After years of sun and water damage (see above), my front door was in need of a re-stain and re-varnish.  I decided to save some money and do it myself.  Here’s my story and some lessons that I learned.

Tools and Materials

Here is a list of things you’ll need. I wish I had this list when I started, because I ended up making three trips to the store as I discovered new things that I needed.

  • Orbital hand sander and sandpaper OR chemical paint stripper
  • Screwdriver
  • Dropcloth (Whether you use a sander or a chemical paint stripper, this will be a messy job!
  • Paintbrush (Get a decent one. If you get a cheap brush, you will be picking bristles out of the stain and varnish – a huge pain.)
  • Rag
  • Stain (1/2 pint; you will only need half of it). Picking a color that is the same or slightly darker than the existing stain color will make your life easier. If you pick a lighter stain, you will have to remove 100% of the existing varnish and stain (not easy). Note, the Minwax stain I used was for indoor use. It turned out fine since I coated it with varnish, but you might want to find a stain for outdoor use like these:
  • Varnish (1 quart; you will use less than 1/4 of it.)  Make sure you get one that is for OUTDOOR use! The Minwax Helmsan Spar Urethane I used claimed it was for outdoor use but started to flake off at the bottom of the door where water hit it the most after a couple of years. Minwax recommends re-applying EVERY YEAR, which is INSANE! Therefore, I now recommend:
  • Wood filler. I was forced to make an extra trip to the store to get wood filler when I discovered cracks during sanding.
  • Mineral spirits if your stripper, stain, or varnish require it for cleanup.

DISCLOSURE: This is a professional review site that receives compensation from the retailer or manufacturer when you purchase through the affiliate links such as the ones below. I test and/or research each product or service thoroughly before endorsing it. This site is independently owned and the opinions expressed here are my own.

Preparation

As is the case with painting, the vast majority of the work for this re-staining project is with the preparation, i.e., removing the old varnish and stain. Your patience will pay off! Don’t rush into staining too before the door is ready!

First, remove as much hardware from the door as you can. I personally decided NOT to remove the door from its hinges because that seemed unnecessary and a huge pain. I didn’t remove the door handle either. I did remove the peephole viewer and the bottom door sweep.

Next, spread out your drop cloth so that it is under the entire swing area of the door. Things will be getting messy soon. As air blows into your home, it will blow sawdust inside, so you might want to cover your furniture as well.

Patch any holes or cracks in the door with your wood filler.

Removing the existing varnish

This is the most important and difficult part of the whole job.

I chose to remove the old varnish with an orbital hand sander. Another option would be to use a chemical stripper. If you go that route, I would recommend a non-toxic citrus-based one (I have used those before and they work and actually smell good!)

If you are going with a lighter stain color, a stripper might be the only way to go. It is very difficult to remove all of the varnish in corners and crevices with sandpaper.

Using a chemical stripper is very messy though. With the door still on the hinges, the stripper and liquefied varnish will drip down and make a mess that you will be walking around in. I did not want to track that into my home. So, I opted for sanding, since I was going with a darker stain color.

I experimented with different grit sandpaper until I found one that seemed to get the job done (it was surprisingly rough). I was also surprised at how much sanding it took to cut through the varnish, even with the orbital sander.

It turns out that I didn’t have the sandpaper taught enough against the sander, which made it not as effective. I assumed that the pre-cut sandpaper that came with the sander was the right size, but actually they were a little too big and had slack. The vibrating sander wasn’t moving the sandpaper very efficiently, as a result. Only after a couple hours of sanding did I realize this and trim the sandpaper, with much improved results.

The important thing is to remove all of the varnish in the large flat areas. If there is some in the corners and crevices, that is OK if you are going with a similar stain color.

In retrospect, I didn’t do a great job of removing all of the varnish, even in the large flat areas. I got lazy and tired of sanding. The only thing that saved me was that my new stain color was darker than my old one, so I was able to cover up the “splotches” with extra stain.

So be sure to remove absolutely 100% of the old varnish from the large flat areas of your door!! It’s OK to leave some of the old varnish in those hard-to-reach corners and crevices.

When I was done sanding, I vacuumed the door to remove the sawdust, then used mineral spirits and a rag to clean it.

The Staining

Remember to wipe off excess stain.
Remember to wipe off excess stain.

