Whether it’s a front door or an internal door – there is nothing like English oak for oak panelled doors. It has often been said and it may be every self builders dream, but is it really true? And has it got to be English oak? Whats wrong with oak from the USA, or Japan or mainland Europe?
Not a lot in the case of the latter, according to Malcolm Eade, who runs Sabrina Doors of Shrewsbury, specialist manufacturers of oak doors, both internal and external. “We buy a lot of French oak,” he said. “In many instances you cannot tell the difference between this material and English oak. But in general, French oak does not have the variations in grain of English oak, which is grown in a slightly colder, wetter climate. French oak, which is usually grown in managed plantations, tends to have a more regular grain.
“American oak has a more open grain and consequently less character and tends to be too dry for use on external doors in the UK,” says Malcolm, “While Japanese oak is extremely expensive nowadays and more suitable for internal joinery.”
In general, he recommends that the oak used on your front door should be grown as near to the UK as possible. The reason is simple we have a wet climate and oak grown in Northern Europe will have a high moisture content and be less liable to soak in moisture and expand a classic fault of front doors in imported tropical hardwood.
“Sometimes you will be putting a new front door into a new house that might, if it has been a wet build, contain up to 25% moisture content,” he said. The door will act like a sponge and expand and crack. Unless you go for elm (English elm is very difficult to obtain nowadays, thanks to Dutch Elm disease) if you want a character door this really means oak. Beech moves too much, chestnut twists and ash is not regarded as traditional.
“There is a lot of English oak around at present. Most of it was grown in plantations sown in the 1860s-80s for industrial use and is now mature. It is not much use leaving it for another 100 years because after about 150 years oak rots in the centre, so it might as well be harvested,” Malcolm said.
How much do oak panelled doors cost?
Isn’t oak expensive? Yes. Expect to pay around £600 or more for a bespoke oak front door from Sabrina and more if it comes with its frame, which is what the firm recommends because that is the surest way to incorporate effective weather sealing, as their system is fixed into the frame.
“Oak is expensive because it takes a long time to grow and because you waste as much as you use due to the way it has to be cut,” said Malcolm. Nevertheless, it grows in character as it ages and it has a tremendous lifespan. A properly maintained oak door that is oiled (never varnished – varnish will flake and also hold moisture in the timber which can cause rot) at least twice a year, will last for several hundred years.
Oak panelled doors design details
If you want medullary rays – the flames or flecks of light hard-grained timber that characterise oak – to be prominent and so add beauty to your oak front door, then it is best to go for quarter sawn timber. This is the most wasteful method of sawing but produces the best boards for doors. Even then a good door will have carefully chosen planks and much skill is needed in selecting oak that will both look lovely and not twist.
“If it is going to bend it will bend, so it is all down to using the right timber and that depends on the abilities and experience of the manufacturer,” Malcolm said.
This is one of the reasons why he does not believe in bracing oak front doors, which at Sabrina are framed and ledged, but not diagonally braced. “Bracing will stop an oak door moving in its natural direction. The boards should be set just the right distance apart to allow for winter, when the moisture content will go up and the boards will tighten and expand,” he added.
For this reason he avoids glues, preferring specially-made traditional square nails – clearly visible from the front of the door – for fixing the boards in position. The nails have square shanks, which, when fixed into the traditional round holes, allow for movement in the door. The jointing between the boards is usually a half lap joint or a roll bead. Both allow for movement.
Styles of oak front doors vary but Malcolm believes in trying to reflect the architectural features of the house. “The door should always fit the building,” he said. “If a house has arched windows I would recommend an oak door with a swept head, while a door with a shallow Tudor arch would suit a mediaeval style house. A house with dormers or a porch with a pitched roof would benefit from an oak front door with a pitched head.”
Apart from spy windows. Glazing is comparatively unusual in an oak front door.