Brownstone Boys: Varnish or Paint for Our Budget Replacement Double Entry Doors?

Our freshly varnished mahogany front doors

Editor’s note: Welcome to the 70th installment of Brownstone Boys Reno, a reader renovation diary about renovating a brownstone in Bed Stuy. See the first one here. They also blog at

We installed our new double front doors more than a month ago. We’ve been debating whether we wanted to paint them or finish the wood. Since then we’ve gotten a lot of rain and we noticed it taking its toll on the raw wood. It was time for us to get some protection on these doors.

The door that was here when we purchased the place

Our original double brownstone doors were long ago removed and replaced with a modern single door with filler on both sides. It was an inexpensive and popular fix in the 20th century across Brooklyn when the original doors needed work. Less importance was given to maintaining the historical features and more importance was given to practical considerations of having an efficient and insulated door.

We knew we wanted to restore the original double door, but decided we weren’t going to go as far as having a custom door built to match the original ornamentation. At a price of $10,000 to $15,000 it just wasn’t in the budget. We found a 48-inch-wide double door with very little ornamentation, nice big double-paned glass lights, and recessed panels in mahogany, which our original door might have been made of. At only $1,500 including the jamb, it was the best compromise for us.

brownstone front door

Mahogany double doors replaced the white door

Since our door was going to be a little bit more modern looking than the original, we thought we might paint it a deep, dark color. We really like the black and dark blue painted doors we have seen around our neighborhood. Our cornice is painted a dark blue, so that was our plan. We were going to paint our doors a nice dark blue.

We bought the paint and it sat untouched for over a month. We were just not excited about painting our doors. The raw mahogany tone was growing on us more and more. We thought it was just too pretty to cover up with paint. So after a month and a half of debating and even buying a gallon of paint, we decided to varnish our door to bring out the natural tone in the wood.

brownstone boys

Applying the varnish inside and out

We discussed with several wood restoration professionals what would be the best varnish to use to protect the door. What we settled on was a clear satin marine varnish. Marine varnish is used on the beautiful wood you might see on a vintage sailboat so we knew that it would be more than enough to protect our door from some of the driving rain it receives.

front door

We’re so happy with the outcome. Now we just need to paint the trim around the doors

We got a nice new brush and a medium grit sandpaper. We chose a two- or three-day period when the forecast looked warm, bright and sunny. After taping off the hardware and painted wood around the door, we sanded it to get it ready for the varnish. We carefully painted on one coat of the varnish and immediately saw the beautiful tone of the wood come alive! We knew we made the right decision not to paint it. We let the first coat dry for 24 hours and painted on a second coat to make sure the wood would be well protected. The second coat didn’t change or darken the tone we achieved and loved after the first coat.

It’s been two weeks since we varnished our doors and every time we walk up to them we still say how happy we are we didn’t paint them! We also know they are well protected and will be looking their best for years to come.

[Photos by Brownstone Boys unless noted otherwise]

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