Here’s a quick tip for making this process a little easier: drill some pilot holes and insert two 4 inch screws into the top of the door and one into the bottom at the centre, only screwing them in about half way. Lay your door with the protruding screws resting on the trestles so that once you’ve painted the first side, you can rotate the door by holding the two top screws and pivoting on the bottom one to keep your first painted surface clean and unmarked.

When we’re thinking about how to paint an unfinished wooden door, step one is always about priming. It’s often overlooked but it’s really important as primer will cover stains and help the new paint adhere more strongly. Use a grey primer if you’re covering with a colour, or a white primer if you’ll be using white paint.

yellow door and green door

We’d recommend applying paint and primer to unfinished doors with a mini foam roller, as this will eliminate the dreaded malting-brush syndrome, and leave you with a nice even finish. You’ll still need a small brush to cut in around any windows or panels, but a roller should tackle everything else. For a smooth finish, remember to denib between all coats to remove the inevitable dust and lint that gets caught in the paint as you apply it.

The final step when it comes to how to paint an unfinished door is putting it back up on its hinges. What you need to avoid here is the door sticking to the door stops, so be sure to leave it at least until it feels dry, and longer if you can. We’d suggest trying not to close the door for two days if possible (as new paint can stick even when it feels dry). If you must close the door, cover the doorstops with painter’s tape to minimise the risk of sticking.

We’ve focused here primarily on how to paint an unfinished interior door, however the process for how to paint an unfinished exterior door is exactly the same. Just remember that we’re talking about how to paint an unfinished wood door here. Repainting doors made of other materials will require a slightly different approach.

How Do You Stain an Unfinished Door

Once again, for the best result when staining unfinished doors, you’ll first need to prepare your space, lay the door on its side using two trestles, and hand sand the surface to provide a good key for the stain. When choosing a stain and a varnish, pay attention to the wood you’re working with. If you’re looking into how to stain an unfinished oak door, you might want the original colour to show through.

how to stain wood

Learning how to stain an unfinished door is very straightforward, but there are one or two tricks of the trade we’ll chip in as we go. First off, always apply the stain in the direction of the grain. Use a brush for this job, and to get a nice even colour, follow the brush with a clean, lint free rag. The rag will help to mop up excess liquid and achieve a nice even tone.

Once you’ve completed one side, leave it to dry for a minimum of one hour before turning and staining the other side. As with painting, remember to denib between coats for a nice smooth finish. When it comes to how to stain an unfinished exterior door, you’ll want to also apply the stain to the bottom edge of the door, as it will be more exposed to moisture.

Once you’re happy with your look, finish the job by applying a couple of coats of varnish to seal and protect the door. Apply the varnish as you did the stain, but don’t follow with the rag this time. If you’re here to find out how to stain an unfinished front door, please note that applying a good layer of varnish is essential to protect it from the weather it will face.

In Conclusion

An unfinished door is more of a DIY project than a prefinished door and working out which will suit your needs best will be your first decision. If you decide to go with an unfinished ‘blank canvas’, we hope we’ve helped you to see how you can make the most of your wood and your artistic flair to create something truly unique.

Header image: Photo by christian koch on Unsplash

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