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How to Pick a Front Door

Entry doors must be tough enough to withstand wind, rain, scorching sun, and would-be intruders, yet handsome enough to make a good first impression. Unfortunately, meeting those needs is a tall order for many front doors. Most older ones are made of wood or wood veneer, both of which warp, crack, and delaminate after years of exposure to the elements. Metal doors don't last forever, either--the surface on some older builder grade steel doors can peel. A high quality steel door with a wood frame that is vinyl cladded is perhaps the best and most cost efficient way to replace your doors. They can be manufactured in many styles and colors and can also have security plates and multipoint locks added to the door system for added security.

Whether that describes your front door or you just want to trade a solid door for one with glass panels that offer more light, you'll find plenty of options available. There are new wood doors that resist the elements better than earlier versions, as well as metal and fiberglass ones that look like wood but provide greater security and often cost less.

Detecting Damage

Sometimes replacing a door means simply exchanging one door, called a slab or blank, for another but this is not recommended and in most cases you'll have to rip out and replace the old door framing, which includes the door jambs and threshold especially if these wood members have begun to rot.

Even if the old door frame is fine, the wall studs it's nailed to can bow and settle out of square. This makes it difficult to open and close the door. To make a new wood door fit an out-of-kilter frame, you'll need to plane the top and bottom or even trim one of these edges so the door hangs correctly. This is only an option with a wood door; metal and fiberglass doors can't be planed or cut.

Most new doors are prehung, which means the door hangs on hinges within a new frame (these systems also include some form of weatherstripping). Prehung doors are an ideal choice if the old frame is bad or if you're removing the frame because you want to enlarge the opening.

An alternative to replacing the entire frame is to use door-replacement kits, such as Replace Door Systems from Pease Industries. Here, the door is prehung in a small steel frame that attaches to the old one. Benefits include easy installation and the added security of the steel frame. However, these kits slightly reduce the original opening, they're available in only a few sizes, and they can't be installed over rotted jambs.

Material Matters

Most manufacturers offer dozens of door styles, and you'll find a broad selection at lumberyards, home centers, and door dealers. Or, design your own door. Some manufacturers let you specify the types of panels and glass options you want. But these doors have to be specially ordered and take two to eight weeks for delivery. A third option is to have a local woodworker or millwork shop build a wood door according to your specifications. Again, the drawbacks are time and money.

Perhaps the most important decision is what your door is made of. Most combine several materials; for example, many fiberglass and steel doors have wood frames. But it's the surface material that most affects appearance, durability, security, and price.

Steel and wood doors are the most common.

Many stock wood doors are a sandwich of wood-veneer skins over an engineered-wood core. This configuration minimizes the expansion and contraction that cause warping. Look for tough, furniture-grade veneers at least 1/16 inch thick; anything thinner damages too easily.

Companies such as Lamson-Taylor, Pella, and Simpson discourage bowing and warping by laminating two pieces of wood to create the stiles and rails. Split construction is also used for door panels, but they have an insulation core. The result is a wood door with an insulation value of about R-5 compared with R-2 for conventional versions.

Solid-wood doors cost the most while hardwood doors are even more expensive.

When shopping for prefinished wood doors, look for durable stains and clear finishes, such as polyurethane. High-gloss sheens offer the best protection for painted doors. Whichever finish you choose, apply it to the top and bottom edges. This helps prevent a wood door from absorbing moisture and swelling.

Also look for 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. The same goes for panel thickness. For example, the high-end doors from Nord have 1 3/8-inch panels compared with the 9/16- and 3/4-inch panels on low-end models.

Entry doors are the only opportunity to add decorative glass accents on most homes. The Cambria door from Simpson contains leaded glass in a variety of designs.

Steel Doors

A steel door is your best bet if security and durability are top priorities. Steel units are stronger than wood or fiberglass doors, and they won't crack or warp. Any dents or dings on these doors can be pulled and puttied with an auto-body repair kit.

Steel doors also cost the least: A steel-door system with sidelights and premium hardware can nearly equal the cost of a wood-door system, however.

All steel doors have an inner frame made of wood or, for greater strength, steel. The cavities within the frame are filled with high-density foam insulation. Premium doors typically have a 24-gauge skin and a steel frame, though some offer heavier-gauge steel (represented by a lower number). The surface usually is smooth or has an embossed wood-grain pattern.

Most steel doors are coated with a baked-on polyester finish that requires periodic repainting. Premium versions get a vinyl coating similar to the one on vinyl-clad windows for greater weather resistance. Some even have a stainable wood-fiber coating or, on really high-end versions, a laminated-wood veneer.

Steel doors usually are part of a prehung system. But if you're simply lifting the old door off its hinges and hanging a new one, remember that steel doors come with hinges attached or holes for the hinges predrilled. The hinge area on the door must match the hinge area on the existing door frame. Some doors come with an extra predrilled hole for the hinges, which allows minor adjustments to be made when hanging the door.

Also, if you choose an embossed wood grain, make sure it runs horizontally on the rails and vertically on the stiles. Finally, check the warranty. Some manufacturers will void it if you install an aluminum storm door with the steel door. The reason: Heat buildup between the doors might cause the finish to peel.

Fiberglass-Composite Doors

Fiberglass-composite doors are tough and maintenance-free, and are a smart choice for harsh or humid climates. They mimic the look of wood with wood-grain texturing and can be stained to match oak, cherry, walnut, and a variety of other woods. Beneath their molded surface is a framework of wooden stiles and rails, including wood edges for the lockset. Voids in the framework are filled with polyurethane-foam insulation.

Fiberglass-composite doors carry long warranties. For example, Pease Industries backs its models for as long as you own the house. But because installation affects longevity, these lengthy warranties usually come only on complete entry systems that include the frame.

As with steel doors, make sure that the embossed wood-grain pattern runs horizontally on the rails and vertically on the stiles, like real wood grain. And if you're installing just the door, be sure the hinges line up with the existing frame.

Aluminum Doors

Aluminum doors, like steel units, use an insulation core covered by a metal skin. Unlike other door systems, however, aluminum versions are sold exclusively through dealers. Each is custom-built to your opening.

Manufacturers offer all types of options. The doors in the Armaclad line from Hess Manufacturing, for example, come in dozens of styles and colors, with smooth or wood-grain finishes.

Aluminum doors have a baked-on enamel finish, so they never need painting and won't rust which explains the 20-year warranties that are common. You can also match the color and style of your door with an aluminum storm door. All these benefits don't come cheap, however.

Buying Smart

Whether you buy the door by itself or the entire door-and-frame system, keep these shopping tips in mind:

For complete entry systems, be sure all components come from the same manufacturer. (Many systems are assembled by distributors with parts that might not mate perfectly.) Check that the weatherstripping seals properly and that the threshold interlocks with the bottom edge of the door.

Look for low-e glazing on window units. For added security, some manufacturers offer glazing designed to resist break-ins. Decorative windows with real lead or brass caming cost more than ones with the fake stuff.

High-quality steel and fiberglass doors have a thermal break often a vinyl strip or part of the wood frame that separates the inside and outside door skins. This prevents outside cold and heat from being conducted through the skin and frame, and frost from forming on the inside surface.

Picking the right front door will pay off in smoother operation, less maintenance, and added energy savings. You'll also have an elegant entry that makes a great first impression for years to come.


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