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A Buyer's Guide to Entry Doors

A Buyer's Guide to Entry Doors


"The entry door is the beginning of your journey through a house, " says Southern California architect Craig Stoddard. "It's the first part of the house that anyone going through the house looks at closely. Ideally it should emphasize the character of the house," he adds. For new and old homes alike, the front door is a key focal point.

Unfortunately, because they are exposed to weather and heavy wear, entry doors often show their age prematurely. Most older doors are made from wood, a material that has the warm, natural look and feel that most people prefer but is vulnerable to the elements. Season after season of sun and rain eventually warp, crack and bow wood, as the sun's ultraviolet rays break down wood's natural lignin, and moisture repeatedly shrinks and swells wood fibers. As a result, when given enough time, wood doors give up the ghost.

Luckily, entry doors have changed significantly during the past few years. Homeowners may now select from a wonderful smorgasbord of options when shopping for new solid wood entry doors. Hundreds of types and sizes are available, from conventional wood models to high-tech alternatives made of fiberglass composites and steel.

One significant change is that, unless you're looking for a bare-bones door replacement, you may buy an entire "entry system." With an entry system, a door is pre-hung in its frame, the door's bottom edge interlocks with the threshold and weatherstripping encircles the door's perimeter. Hinges and lockset are designed as part of the system, and sidelites often flank the door. With a system, all components are designed and machined to work together reliably and with uncompromising energy efficiency.

Another change in the door industry is that the lines that once distinguished one door-building material from another have blurred. A wood door isn't necessarily entirely wood anymore. In fact, some wood doors have steel interiors, and steel doors have wood exteriors. A fiberglass or steel door may have a wood frame. And nearly any door may have a core of foam insulation.

Even so, for the sake of discussion, it helps to consider doors according to their primary face material. The choice of wood, fiberglass or steel as a surface material has the greatest impact on a door's appearance, cost, durability and security.

Nearly all doors--wood and non-wood alike--are termed either "flush" or "paneled" doors. Flush doors are flat and smooth on both faces. Paneled doors have rectangular recesses--panels--framed by horizontal rails and vertical stiles. Panel construction originated with wood doors to minimize cracking and warping by giving panels enough room to shift as they expand and contract with changes in moisture. Doors with doorlites (windows) have panel construction with one or more lites substituting for panels.

Wood and Manufactured-Wood Doors
Wood wins the prize for appearance. It is beautiful, natural and tactile. With either custom or manufactured wood doors, you can choose from several species meant to be finished naturally, including oak, cherry, walnut, mahogany, maple, fir, pine, or paint-grade doors from any of several softwoods. Because of their vulnerability to moisture and sun, wood doors must be maintained with a durable finish.

Most mass-produced doors are made with an engineered-wood core that is faced with a veneer, a construction that minimizes warping and movement and makes a door more affordable to build. Be aware that veneers are easily damaged, particularly if they're thinner than about 1/16 inch.

If you want to design your own front door, you can have a local custom shop build it for you, or you can order it from a large custom door manufacturer such as IWP or Lamson-Taylor Custom Doors. IWP lets you customize your door by choosing from a myriad of options, including many different prefinished hardwood colors.

With Lamson-Taylor, you can radically push the design envelope. "If you can't find it anywhere else, we make it," says Grant Taylor. His company utilizes a high-tech construction method that virtually eliminates bowing and splitting and incorporates insulation into the door's structure. Stiles and rails are built-up from two thicknesses of material that are laminated together. The panels are also made from split construction, but they're designed to sandwich an insulation core. The result is a wood door with an insulation value of about R-5 compared to a conventional wood door at about R-2.
Other door makers who build-up panels, stiles and rails from two or more thicknesses of material include Simpson and Pella Rolscreen.

Fiberglass Composite Alternatives
Where a door will be exposed to weather or particularly harsh or humid climates, fiberglass-composite doors are a smart choice. These doors realistically imitate the look of wood, thanks to a combination of molded wood grain texturing and the fact that they can be stained to match most popular woods, such as oak, cherry and walnut.

Fiberglass doors are sold as single units or complete entry systems. For example, Therma-Tru's Classic-Craft door includes oak-over jambs, a variety of glass doorlite styles, oak adjustable sills, security strike plates and a lifetime limited warranty.

