The Fine Print: Making an Entrance

Builder Keith Dambly learned about front doors early in life. His mother sold real estate, and the first thing she would advise her clients to do was to spruce up the front door. “It makes the first impression,” Dambly says.

Like the firm handshake of a new acquaintance, the front door may be the first thing visitors and passers-by notice about your home. Its function goes beyond providing a passageway and keeping out the elements, to offering a first glimpse of your personal style.

There are enough details to consider when choosing a front door—the door itself, surrounding windows or woodworking, the frame, doorjamb, hardware and weath-er stripping—that manufacturers routinely create “entry systems” in which all the pieces are designed to work together, optimizing energy efficiency and home security.

This season, builders and renovators are asking for systems in wood and fiberglass with stained or beveled glass, and craftsmen are responding with doors limited only by the homeowner’s imagination—and budget.

Historic Doors LLC of Kempton, which builds custom solid-wood doors, routinely responds to imaginative requests. Owner Steve Hendricks says one customer who was building an addition to an 18th-century home in Easton had seen a photograph of Society Hill’s historic Bishop White House and wanted to re-create the look of its front door, which was built in 1787.

So the woodworker took a digital camera to the Bishop White House and photographed the entryway, including the six-panel door, its deep side panels, elegant columns and the graceful pediment topping it all. Back in the shop, Hendricks used computer imaging to plan a new door, seemingly identical to its historic inspiration but “reproportioned” for the client’s home.

Such attention to detail comes with a price. Woodshops like Historic Doors typically charge from $3,000 for a relatively rustic, cottage-style plank door, up to $25,000 for an entry featuring a carved door, sidelight windows and a richly detailed entablature above. These entrances are not assembly-line items: One of Hendrick’s crew will work solo on a door, taking as long as a month to complete the project. “The front door is something clients really want to go the extra distance on,” he says. “If you need to focus your resources, the front door is a logical place to do it.”

Dambly, who with his wife Gwynn sells custom wood doors at The Door Stop Ltd. in Newtown Square, agrees that homeowners are willing to pay for details that show quality and historic accuracy, such as divided-light windows, stained or beveled glass, and thicker rails and deep paneling on a solid timber door. (Dambly says most of his customers choose mahogany, protected with polyurethane finish. Hendricks recommends Spanish cedar and white oak, but painted, as most residential doors were in centuries past.) “A door like that has something handsome about it, strength and character without being overtly ornate,” Dambly says.

Wood doors sometimes have a bad reputation when it comes to security and energy efficiency, but their advocates say that needn’t be the case. “It’s very important that a wood door is installed properly and fits properly,” says contractor Herb Miller, director of the Pennsylvania Builders Association and owner of Herb Miller Builders Inc. in Lancaster. “Wood will expand and contract, and if it’s exposed to the elements without a finish, it will react to them.” His firm usually installs 1-to-2-inch-thick wooden doors, often with an adjustable sill in the threshold. With the turn of a screw, the sill can rise a few fractions of an inch to meet the bottom of a shrinking door, or drop to make room for one that expands in humid weather.

Fiberglass doors do not have wood’s quirks—or its elegance and charm—but manufacturers are steadily improving its aesthetics. “Everybody likes the historic look of age-old wood, but in many cases people are concerned about performance issues,” says John Kufner, market manager of Therma-Tru Doors, an Ohio-based company that distributes entryways through local vendors and craftsmen. This year, Therma-Tru offers a new line of Classic-Craft doors, with a fiberglass skin molded from actual wood, which shows the grain and takes stain or paint just like wood. The company manufactures the doors in a variety of designs—a rustic collection is meant to enhance Tuscan, French or Southwestern home styles—starting at about $435.

Popular on many new-door installations, Kufner adds, is a multipoint lock, a single-key system that bolts the door at the top, bottom and side of the frame. First seen on multipaned French patio doors, the locks are now being used on solid doors both to bolster security and tighten the seal between indoors and out.

Will glass in a door compromise security or energy efficiency? Not if installed correctly, says Cheryl Van Horn, president of Artistic Glass & Doors of Berlin, New Jersey. Artistic Glass frequently is called to upgrade the plain windows and sidelights on entryways by installing stained glass—actually an overlay of translucent, multicolored Mylar—on existing windows. “If we add it to an existing system, it actually strengthens and insulates what you have,” says Van Horn.

Clients commission stained glass to match the theme of their homes, Van Horn says, citing the beach scenes she’s done for shore homes, and the more formal, beveled, leaded windows created for Main Line manses. Customers often are pleasantly surprised when, after choosing a window for the way it looks from the outside, they see what it does for the inside. “When you do a door in beveled glass,” she says, “you get rainbows all over the house.”