‘Truth to materials’ is a straightforward concept to explain and much more difficult to apply in practice. It came to the fore in the nineteenth century and is particularly associated with the work of Augustus Pugin, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement as a whole. Its simplest requirement is that designers should not disguise, hide or contradict the nature of the materials they are using. The architect Charles Voysey (1857-1941) and the sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986)both took as their starting point the need to understand the nature and possibilities of the materials they were using. Voysey valued simplicity over ornamental complexity. His designs had a straightforward functional logic which generated richness without the artificial complexity beloved by the Victorians.
“Stone is stone and wood is wood,” insisted Moore in the 1930s, and to make them look like anything else was, he said, “coming down to the level of a stage conjuror.” Now a dooris, well, simply a door you might say and a person does not have to be a skilled designer or an expert on materials to tell, at a glance, what material a period front doors is made from. The form it takes in detail is largely determined by the properties of the materials used in its construction.
One of these doors is an early twentieth century original, made from wood and bevelled, float, glass. The other is a late twentieth century generic intruder, mass-produced in uPVC with added double-glazing. There are no prizes for guessing which is which.
uPVC or, to give it its proper name, ‘unplasticized polyvinyl chloride’, is a versatile and durable low-maintenance material which is resistant to many chemicals and to oxidation by water. Unlike timber, it does not rot or biologically decompose and it retains its shape in normal climatic temperatures. A superb material for making doors, you might think.
uPVC doors are made up from extruded sections which have an intricate beauty hidden within themselves which is, sadly, not apparent in the finished product. The tragedy of uPVC doors is that their designs invariably imitate the lines of traditional front doors and fail lamentably. In comparison with timber doors they look clumsy, phoney and badly proportioned. There is, it seems, as yet no uPVC aesthetic and try as hard as they might, the imperative to imitate wood makes uPVC doors always look as if they are made of plastic. It’s high time someone applied ‘truth to materials’ and came up with a uPVC door which was honestly proud to be plastic.
An amazing art nouveau period front doors in Belgium with more curves than you could shake a Belgian waffle at! The sweeping mid-rail in the door and the complicated stop chamfers around the glazing would be a challenge for the best of joiners and mark this door out as something a bit special. Not to mention the beautiful, floral, leaded light which uses opaque, coloured panes in the leaves to great effect. The curves in the joinery, the shaped hinges, the floral lead design and the converging curves of the surrounding masonry result in a doorway which oozes with organic art nouveau style.
London front doors provide lots of opportunities to play with design, innovate and personalise. Today we’re looking at letterplate ideas. Contemporary, traditional or eccentric; which one is your favourite?
Lucy Greenslade finds that doors really do grow on trees.
First let us be clear that we are talking about solid timber exterior doors; typically your front door, back door and garden doors. Veneered doors – where a thin skin of carefully selected fine timber is applied to a background of chipboard or cheap timber blocks – are something entirely different and merit a separate discussion. I am excluding veneered doors today because, although they make excellent internal doors, there are doubts about their long-term durability when exposed to the elements.
The difference between ‘hardwood’ and ‘softwood’ is botanical not practical. Describing a door as ‘made from hardwood’ is more a sales pitch than a reliable technical specification. ‘Hardwoods’ come from deciduous trees (which drop their leaves before winter) and ‘softwoods’ from ever-green conifers. That’s the difference.
The TRADA (Timber Research & Development Association) Product Directory lists about one hundred hardwoods that are suitable for joinery but not all are classed as ‘durable’ for exterior use. The alphabetical list runs from Abura and Afrormosia to Walnut and Wenge. TRADA also lists twenty-five softwoods, ranging from Cedar through Larch, Pines and Spruce to Yew. In theory a door could be manufactured in almost any of these but the practical experience of generations of joiners has determined the uses to which various timbers are best suited: Ash – furniture, Beech – cabinets and worktops, Cedar – cladding and decking, Elm – furniture and coffins, Douglas Fir – structural timbers, Hornbeam – chopping blocks and mallets and so on. Oak and Pine are versatile timbers and put to many uses, including the making of doors; but bear in mind that there are significant differences of price and durability between them.
In the past, good old Pitch Pine was the traditional choice of joiners for Georgian and Victorian front doors and windows. Nowadays good quality, bespoke, exterior doors are most commonly made from Meranti, Oak or, increasingly, Accoya. Meranti (sometimes known as ‘Philippine Mahogany’) is a hardwood originating in south-east Asia. It has a very dense cell structure and suffers relatively little shrinkage as it dries out. Meranti doors are more suitable for painting than for staining and varnishing. Oak is slow growing and slow-drying. Slow growth aids its durability over the faster-growing pines but Oak has a natural tendency to split and warp as its inevitable drying shrinkage causes stresses and movement. There are also significant differences in appearance and durability between European and American oaks.
