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How to turn a cheap door into snazzy home decor

The key to updating your door on a dime

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Some people spend thousands on lavish décor for their home. Posh furniture, imported macchiato pecan hardwood flooring, that giant photo of a rope bridge from Ikea ... you know the one!

But all that fancy interior design is meaningless if the door you walk through to see it looks like junk. Expensive doors are great, but let’s face it, they’re expensive. Now you can show those Richie Riches what real interior decorating looks like, without having to import capybara skin rugs from Bolivia. (Don’t do this. Save the capybaras!)

Often times, if the budget gets tight, the door gets ignored. That’s how you end up with the standard pine hollow-core door slab. They’re $30 at the big box stores and especially common in any sort of rental property, due to the cheap cost of replacing one that’s seen too many parties.

But we don’t need to settle for standard. We won't settle for cheap. At least not cheap-looking, that is. Keep reading to find out how to save your hollow-core door from being a total bore. Hey look, rhymes!

What you’ll need:

A door - My door was your standard hollow-core, but you can do this with ANY plain-looking door you’d like to spruce up. My inner woodsmith sheds a tear at the thought of painting over hardwoods, so I recommend against this method for anything other than pine or fir. How can you tell the difference? If it looks cheap, it’s probably cheap. If you knock on it and hear an echo, it’s probably cheap. If you’re installing a new door, my recommendation is to spend the extra money on something nice and save yourself the time. If you’ve already got a door you just hate, but can’t afford to replace, this is for you.

Moldings – Or “mouldings” depending on how Canadian you are. I grabbed the smallest panel moldings I could find at Home Depot. You’re going to paint over these, so if you find some cheaper preprimed MDF ones you like, go for it. Make sure to lay out your pattern and measure, to make sure you buy enough to do your project. It never hurts to have extra in case of slip-ups or bad measuring. Be picky. Rifle through the stock until you find nice straight ones. This will make measuring and cutting easier, later on.

Paint and primer – I had leftover primer from previous projects. You probably have some in your basement or garage that you forgot about. Thin it with some water if it’s really old. You can be a bit pickier about your topcoat. The good news is, for this project, you can totally get away with the sample size paint at the hardware store. A quart is probably overkill. Your color options are essentially endless. My wife chose this color, which is good because this project wouldn’t look half as nice in neon green.

Wood filler/spackle – This is my inner perfectionist coming out, but if your cuts are slightly off, or your moldings are warped and pulling away from the wood, or if nail holes bother you, a nice dollop of wood filler will help hide your crimes. You’re painting over this, so filling all the cracks will help keep the moldings from looking slapped-on. You can use an old credit card to spread/scrape the spackle flat or get an actual putty knife. I’m not going to judge you.

Miscellaneous tools/fasteners – If you’re DIYing, you should probably own some wood glue, a hammer and some nails. I added metal to my door for kid-friendly magnetic fun using some specialty super-glue, but you could use self-tapping lath screws if you like the look. I used a staple gun that also shoots small brads to help keep the moldings in place while the glue dried, but you can just as easily use tape. You can buy a handsaw with a plastic miter-box for less than $10 that will give you perfectly serviceable 45 degree cuts for all eternity. Grab a variety of sandpaper and I’ll assume you’ve got paintbrushes and a measuring tape. I don’t know, what else? Pencils? You got some pencils? Great. Be you.

With a whole world of glue/screw-related jokes at my disposal, I find myself unable to choose.

*A side-note on magnetic paint: I tried using this so the kids could put up their artwork with refrigerator magnets and generally enjoy some magnetic alphabet fun. Thankfully, I tested it on a piece of scrap before covering my door in this expensive, heavy, and essentially useless paint. The fine print on the label does specify it works best with rare-earth magnets, but these are pricey and honestly too strong to safely put into the hands of kids, thus defeating the purpose entirely. So we went with some prefab metal panels instead. They were much cheaper and look much nicer anyway.

What to do:

You’ll need some space for this. I crammed my door into my already cramped and poorly organized workroom, and as you’ll see, I had to channel my inner Simone Biles to navigate around the project. Pop your door destined-for-greatness off the hinges and remove all the hardware. Clean any dirt or grease build-up from the years of abuse, and sand any rough spots so you’re starting with a clean slate.

 

The only limit is your imagination -- and your molding budget.

Sketch out your design. I went with three equal-sized panels to match the metal sheets we wanted to use. The classic two-panel look is also nice. If you’re feeling fancy, notch the corners for an Art Deco design. The world is your oyster! Lightly sketching the layout on the actual door will give you a good idea of how it will look.

 

The first cut is always the hardest, and the last cut is always uhm ... last.

Once you’re happy, you can start cutting your moldings to size. I laid mine out dry to check the fit and placement, then I glued each one down. Wood glue joints are generally stronger than the wood itself, so brads or nails aren’t necessary, but I wanted to keep them in place while the glue dried and had the staple gun and brads handy. A bit of masking tape would work just as well. I used a nail-set and a hammer to make sure the nail heads were below the surface of the wood for later filling and sanding. Again, I tend to overbuild things. You’re not perfect either. Don't be a jerk.

 

Shoot, I totally should have made a cutting corners joke on the last caption.

Go crazy with the spackle or wood filler. Just make sure it’s paintable and fast-drying, to save time. Hit your nail holes and any gaps where moldings meet each other or the door. Once the filler dries, sand it all smooth and try to remove as much dust and debris as possible before priming. Some people go with the paint/primer-in-one method, but there were some old grease stains on this door I wanted to make sure were good and sealed. This happens to be the door to my basement, so it will see a lot of wear. Going the extra mile here will save having to repaint down the road. I also painted the other side of the door first. I’m keeping that side flat and plain, but wanted a uniform color. Several light coats is always better than a few thick ones. I prefer a brush to a roller for this, due to all the details and angles. Sometimes, getting paint into the corners can be tricky and you’ll notice the white spots showing through in between coats.

You can stop here if you’re just going for the painted look. However, if you want some added utility, go with sheet metal panels or inserts. Design around whatever inspires you. That’s what I always do and look at me today: crawling around a door covered in wet paint, trying not to ruin my good undershirt. Sorry, honey.

 

You wouldn't believe how hard it is to find heavy things, and unfortunately, my ego is intangible.

I dropped in the metal with a bead of glue around the outside edges and put every heavy thing I could find on top. I used some bits of scrap wood to direct the force toward the edges and protect the molding from getting dented. I figured these panels won’t be holding much weight, and if the glue ever fails, I can zip them back in with those lath screws. The problem with hollow core doors is there isn’t much actual wood to screw into. The insides are essentially cardboard. But for this application, the glue seems to be holding up just fine after several months of use.

Once everything is fully dry and cured (this is usually longer than you think, for paint to fully cure), reattach your door hardware and rehang the door. Now that you’ve got some actual style, go ahead and return that Eiffel Tower picture to Ikea. Shake your own hand. You’re a hero in your own little world and that’s all that really matters, am I right?

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