OK, now to the easy part – the actual staining! The key part of staining is to wipe off the excess after you apply it. Stain a section, then wipe.  The longer you let the stain soak, the darker it will be. Apply the stain to a panel, let it sit for a bit, then wipe it off with a rag. You do not want a heavy coat of stain.

This is where my previous so-so sanding job came back to haunt me.  There were some splotches of lighter areas where some varnish remained.  I was able to hide these by applying more stain in those areas, but I recommend doing it right and doing a better sanding job than I did!

The Varnish

IMG_7284_smallAfter the stain dries (I let it dry for two days just to be sure), you’ll be ready to apply the varnish. I purchased a water-based urethane designed for outdoor use (Minwax Urethane).

After reading the instructions, I discovered that this water-based varnish required a whopping three coats, and four was recommended for outdoor surfaces! In addition, they recommend re-applying every year! In retrospect, I recommend getting a different varnish than what I used (Minwax Urethane). An oil-based varnish might be more durable (although oil-based varnishes can turn slightly yellow over time)

Sand the door lightly with a fine-grit sandpaper. It’s kind of scary, because it looks like you’re ruining the finish, but it will be fine. Wipe off the dust with a damp rag.

Apply a thin coat of varnish. Be sure to look at your door carefully at different angles against the light to check for drips, brush bristles, missed areas, etc.

The varnish I used dried surprisingly quickly, in just a few hours. Sand, wipe with damp cloth, and re-apply as directed in the instructions!

Keep the remaining varnish so you can apply a new coat as the finish wears.

The Final Product

Your door is now done! Mine still has some spots of old varnish on there, but no one has noticed them besides me, and the end result is pretty kick-ass. I saved about $200 by doing it myself (and I put on more coats of varnish than a hired hand would have done).

Re-Appplication: A Fact of Life

As I mentioned, after a little over three years, I noticed that the bottom of my door was showing signs of wear from the weather (mainly from rain, not sun). Some of the varnish was coming off, leaving the stain exposed. The label for the Minwax varnish I used does recommend re-application every year.  (I believe the Rust-Oleum varnish I recommended above will last longer, based on Amazon reviews).

So, I did a minor touch up by re-sanding the door, applying the stain where needed, then applying new coats of varnish.  This is a lot less work than staining the door originally, so it wasn’t too bad.

At the end of the re-application, my door was as good as new!  I noticed my neighbor’s doors wearing similarly, so I guess re-application every few years might be a fact of life.  Just be prepared and save your stain and varnish (I recommend labeling them so you know which ones you used for your door, if you do other home-improvement projects!)

Good luck with your project!  Let me know how it went in the comments! – Brian

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12 COMMENTS

  1. So you sand your stain before you varnish AND sand your varnish in between reapplying the second and third coats??

    • Hi Rose,

      Yes, I did sand in between coats using a very fine sandpaper. Read the directions for your varnish to make sure though.

      Best,
      Brian

  2. Did you have any problems with that Min Wax Wood Finish stain? The can on mine says its for indoor use only? Did the color last? I saw there gel based stains are allowed for outdoors but there are less color options.

    Thanks!
    Mike

    • Hi Mike,

      Ah – I didn’t even notice that. You’re right – it says interior use. In my case, the color did last, maybe because I put that urethane coating over it. But, if you’re starting from scratch, maybe it’s best to get one that is for outdoor use.

      Best,
      Brian

  3. After just rinsing my dark finish front doors with soapy water in anticipation of applying an oil to help rehydrate the wood, I was surprised to see areas where the original stain came off! I am trying to get my house ready to put on the market and want it to look right. Can I just brush on more stain or will that create more problems?

    • Hi Susan,

      If there was no lacquer coating, applying more stain should be fine. Even if there was a lacquer coating, the fact that the original stain came off shows that perhaps the lacquer is gone in that area, so applying more stain should be okay too. Just apply a light coat and wipe off quickly at first to make sure it’s not too dark.

      Best,
      Brian

  4. So happy to see someone who did this successfully without taking the door off its hinges! Like you, I only have the wooden entry door – no screen door or glass entry door. I have a toddler and pets, and there is no way I can have my house wide open without a front door for 24+ hours waiting for stain to dry. I’m also glad you specified which type of stain to use for an outside-facing door and how many coats it took you.

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