Accoya is a not a separate timber species at all but a high technology long life wood. It results from a process known as ‘acetylation’ whereby sustainably-sourced softwood is chemically modified to make it remarkably stable and durable. Although it sounds very scientific the Accoya production process is non-toxic and environmentally friendly. I found that Accoya was the twenty-first century timber of choice amongst carpenters and joiners for top-quality, painted, exterior doors.
Wander the streets of a big city like London and you’ll notice quite quickly how dirty the buildings look, even in areas where there are no factories or power plants. Exhaust fumes from traffic are generally to blame. As well as blackening brickwork, sooty deposits from exhaust fumes will also affect the hardware and paintwork on your front door. We are often asked how best to clean grubby door furniture and this week we share our top tips.
Under normal circumstances lacquered brass door furniture should give many years of service with minimal maintenance. They should be regularly cleaned with a cloth moistened with hand-warm, soapy water or alternatively wiped over with a soft cloth with beeswax. Under no circumstances should any form of metal cleaner or aerosol spray be used.
To keep unlacquered brass bright and shiny use a metal cleaner such as Brasso. Apply the cleaner to a cotton cloth and clean in a circular motion. Avoid making contact with the painted surface of the door as this may affect the paint finish.
Chrome products are virtually maintenance free. However, deposits will accumulate especially on period front door fittings. We therefore recommend regular cleaning with a soft cloth and non-abrasive wax polish.
You may treasure your bespoke front door or your lovingly restored original. Sadly, few others will treat it as gently as you do. London’s front doorshave a hard life. They are likely to get pushed open and slammed shut by visitors using their toe-caps, heels, buggy-wheels, bicycles, skate-boards or the sharp corners of boxes and suit-cases. The resulting chips and scratches to the paint-finish are not just unsightly; they can expose the timber to moisture penetration. Moreover, to the familiar natural hazards presented by wind and rain, this summer we now have to add the harmful effect of prolonged exposure to strong sunlight. Your front doorneeds all the help it can get and paint is its first line of defence.
Wood does not benefit from frequent changes in temperature and humidity. Like most materials it expands when heated and contracts on cooling. Grain direction is important; lengthwise, timbers expand far less than steel when heated but across the grain movement due to temperature changes can be up to ten times greater than the linear movement. The most significant movements in timber result from changes in moisture content but these changes are frequently temperature-related. Warmer air increases the rate of exchange of moisture within the timber. Cells at the surface of a piece of wood will exchange moisture with the air very quickly but core cells will lag significantly – setting up stresses. Absorbing air-borne moisture causes timber to swell and ultimately to split along the grain or to warp.
The paint applied to London’s front doors is therefore not purely decorative; it serves to protect the timber from moisture penetration. The colour pigments in your chosen paint either absorb or reflect the light falling on the door’s surface. A white-painted door reflects most of the light falling on it. A red door absorbs every colour except red – which is then reflected back into your eyes. A black door absorbs all of the light and, since light is energy, that energy is converted into heat and emitted by the door at the infrared level of the spectrum. In simple terms, the surface of a black door exposed to sunlight becomes hotter to the touch than the surface of a white-painted door and as a result is more prone to expansion. If this movement exceeds the elasticity of the paint, cracks will develop and, consequently, movement due to moisture exchanges will accelerate.
If you simply have to have a dark colour then Accoya timberis essential, hardwood simply won’t cut the mustard. Accoya is the most stable timber that we know of and will help keep thermal expansion to a minimum but do bear in mind that with dark colours, you are pushing your door to its limits.
Hello, my name is Daisy and I have a bit of a thing for paint, timber and knockers. Read my regular door rambles here on the Bespoke Front Door blog.
Right now you are feasting your eyes on a lovely example of an early Georgian front door. A remarkable era of British architecture which dates from to 1714 to 1765. This front door is very tall and early doors often were tall doors. Sadly, many were replaced with something shorter to allow room for a fanlight above. These introduced more light to the confined linear hallways of Georgian homes and if you look closely at the picture below you can see the neighbour’s door on the right has had the fanlight treatment.
So is this an original Georgian front door? It’s hard to say, the style is right but the joinery looks almost too perfect to have withstood 300 years of London history. Whether or not this is an original it is undoubtedly a beauty. I am in love with the sign-writing across the door’s rails and the contrast between the black painted pilasters and the warm, varnished timber.