Internal doors: a period character guide

Continuing our series on the design elements that make old houses so special, Roger Hunt enters the world of solid wood internal doors, looking at traditional techniques and where to source antique examples

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Internal doors developed from the simple construction, still common in old cottages, of vertical planks fixed to horizontal timber ‘ledges’ mounted on hinges. Over the centuries they became complicated joinery items with panels and frames of vertical and horizontal timbers, called stiles and rails respectively.

Panelled doors came into their own in the Georgian period, typically having six panels. As with all architectural features, the grandest were in the ‘public’ parts of a house while those in the private areas or servants’ quarters had considerably less embellishment.

In ordinary houses, an architrave would be all that was used to set off the door, but this is not always the case in grander properties. Visit the National Trust’s West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire, and the relatively plain double doors from the saloon to the hall are bordered by columns and topped by a marble bust.

The Victorian age brought automatic cutting techniques for creating joints, which resulted in the mass production of doors. Four-panelled doors were popular and it was not unusual for glass to be used in the upper panels to provide light between rooms. Double and folding doors served to provide a division between adjoining reception rooms. Flush doors, often with a hardwood veneered face, made their mark in the 1920s and 1930s.

Traditional internal doors

 Durtnell Joinery, which has been in business for over 400 years, still makes individual doors largely by hand. When I met joinery estimator Paul Withers, he highlighted how the timber that is selected must be straight and free from knots and shakes. Wherever possible, Durtnell uses hardwoods as they are more stable and less likely to warp.

Before timber can be used it must be ‘converted’ by being cut to width and length, and then planed to width and depth. In the case of a panelled door, the positions of the rails on the stiles and the positions of the mortise and tenons are marked out along with the groove for the panels.

Hand-crafting a wooden door

Hand-crafting an internal door

  • The member is marked out by a joiner. This shows a mortise – the hole into which the tenon is slotted.
  • Wedges are driven down between the edges of the tenons and mortise to secure the tenon within the mortise. These are cut off prior to being planed flush.
  • A joiner at Durtnell Joinery assembles the door, applying light pressure to the cramps to bring the joints together.
  • Doors are assembled on the bench.
  • A Georgian-style raised and fielded panel door.

Hand-crafting a wooden door

The machines used to cut the joints are called mortisers and tenoners and the wood machinist uses a spindle moulder to create grooves, mouldings and rebates on the stiles and rails to make them ready to receive the panels.

Paul emphasised that, from this point on, the door is hand finished. The ‘dry’ door is assembled by a craftsman using a rubber mallet to gently tap the timber, ensuring all the members fit together neatly. The joiner disassembles and reassembles the door, applying glue to the tenons and then, with great care, places the door in cramps, applying light pressure to bring the joints together.

The final stage is to drive wedges between the edges of the tenons and the mortise to secure the tenon within the mortise. The door is then prepared for the finishing coats of primer or polish using a cabinet scraper and abrasive papers. The hinges and other ironmongery are fitted on site, explained Paul.

How to buy antique internal doors

Old doors are best thought of as antique furniture — after all you wouldn’t discard a 200-year-old table just because it has a damaged leg. If well maintained, a door can last for centuries and should be relatively easy for a joiner to repair.

When you’re choosing a door, a key consideration is the thickness, as the thicker it is,  the more stable it is likely to be. Not all internal doors are made of solid, real timber, so be sure you know what you’re buying. With hardwoods, check that the pattern of the grain and colour is what you want. If you opt for oak, remember that the appearance of English or European oak differs considerably from American white oak.

Some salvage yards offer a wide selection of internal doors. Before you buy any door, new or reclaimed, ensure that it is not cracked or warped. Beware of doors that have been commercially stripped to remove paint by dipping in caustic baths; this can result in shrinkage and distortion and may loosen joints and raise the grain.

In the past, doors made of hardwoods such as oak or mahogany would have been polished but, contrary to popular belief, the ‘traditional’ look of stripped pine is historically inaccurate since cheap and knotty softwoods were either painted or ‘grained’ so that the surface resembled hardwood.

Try to avoid cutting doors down to fit an opening as it will spoil their proportions and weaken them. Before you decide to cut the bottom off a door to allow for the height of a new floor covering, remember that such irreversible changes are likely to outlive the flooring material.

Doors often stick but think twice about trimming the edges during damp weather or after building work where ‘wet’ trades have been busy as they may settle down once the atmosphere becomes drier and the heating is turned on. Heating can cause panels in doors to shift and crack so it is worth giving them time to acclimatise before decorating.

Fireproofing internal doors

Fire regulations have been responsible for the loss or damage of many internal doors. Particularly where loft conversions are planned, building inspectors are very likely to insist that doors on the main escape route meet certain levels of fire performance. Modern certified fire doors are available but I was able to adapt and upgrade my original doors using intumescent paint or strip products.

Alternatively, it may be possible to maintain the integrity of the door by fitting a piece of fire retardant board to one side. Although it might not look very attractive, it has the benefit of allowing the door to be retained and provides a reversible solution.

The anatomy of a door

Internal doors glossary

  • Fielded panel: a raised central flat surface on a similar plane to the frame.
  • Gunstock stile: a stile that decreases in width from the top of the middle rail through to the top rail. It takes its name from the fact that the shape resembles a rifle stock.
  • Intumescent: a layer that expands to form a heat barrier while acting to starve the flames of oxygen. Intumescent paint or strips fitted around the edge of the door are used to provide fire protection.
  • Member: a word used by joiners to describe the parts of a door collectively.
  • Mortise and tenons: traditional joints between the stiles, rails and muntins of a door. The mortise is the hole and the tenon is the end of the rail that has been machined to fit the mortise.
  • Muntin: the vertical part in the framing of a door that divides the panels.

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