Q – I would love an elegant, real, stained, wood front door, but I do not want the maintenance nor can I afford a good one. How energy-efficient and durable are stainable wood look-alike composite front doors? -Sue H.
A – A stained and deeply grained composite door is an excellent and reasonably priced alternative to a real wood door. After researching them, I installed one with decorative glass in my own home. If I did not tell you that it was not wood, even standing right next to it, you would think it was real stained wood.
Unlike real wood doors, stainable grained composite doors are virtually maintenance-free. They will not crack, warp, swell, or chip with weather and humidity changes like even the best real wood doors can do over time. They will not dent like a steel door. Look for composite doors with the longest warranties-the best are from 20 years to lifetime.
Stainable composite doors are made of a durable skin (tough resin with either fiberglass or carbon fibers). Forms, used to create the graining and texture, are often patterned from real oak wood for an authentic appearance. The skins are placed in large presses that produce the final shape and style of the door.
Since composite doors are manufactured from resins and fibers, many decorative styles (raised/recessed panels, arched, round top, etc.) and glass options (leaded, beveled, etched, and frosted) are possible. The forming presses can give the composite sheets crisper edges than on a typical insulated steel door to simulate real wood.
For energy efficiency and strength, the core of these doors is made of rigid foam to give them an insulation value of about six times that of solid wood doors. Polyurethane foam (foamed inside the finished door skins) has the highest R-value. Also, since the doors do not warp, they remain airtight. Select one with an adjustable threshold for the best seal.
Matching transoms and sidelights can brighten your home with natural light and reduce the need for electric lights. If you ever have to move large furniture in and out, consider a model with an optional swing-open sidelight. It often provides just enough extra space for large items.
Composite doors, with the tough internal fibers, are secure against forced entry. They have heavy lock blocks and a strong wood or tubular PVC subframe. If you choose decorative glass, triple-pane and tempered glass is usually best for most climates. The decorative pane is made of high-security resins and is protected between the two outer panes.
Since these doors remain so stable, simple, effective compression weatherstripping is often used. Some fiberglass doors use an optional flexible (refrigerator-type) magnetic seal in the frame. A brass-plated steel trim strip is inlaid in the door edge to seal against the magnet. This is especially effective in areas with extreme temperature variations.
Many composite doors are sold unfinished so that you can pick the stain color. When you buy your composite door, it is best to also buy a staining/finishing kit from the manufacturer. These are usually available in many natural wood colors-light and dark oak, cherry, walnut, English walnut, cedar, antique white, etc.
The finishing procedure is quite similar to finishing a real wood door, but with fewer steps. The kits include premixed stain, mineral spirits, clear satin topcoat, brushes, cotton rags, stir sticks and sample pieces to practice on. As with any door finishing job, cleanliness is paramount!