Transform Your Entrance with Professional Door Refinish and Varnish Techniques

The main door is the focal point of a building’s facade, so it makes sense to maintain it regularly. Visitors, potential customers, and passersby stop in their tracks whenever they see an attractive front door.

Refinishing and varnishing are common techniques for maintaining or restoring the look of an entry door. They can help remove scratches, dents, and faded paint, making the door appear less attractive. Regular maintenance keeps the door functioning properly and looking its best, boosting the property’s curb appeal and security.

Understanding Door Refinishing

Door refinishing defined

Door refinishing involves restoring a door’s surface to its original or improved condition. This process can include cleaning, repairing damage, sanding, and applying new paint or stain. Refinishing extends the door’s life, enhances its appearance, and protects it from environmental factors like moisture and UV rays. 

Types of doors commonly refinished

Wooden doors—This type of door is the most frequently refinished due to its tendency to wear, fade, or peel due to exposure to elements.

Fiberglass doors – Their finish can dull or become damaged over time, requiring refinishing.

Metal doors – Refinishing metal doors removes rust, scratches, or faded paint.

Preparing for Finishing

Assessing your door’s condition

Here are a few signs that your door might need refinishing:

  • Fading and discoloration – If your door’s color has noticeably faded due to sun exposure or other elements, it might need a new finish.
  • Peeling or flaking – If the existing finish is peeling, flaking, or cracking, it’s time to refinish your door.
  • Wood damage—Signs of wood damage (like warping, splitting, or wood rot) suggest that it needs refinishing.
  • Dull appearance – If the door looks dull and lacks original luster or shine, a new finish could restore its appearance.

Materials and tools required

Refinishing a door can be a rewarding DIY project. Here’s a list of essential items you’ll need to ensure the job goes smoothly:

1. Safety gear:

  • Safety glasses or goggles
  • Dust mask or respirator
  • Gloves (nitrile or rubber for chemical protection)

2. Cleaning supplies:

  • Mild soap and water
  • Clean rags or sponges
  • Tack cloth (for removing dust)

3. Stripping chemicals or tools:

  • Chemical paint stripper (if the old finish will be removed chemically)
  • Paint scraper
  • Putty knife

4. Sanding supplies:

  • Sandpaper in various grits (coarse grit for initial sanding, finer grits for smooth finishing)
  • Sanding block or power sander
  • Vacuum cleaner (for dust removal)

5. Painting or staining supplies:

  • Primer (if painting)
  • Paint or wood stain
  • Paintbrushes and/or rollers
  • Paint tray

6. Finishing supplies:

  • Clear finish (like polyurethane or varnish)
  • Fine-grit sandpaper for between coats
  • Foam brushes or natural bristle brushes for a clear finish

7. Miscellaneous tools:

  • Screwdriver (for removing and replacing hardware)
  • Drop cloths or plastic sheeting (to protect surrounding areas)
  • Painter’s tape (for masking areas not to be finished)
  • Level and measuring tape (for alignment and measurement)

8. Hardware (if necessary):

  • New knobs, handles, or hinges
  • Screws and other mounting hardware

Initial Preparation

Refinishing a door is a great way to rejuvenate its appearance. Here are the initial steps you should take:

1. Cleaning

  • Materials needed – Mild soap, water, sponge or cloth, and gloves.
  • Procedure—Clean the door to remove dirt, grime, and grease. Use mild soap mixed with water and a sponge or soft cloth to gently scrub the door’s surface. Rinse thoroughly with clean water and let the door dry completely.

2. Stripping old paint or varnish

  • Materials needed – Chemical stripper, paintbrush, putty knife, and protective gear (gloves, goggles, and mask).
  • Procedure:
    • Use a paintbrush to apply a thick layer of chemical stripper. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding application thickness and wait time.
    • Once the old finish bubbles or lifts, use a putty knife to scrape away the old paint or varnish. Be careful not to gouge the wood.
    • You might need to use a smaller scraper or a wire brush for detailed areas.
    • After stripping, wipe down the door with a cloth dipped in mineral spirits or a similar solvent. It helps remove the remaining stripper and residue. Ensure the room is well-ventilated during this step.

