When I bought my first house I knew there was going to be some work to do. The front entrance looked a bit boring. Because it’s such a prominent feature of the house I decided a front door surround would be a quick and effective way to improve the look of the house, while requiring minimal work on my part.
Take a Walk
Like most projects – all projects, come to think of it – a bit of planning will help keep you on track, and material waste to a minimum. Since the front door is often the focal point of a home, it’s not a bad idea to do a little research into the different styles of door surrounds before making your final choice. I found that looking at different types of door surrounds was the best way to get a sense of what my options were. While old banks, courthouses and office buildings usually have beautiful, elaborate entrances, I found the most appropriate examples were on homes in the older areas of town. By driving or walking around these old neighbourhoods you will see a wide array of beautiful surrounds and be able to get a good visual idea of some different options. Remember to keep in mind the scale and style of your own home when doing this and keep the design compatible. If you find a design you really like and are unsure of the specific dimensions, I suggest you knock on the door and ask the homeowner if you could take a few photographs and make a sketch with some key measurements. They’ll likely enjoy the compliment.
Overall proportion and size are the main elements to consider in the design process. What looks good on another house in your neighbourhood might not look great on your home. If you’re really unsure about the overall size, make a full-scale model. Take a sheet of ⅛” masonite, cut it to fit around your door, trim to the outside dimensions, draw some details on the masonite with a heavy marker and put it in place. Any size or proportion issues should be visible at this stage, and you’ll be able to fine tune the design so that it looks right.
Column style surround
Vertical panel raising bit
Rounding over architrave end
Gluing architrave to frieze
Cornice showing return
According to classical architecture, the basic design of a door surround, or entrance way, has fluted columns on either side of the door supporting a group of architectural elements (the entablature), over the top of the doorway. The entablature is further broken down into three sections: the architrave, the frieze and the cornice. The architrave (or top trim) is the lowest section and sits directly on top of the columns. It usually consists of simple mouldings. The frieze (or head board) is the middle section and is often kept fairly flat but may have some carving or relief applied to it. The cornice (or crown) is the top section and contains the projecting part of the entablature. This is where the term ‘cornice moulding’ comes from. It’s not overly important to pay close attention to this formula, but hopefully with a bit of background information If you are a woodworker with an average skill set, you’ll find this is an easy weekend project that will not only add curb appeal to your home, but enhance its market value. And it doesn’t have to break the bank – the materials cost under $100. you can start to pick out different types of architecture and understand a bit about the process of designing a surround for your door.
Original Door Frame
The step-by-step details of my installation may not include everything you want or need for your surround. You may have to make some changes to complete your design.
As with all outdoor projects, you can’t go wrong with cedar. It has excellent decay resistance and takes stain and finish very well. Woods like Black Cherry and White Oak are also quite decay resistant and will look great painted or stained. However, no matter what kind of wood or finish you use, you will need to maintain the finish on a regular basis to protect the wood from rotting.
To cover large flat areas, exterior plywood is a good choice – it’s very stable and easy to work with. When attaching the surround to the frame of your home, make sure you use galvanized nails and exterior screws.
There will be fewer problems down the road with mineral streaking, and there will be less chance of these fasteners coming loose due to corrosion.
For this surround I used ⅞” lumber for the columns, frieze and applied base, and ½” stock for the architrave. Rather than mill the cornice I purchased a length of crown moulding from my local building supply centre.
Vertical Columns First
Since I have a fairly simple home, I designed a door surround accordingly simple details with a medium overall size. I went with a flat, fluted column on either side of the door and a straight forward entablature above the door. At the bottom of each column there is an applied base, for aesthetic reasons only.
There are two vertical fluted columns on either side of the door. The height of the columns should be the same as the distance from the underside of the door opening to the ground.
On a router table set up a vertical panel raising bit to produce the three column flutes. You could also use a dish cutting or straight bit. When fluting columns I like to machine at least three flutes per column and usually mill an odd number of flutes for balance. To facilitate routing, draw lines on the backs of the columns to show where the flutes start and stop, along with lines on the router table fence that show where the bit is cutting. Before routing use a dado blade to remove some of the material. It’s best to take slow passes to finish the flutes. Using the dado blades to remove much of the material makes for a safer, smoother cut on the router table. Begin by machining the middle flute of each column, then move the fence and machine the flutes on either side. Stop routing the fluting 4” from the top of each column and 10” from the bottom. An applied base enhances the bottom of the columns. For these I milled stock 5” high and ¼” narrower than the vertical columns, and then routed a bevel on the top and front edge of both pieces. You can vary the height to suit the look you want to achieve.
