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For The Home

Reclaimed-Wood Doors

Author: Maria Matson
Issue: August, 2013, Page 36
Photos by David B. Moore

This set of solid teak doors, with its original carved surround, stands 9'H by 4'W. The antique doors, originally from Rajasthan, India, now mark the entrance to the master bedroom of a Paradise Valley, Arizona, home. They are sheathed in metal and studded with brass, and are believed to be more than 100 years old.

history, Highlights and helpful Hints

No matter what, you’re either indoors or outdoors. Most inhabited structures have a door and, depending on which side you’re on, you’re either in or you’re out. Whether it’s a barrier built of sticks, a simple flap of hide, a heavy slab of wood or a sturdy sheet of steel, a door serves as both an entrance and an exit, and affords privacy and protection for those inside. Symbolically, open doors signal hope and opportunity; closed doors signify endings, rejection or secrecy. As the sayings go, getting your foot in the door holds promise; being shown the door—well, not so much. 

Architecturally speaking, there are exterior doors and interior doors. For these, one can choose from hinged, pivoting, revolving, sliding, pocket, folding, French and Dutch doors. In the Southwest, homeowners are increasingly opting for antique wood doors imported from as far away as India, France and Belgium, and as close as Mexico and right here in the U.S. Repurposing and recycling are certainly the green way to go, but these old wooden doors offer more than a smaller carbon footprint.

“There’s something wonderful about that old, heavy wood,” says Meg Van Lith, co-owner of Tierra Del Lagarto. “It has a patina, or sometimes even a little bit of paint left on it, that evokes an older era. You can almost imagine this great door sitting for 100 years in an old, dusty village. When you bring that into your home, it makes it a more personal, more authentic house. It’s not just the same baked-potato variety everybody else has. You can really change the look of a house by just installing one really cool door.”

This vintage door from Belgium is from the late 1800s. It features hand-carved dentil molding and a cast-iron postal slot, door ringer and decorative grill.
Once or twice a year, Van Lith travels to India with her mother, Linda, to source items for their Scottsdale store. Most of the doors they ship home are teak or, if they’re lucky to find it, rosewood. The doors are salvaged from buildings throughout the Indian subcontinent that are being torn down or renovated.

“A lot of the pieces are from old village homes, where the owners are just ready to upgrade to something we might find unattractive, like a really sturdy steel door with a real lock on it,” Van Lith says. “As the middle class becomes more affluent in India, there’s an urge for the modern, so they upgrade and we end up with their beautiful old things.”

Some of the doors are simple and rustic, and likely came from homes in small villages. Others are oversized and dramatic. These, Van Lith says, likely come from “more palatial settings.” Whether simple or ornate, the doors have grown more expensive over the years as the supply of salvaged teak slowly dwindles. Harvesting from India’s teak forests was banned in the 1980s, but reproductions are still being made. That makes determining the age of a salvaged door tricky business.

“Technically, in India, it’s illegal to export anything out of the country that’s more than 100 years old, so nobody talks about it,” Van Lith says. “These doors are ‘vintage,’ not ‘antique.’ The newer, reproduction doors are made of mango or acacia wood, so it’s really the wood you have to look for, the patina. You develop an eye for it.”

In addition to shipping whole doors across the ocean, shop owners in the Southwest are sourcing closer to home.

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: From France, these shuttered pine doors separate a master bedroom from the master bath. • From Rajasthan, India, teak and iron gates, such as these, were normally placed in front of traditional wood doors, allowing air ventilation into a home while keeping roving animals out. • A narrow door from Guatemala reflects the Spanish Colonial influence of the region in its nature-inspired design. The carved motif depicts a pair of birds and a sloth. The door conceals a drop-down ironing board in a Paradise Valley, Arizona, home. • These compound doors came from an old church in Spain and now serve a house structured around a late 1800s-adobe. A compound door incorporates a smaller door, providing a more convenient way for people (and animals) to enter and exit.

“We buy old barn doors from Michigan, Wisconsin and the New England states,” says Louise McDermott, owner of Antiquities Warehouse in Phoenix. “I bought a pair of doors from Wisconsin that are from 1860, because the patina on them was just incredible. To me these old doors are like works of art; they have such character.”

McDermott also buys old barn wood that her two on-site carpenters craft into doors that, while new in form, still boast the patina and pedigree of reclaimed wood. She calls on Brian Szczech of Flux Design Studio to craft metalwork that complements the age of the salvaged wood on a “new” door, or directly replicates the existing hardware on an antique door.

“Most of the time, the locks that are on these old doors aren’t usable, so we fabricate new locks, new handles, new hinges to replicate what was on there,” Szczech says. “Even if the locks are functioning, technology has changed, so hardware that was made 50 or more years ago isn’t really what you’d want in your house. We’ll make it appear to be old, but it will be newer hardware with newer technology.”

Photos - From left to right: This is a Dogon door from Mali, Africa. Traditionally used on granaries, it is carved with images from daily life, as well as fertility symbols believed to encourage a good harvest. This set is from the Bandiagara Escarpment, where the Dogon build their homes on steep cliffs overlooking the farmland below. • These pine doors are believed to be Egyptian and more than 100 years old.

This sort of retrofitting is particularly important for exterior doors, where security is a concern. But if you’d rather keep the original hardware intact, the doors can be used in numerous other spaces, in a variety of ways.

“We sell a lot of arched doors that people have used for powder rooms or for wine rooms,” Van Lith says. “They are also used out in the garden as gates. And people use them as headboards; that’s a popular way to go. And of course we’ve seen some cut up and used as door panels for entertainment units, or as tops for buffets.”

McDermott notes that sliding barn-type doors are popular, and has seen salvaged doors repurposed in all styles of homes as storage cabinets, nightstands, benches and “just about anything.” But, she maintains, old reclaimed doors are beautiful as is: “You can just lean them against the wall and they become like a piece of art.”

This pair of antique Spanish interior doors is made from hand-carved walnut. The set measures 76"H by 40"W by 2"D.
Consider This
Door frames and doorjambs need to adequately handle the weight of some reclaimed wood doors. “A lot of these old doors, especially from India, are very heavy, the wood is very dense,” points out Meg Van Lith, co-owner of Tierra Del Lagarto. “And, in India, if there’s a chance to use one nail, they’ll use 20, so the doors are often also shot through with tons of metal.”
• Reclaimed doors can be retrofitted for just about any space. “Almost any door can be modified to fit the use you want,” says Brian Szczech of Flux Design Studio. “When we modify a door, we lean toward overkill on the structural engineering of the product. A door is going to be opened and closed thousands of times throughout the year, so you want to make sure there aren’t going to be any issues with the door or the structure itself over time.”
•  They’re old and require care. “Particularly in Arizona, the climate is very harsh,” Szczech comments. “If there’s not an overhang and you have direct sunlight on a wooden exterior door, it’s only a matter of time before a topcoat sealer is completely burned off.” He recommends applying a penetrating sealer once a year, ideally right after the heat of summer has passed.

From Rajasthan, India, these 9'H by 5'W hand-carved doors are between 50 to 70 years old and once served as either the main or secondary doors for a house.
Where to Find Them
Antiquities Warehouse, Phoenix; Indus Design Imports, Tempe; On the Veranda, Phoenix; Passport Imports, Scottsdale; Relics, Phoenix; Tabarka, Scottsdale; The Embellished House, Scottsdale; Tierra Del Lagarto, Scottsdale.
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