3. Sanding

  • Materials needed – Sandpaper (various grits), sanding block or electric sander, tack cloth or vacuum, and protective gear (dust mask, goggles).
  • Procedure:
    • Start with coarse-grit sandpaper (80- or 100-grit) to remove the remaining finish and smooth rough surfaces.
    • Progress to medium grit (150- or 180-grit) to further smooth the wood.
    • Finish with a fine grit (220-grit or higher) for a smooth finish ready for painting or staining.
    • Always sand in the wood grain’s direction to avoid scratches.
    • Use a tack cloth or vacuum to remove all dust from the sanding. This will prepare the surface for painting or staining.

Additional tips

  • Inspect the door – Before starting, inspect the door for any repairs that might be needed, such as filling holes or fixing dents.
  • Work area – Set up your work area in a well-ventilated space, outdoors, or garage. It enables you to manage dust and fumes safely.
  • Protective measures – Always wear the appropriate protective gear, especially when using chemical strippers and during sanding. This is to avoid inhaling dust or fumes. 

Choosing the Right Finish and Varnish

Man using a power sander to remove paint from a door

Types of finishes

1. Polyurethane

  • Pros:
    • Durability – Offers excellent resistance to scratches and general wear.
    • Water resistance – Good for areas with high moisture, like bathrooms and kitchens.
    • Variety – Available in oil-based and water-based forms, influencing drying time and fumes.
  • Cons:
    • Application – It can be tricky to apply evenly; oil-based versions emit strong fumes.
    • Aesthetics – May yellow over time, particularly the oil-based types.

2. Lacquer

  • Pros:
    • Finish quality – Provides a smooth, hard finish with a glossy sheen.
    • Drying time – Dries quickly, allowing for multiple coats in a short time.
    • Repairability – Easy to touch up because new lacquer can dissolve into and blend with the existing layer.
  • Cons:
    • Durability – Less resistant to heat and solvents than polyurethane.
    • Environmental impact – High VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) can be harmful without proper ventilation.

3. Shellac

  • Pros:
    • Natural product – Made from a resin secreted by the lac bug.
    • Ease of use – Easy to apply and dries quickly.
    • Aesthetics – Imparts a rich, warm finish with a natural glow.
  • Cons:
    • Durability – Less durable compared to other finishes; not water-resistant.
    • Maintenance – Requires frequent reapplications and isn’t suitable for high-traffic areas.

4. Varnish

  • Pros:
    • UV protection – Offers good protection against sunlight, making it ideal for exterior doors.
    • Durability – Highly durable and great for high-traffic areas.
    • Finish options – Available in various sheens, from matte to high gloss.
  • Cons:
    • Drying time – Tends to dry slowly compared to other finishes.
    • Application – It can be difficult to apply without leaving brush marks.

5. Oil (tung oil, linseed oil)

  • Pros:
    • Penetration – Penetrates deep into the wood, enhancing its grain and natural beauty.
    • Flexibility – Does not crack easily due to its flexibility.
    • Repairability – Easy to repair scratches or worn areas by reapplication.
  • Cons:
    • Maintenance – Requires more maintenance and reapplication.
    • Protection – Offers less protection against moisture and abrasions than hard finishes like polyurethane.

6. Paint

  • Pros:
    • Variety – Available in endless colors and textures.
    • Protection – Provides a protective coating that hides imperfections in the wood.
    • Maintenance – Generally easy to clean.
  • Cons:
    • Preparation – Requires thorough surface preparation to ensure adherence.
    • Durability – May chip or peel if not correctly applied or maintained.