Then the Entablature
To determine the length of the frieze, add the width of the door opening, the width of each of the columns, and two ½” reveals. For my surround it came to 49 ½”. For the architrave, mill a ½” thick by 1 ¼” wide-half-round moulding. When attached to the bottom of the frieze it provides a simple transition between the columns and the upper section. Cut the architrave ¾” longer than the center section and then machine the same half-round profile on both ends. Once cut to its final width, spread waterproof glue, such as Elmer’s E741 (elmers.com) on the face and clamp it to the bottom edge of the frieze.
Mitre the ends of the cornice piece. Cut a small return for either end, and attach the returns to the center piece with glue and nails. It’s important to make sure the width between the two returns is exactly the same length as the frieze, so they will fit together. Once the cornice is dry, attach it to the top of the frieze. To do this, drill a few holes through the frieze and glue and screw the cornice through the back of it. Because my house has a ledge directly above the surround, water will not be able to get in behind it. If you have no coverage above your surround, as is often the case, you should put a piece of flashing above the cornice just to keep the rain and snow from accumulating and rotting the wood.
Finish Before Assembly
Before installing the surround, sand the surfaces, more to give the paint some tooth to adhere to than anything else. To give the wood some extra protection from the elements, prime and paint all surfaces of each piece before installing them. This way even if rain gets behind the surround there will be some protection against rot. I recommend this step if you plan on using an exterior paint or stain and varnish on your surround. Whether you are using an oilbased or water-based paint you should use a good primer. The Zinsser line (rustoleum.com) offers an excellent choice.
Once the paint has thoroughly dried, you can begin installation. Use exterior screws in countersunk holes and attach the columns to either side of the door. Make sure to sink the screws into something solid, like a stud, the door frame or some plywood sheathing – although it’s best if you can attach the columns to all three. It’s a good idea to keep a ½” reveal between each column and the inside edge of the door opening, and use a temporary spacer to ensure that the columns are ½” off the ground. This way any water sitting on the ground will not migrate up the wooden column, and start the rotting process. This also means that when you’re ready to install the upper section it will sit ½” above the door opening, giving a ½” reveal around all three sides of the door. While installing the columns, double check to make sure the outside dimension between the columns will end up matching that of the frieze so everything lines up when complete.
The process takes a bit longer if you are attaching the surround to brick. You will have to put a column in place and then drill pilot holes through the piece and into the brick with a masonry bit. Do one hole to start with, making sure the part is positioned properly before moving on to the other holes. Once all the holes are drilled, countersink them so plugs can be added later. You will have to use a proper masonry screw, found in most hardware stores. Staff can also advise you on what size bit to use for pre-drilling.
With the two columns in place, attach the top section in the same way – screws through countersunk holes. The base can be added in the same manner. It, like the columns, should be ½” off the ground. Once everything is attached to the house, plug all the countersunk holes with waterproof glue and wooden plugs. When dry, trim them with a chisel and sand them flush. Fill any nail holes as well as any gaps between each of the parts with some exterior caulking. It’s important to keep cracks filled to reduce the chance of water damage. As is always the case with exterior projects, water is your biggest enemy, so take the time to protect against it. I use Mono acrylic exterior caulking (rustoleum.com) to fill any large gaps between the surround and the house. If a gap is more than about ⅜” I would cut a filler block to fit the gap and secure it with some caulk.
Once everything has been secured to the house and the gaps and cracks have been filled the only thing left to do is add a final coat or two of paint. Since you’re painting outdoors make sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Don’t paint if the surface is in direct sunlight, the outdoor temperature is going to drop below 10º Celsius until the finish has cured, or when rain is forecasted – which leaves a pretty small window of opportunity for us Canadians! Over the years you should keep a close eye on the state of the paint. If it starts to flake, the best thing to do is to scrape the loose paint off, re-caulk and paint again.
Now that you’ve completed the job, stand back and take a good look at the improvements made to your home. If you’re like me, this is where you start to think… “I guess the front door could use a new coat of paint.” or “Maybe it’s time to make a couple of planter boxes for below the windows.” A woodworker’s job is never truly done.