Because they're quite durable and maintenance-free, fiberglass-composite doors tend to have long limited warranties. Pease Doors, for example, backs their door for as long as you own the house. Because a door's longevity depends on installation and exposure, this type of warranty is usually only available on a complete entry system.

A fiberglass door isn't entirely fiberglass. The durable surface of compression-molded fiberglass covers a framework of wooden styles and rails, including wood edges. The framework's voids are filled with CFC-free polyurethane foam insulation.

Fiberglass doors are generally less expensive than wood. Expect to pay about $200 for a 3'0" by 6'8" paneled door without glazing or hardware. The other accessories, however, such as glazing and hardware, cost the same no matter what material the door is made from. Fully loaded, a fiberglass entry system can reach $4000, just like a wood door system.

Many fiberglass door manufacturers also make steel doors. These makers include Castlegate Entry Systems, Ceco Doors, Stanley Door Systems and Peachtree Doors and PermaDoor.

The Steel Deal
If security and durability are your top priorities, a steel door might be your best choice. A steel door is far stronger than either fiberglass or wood. In addition, it won't crack, warp or come apart. Although residential steel doors can be dented, repairs may be made with an auto-body repair kit.

A steel door isn't as industrial as it sounds. Most steel doors have surfaces of heavy-gauge galvanized steel that has been embossed with a wood-grain pattern. Some types are given a wood-fiber coating that allows them to be stained. High-end doors may even have real-wood veneer laminated to their surfaces.

Conventional steel doors are factory primed with a baked-on polyester finish; they generally require periodic repainting. Some are given a vinyl coating for greater weather resistance. All have an inner frame that may be made of wood or--for greater strength--steel. The cavities within the frame are filled with high-density foam insulation. Weather Shield's insulated steel door with hardwood veneer facings has an insulation value of about R-8.

Steel doors are less expensive than fiberglass and wood. A 3'0" by 6'8" paneled door without hardware or glazing typically costs from $100 to $120. As with fiberglass doors, the price can run nearly as high as a wood entry system when you add amenities such as sidelites and high quality hardware.

A premium residential steel door has a skin of 24-gauge steel and a steel frame. You can special-order thicker steel on some models. If it is embossed with a wood grain pattern, the direction of wood grain should match the direction wood grain would normally go--horizontally on the rails and vertically on the stiles.

Being An Astute Buyer
Doors are available through millwork shops, wooden door manufacturer, lumberyards and home-improvement centers. Most manufactured doors are made by a handful of large companies; Premdor and Jeld-Wen, for example, own several smaller or regional door makers that each construct a particular type of door. These companies, in turn, ship to local distributors and dealers.

When replacing an existing door, measure the door's actual width, thickness (normally 1 3/4 inches) and height (normally 6 foot 8 inches). If you're buying a complete entry system and intend to replace the jamb as well as the door, measure the thickness of the existing jamb, from the inside of the exterior molding to the inside of the interior molding (this equals the wall's thickness). Stand inside and note which side the knob is on. If the knob is on the right, you have a "right-hand" door; if it's on the left, you have a "left-hand" door.

When buying a wood door, look for high-quality woods, beautiful, durable finishes and careful detailing. As a rule, the more intricate the carvings and moldings, and the thicker and wider the stiles and rails, the better the door. Nord's high-end models have 1 3/8-inch panels; lesser priced doors have 9/16-inch and 3/4-inch panels.

If you're considering an entry system, be sure all of the components are from the same manufacturer; many systems are assembled by distributors and their parts may not be designed to go together. Be sure all weatherstripping seals effectively and the threshold interlocks with the door's bottom edge.

Look for dual, low-E glazing and be aware that, if the window is leaded, real lead (or brass) caming is more expensive than faux caming. Keep both security and safety in mind. Some glass, such as "Pease-Shield(tm)" by Pease Industries, is highly resistant to breakage.

High-quality steel and fiberglass doors have a thermal break--an insulated separation--that prevents outside cold and heat from being conducted through the door's skin and frame (with a fiberglass door, this break may simply be the wood frame). This is a must for cold climates; otherwise, frost may form on the door's inside surface.

Even if it costs you a little more, a high-quality door is sure to pay you back with smooth operation, energy efficiency, low maintenance and great looks for years to come.

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