Selecting a varnish

To choose the best varnish for weather resistance and aesthetic appeal for doors, consider the following tips:

  • Type of varnish – Choose marine or spar varnish for harsh weather conditions. It also provides adequate UV protection.
  • Finish—Choose between gloss, semi-gloss, or satin finishes. Gloss finishes are usually more durable and easier to wipe and clean.
  • Water or oil-based – Water-based varnishes are easier to clean. They also have lower VOCs, making them environmentally friendly. Oil-based varnishes are typically more durable and better at repelling water. However, it emits strong fumes that can cause dizziness, headaches, or nausea.
  • Application – Check the application method and drying time. Some varnishes can be applied with a brush or a spray. They also have different drying times, potentially impacting your project timeline.
  • Color and tint—Consider whether you need a clear varnish or a tinted one. The varnish can enhance or match the door’s wood grain and color.

Color and sheen options

Different colors and finishes in your home can affect its appearance and atmosphere. Here’s a brief overview:


  • Light colors (like whites, creams, and pastels) make spaces appear larger than they are. These colors are associated with a clean, calm atmosphere.
  • Dark colors (such as navy, dark green, or charcoal) create a cozier and more intimate feel. It can make spaces seem smaller than they are.
  • Bright colors (including red, yellow, or bright blue) add vibrancy and energy to a space. However, if used extensively, they can be overwhelming.


  • Matte finishes absorb light, which can help hide imperfections on walls. However, they might also make colors appear a bit duller.
  • Glossy finishes reflect light, adding brightness to a room. They are easier to clean but can highlight imperfections on surfaces.
  • Satin or semi-gloss finishes balance matte and glossy. They provide some sheen without being too reflective. 

Step-by-Step Finishing Process

Master painting wood doors with spray gun processing painting base

Refinishing doors can breathe new life into them. Here’s a brief step-by-step guide on how to do it:

  1. Preparation – Remove the door from its hinges and remove all hardware (knobs, hinges, etc.). Lay it flat on the work surface.
  2. Stripping old finish – Apply a chemical stripper to remove the old finish. Use a paintbrush to spread the stripper evenly. Then, let it sit as per the manufacturer’s instructions. After that, scrape off the softened finish with a putty knife.
  3. Cleaning – After stripping, clean the door thoroughly to remove any residue from the stripper. Use mineral spirits or a similar cleaner.
  4. Sanding – Sand the door with medium-grit sandpaper (e.g., 120 grit) to smooth out the surface. Follow up with fine-grit sandpaper (e.g., 220 grit) to prepare the surface for the new finish.
  5. Repairs – Fill any dents or holes with wood filler, then sand smooth once dry.
  6. Applying stain (if desired) – If you’re changing the color or enhancing the wood grain, apply a wood stain using a brush or rag. Make sure to follow the wood’s grain during application. Wipe off excess stains.
  7. Sealing – Apply a sealer to protect the wood and help the finish adhere better.
  8. Applying finish – Apply your chosen finish (e.g., polyurethane, varnish) in thin, even coats. Allow sufficient drying time between coats, per product instructions and recommendations.
  9. Final sanding and coating – Lightly sand between coats with very fine sandpaper (e.g., 320 grit) for a smooth finish. Apply the final coat of finish.
  10. Reassembly – Once the door is completely dry, reattach the hardware and hang the door back in place.

Professional Tips and Techniques

Refinishing a door can be a satisfying DIY project. It breathes new life into your home’s appearance. Here are some pro tips for achieving the best results:

Pro tips for best results

1. Preparation is the key:

  • Remove the door from its hinges and remove all hardware.
  • Clean the door thoroughly to remove dirt, grease, or old finish. Use a degreaser or a mixture of mild detergent and water.
  • Sand the door evenly using medium-grit sandpaper. Progress to a fine grit for a smooth finish.

2. Choosing the right finish:

  • For exterior doors, choose a weather-resistant finish like polyurethane or marine varnish.
  • For interior doors, you might choose to stain them first. Next, you can apply a polyurethane coat or paint in your desired color and finish.

3. Applying the finish:

  • Apply the finish in a clean, dust-free environment.
  • Use a high-quality brush or a foam applicator to apply the finish smoothly.
  • Apply multiple thin coats rather than one thick coat. Sand lightly between coats once dry.

4. Drying and curing time:

  • Allow ample time for the finish to dry between coats. Rushing this can cause sticky doors or imperfect curing.
  • Check the manufacturer’s instructions for total curing time before rehanging the door.

Troubleshooting Common Problems

1. Drips and runs:

  • Catch drips as soon as they occur by periodically checking previously painted areas.
  • Use a brush to smooth out drips immediately.
  • When the finish dries, sand the area lightly and reapply the finish.

2. Streaks and uneven coverage:

  • Ensure the door is clean and free from dust before starting.
  • Apply the finish in thin, even layers. Maintain a wet edge to avoid lap marks.
  • Consistent lighting during application helps in spotting uneven areas.

3. Sticking or not drying properly:

  • Check that the environment is not too humid or cold, affecting drying times.
  • Does your door still feel sticky even after the recommended drying time? Extend the drying period or use a dehumidifier to speed up the process.

Maintenance tips

1. Regular cleaning:

  • Wipe down the door with a soft, damp cloth. Avoid harsh chemicals that can strip the finish.

2. Touch-up finishes:

  • Periodically inspect the door for chips or scratches. Touch up these areas promptly to prevent further damage.
  • For stained and varnished doors, a light sanding and reapplication of varnish can rejuvenate the surface.

3. Weather protection for exterior doors:

  • Regularly check your exterior finish’s condition and apply a fresh coat of weather-resistant varnish or paint as needed.
  • Ensure weather stripping and seals are intact to prevent moisture penetration.

The Value of Professional Services

Deciding between DIY and professional door refinishing often depends on several factors. Here’s a detailed discussion on when to opt for DIY versus hiring a professional. 

DIY vs. Professional Refinishing

When to DIY:

  • Skill level and experience – Do you have experience with similar projects, or are you particularly handy? If your answer is yes, DIY can be rewarding and cost-effective.
  • Simplicity of the project – Simple projects requiring simple tools and never demanding a flawless finish are good candidates for DIY.
  • Budget constraints – If your budget is limited, doing it yourself can significantly reduce costs, as you only pay for materials and not labor.
  • Time availability – Do you have plenty of time to dedicate to learning and completing the project? DIY can be a viable option.

When to hire a professional:

  • Complex projects—Hire a professional if the project involves complex techniques, specialized tools, or unfamiliar materials.
  • High-quality finish – Professionals can deliver a high-quality, durable finish that might be hard to achieve by yourself.
  • Time constraints – For projects needing to be completed quickly and efficiently, professionals can help save you time.
  • Risk of mistakes – It’s safe to rely on professional expertise when a mistake could lead to extra expenses or safety issues.

What to expect from a professional:

  • Consultation – Most professionals will offer consultation to understand your needs and inspect the project scope.
  • Cost estimate – You’ll receive a detailed quote covering labor, materials, and timelines.
  • Professional equipment and materials – Professionals have access to high-quality tools and materials.
  • Warranty and follow-up—Many professionals provide a written warranty for their work. It offers peace of mind regarding the durability and quality of the finish.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

DIY costs:

  • Material costs – Generally lower, as you only pay for materials without markup.
  • Tool purchase or rental – It may need to buy or rent specific tools.
  • Potential mistakes – Consider the costs of correcting DIY errors.

Professional costs:

  • Labor costs – They are the most significant expense and can vary widely based on the project and locality.
  • Materials and tools – included in the overall cost, usually at a professional grade that might be more expensive. However, they offer better longevity and finish.

Investment return:

  • Durability—Professional work requires better preparation and application, resulting in a more durable finish. This can be crucial for high-wear areas like floors or kitchen cabinets.
  • Aesthetics—A professional is likely to achieve a more aesthetically pleasing and uniform finish. This can be crucial for projects where appearance is paramount.
  • Home value—High-quality professional refinishing can increase your home’s value, making it a worthwhile investment if you plan to sell it.


Refinishing doors offers several benefits. These advantages make this project essential, especially if you want to update your home’s look and curb appeal without spending a lot.

If you’re interested in professional door refinishing services, call Custom Painting, Inc. at 925-294-8062 or send a message. We follow our own refinishing process to give your door the best results possible.