Early Timber Doors
|The boarded main south door at Durham Cathedral with fillet mouldings and a replica of its original
12th-century bronze ‘Sanctuary knocker’ (Photo: Jonathan Taylor)
The earliest timber doors encountered
in the conservation of historic buildings
are likely to be of a planked construction.
Before panelled doors became the norm, from
around the early 18th century, doors were
made in various forms by joining together
This article will explore the conservation
of early hinged timber doors by focussing on
the development of planked doors in Britain
and the common issues encountered in their
Some of the first plank doors were hewn from
a single log but as this was not practical for the
largest doors, a method to join two or more
planks together had to be found.
door is the simplest and most sturdy
construction and one of the earliest used in
this country. It is made by joining together
two layers of planks – vertical boards on one
face and horizontal (or occasionally diagonal)
on the other. In external doors, the vertical
face is set to the outside because it sheds water
The earliest doors usually had two
or three vertical planks but four-plank
construction became common in the 17th
century (the planks were not always of equal
width). In some cases the planks would
originally have been joined together using
wooden pegs but in most surviving doors
these will have been replaced at some stage
with iron nails.
Nails were also used to bind the second
type of door, the batten and plank door,
in which the external vertical boards are
held together with three or four horizontal
‘battens’, also known as ledges. The third type,
the ledged and braced door, started to appear
in the mid-19th century and used the same
basic form as modern mass-produced doors.
The drawing below illustrates these
three basic forms but there are almost as many
variations as there are surviving doors.
||The three principal types of early door (Drawing: Donald Insall Associates)
Most historic timber framed buildings are oak-framed and although some chestnut is found,
most of the joinery that survives from the
medieval period was also cut from oak, often
Whether this is because less
durable timbers have not survived or because
this was the tradition is unclear.
The planks used in these sometimes
intricate objects were hand cut directly from
a felled log, a laborious and demanding task.
It will also be obvious to those who have tried
to use oak in new work, that avoiding warping
and cusping of large oak boards requires a
great deal of skill.
The planks used in early doors vary in
width and depth. They are generally 25-32mm
thick and may have a random variation in
the width of the boards. To avoid additional
cutting, carpenters probably used their varied
stock of planks to make the desired door
width. By the early 18th century, machine-driven
sawmills were the norm and large
timbers were rarer.
Wood, especially oak, will shrink and
the joints become less weatherproof. Linda
Hall (see recommended reading) writes
that tongued and grooved planks have been
found from as early as the 14th century and
that rebated planks were common from the
17th century. Further enhancements include
the addition of shadow mouldings cut into
the planks for decorative effect. These early
techniques later evolved into the panelled
Many of the doors encountered in
conservation work will be double doors,
perhaps on a church or agricultural building.
Larger doors may also contain a smaller access
door or ‘wicket gate’, a door within a door that
may be a later alteration in some cases. Some
agricultural dwellings have doors with two
leaves, one above the other, designed to let air
and light into the interior and to keep animals
out. The heads of the doors can be flat or cut to
fit an arched opening, but it will be found that
the same constructional principles apply.
Cross battens were fixed across vertical
planks. Battens in earlier and humbler
buildings were simple square-cut planks.
In the 17th and 18th centuries the battens
were often made with moulded profiles.
In the utilitarian machine age of the
19th century the battens were simply
cut at an angle to form a chamfer.
Grander houses and churches often have
applied timber mouldings over the vertical
joints of the external doors. These cover
fillets were designed to make external
doors more weatherproof by covering the
joints but they can also be seen on internal
doors. They could be used to decorative
effect, and their designs varied in form and
profile according to region and historical
period. Horizontal fillets were sometimes
added to create the effect of panelling.
Wood screws were not commonly used for
architectural joinery until the 18th century
when they began to be mass-produced. Planks,
battens and fillets on earlier doors would
originally have been joined together with nails. Once driven through fillet, plank and
batten they were ‘clinched’ in place (flattened
out on the inner side) with their points buried
in the inner face to tie the timber together.
Nail heads were often left standing proud
on the outer face of the door to add a rich
texture and pattern. As a result, the number
of nails and their arrangement often seem to
go beyond what was needed to bind the door
components together. The pattern might be
articulated with further patterning on the
external face in the form of scribed marks
between the nails.
The heads were often chamfered. In
his 1916 book, The Development of English
Building Construction, Charles Innocent
suggests that this form may have been
modelled on the shape of the early wooden
peg fixings (chamfering would have helped to
drive the peg through).
||The two sides of an early double plank interior door at Montacute House, mounted on simple iron pintles
(Photo: Jonathan Taylor, by kind permission of the National Trust)
The development of hinges, latches, bolts and
other ironmongery is a subject in its own right
and can only be touched on here. Timber and
metal latches, bolts, stock locks and rim locks
will all be found on early plank doors, and one
of the conservator’s principal investigations
should be to determine which are later
additions and what they may have replaced.
Holes and marks on the timber often provide
evidence of earlier fittings.
Hinges are an integral element in the
construction of doors. Before the introduction
of iron strap hinges, the most common way
of hanging a door was by pivoting it on a hard
vertical post (the harr-tree) which formed
one side of the door, and which was rebated
into sockets (harrs) top and bottom.
most surviving early doors have wrought iron
strap hinges. They may have been fixed in the
outer or inner leaf, or both, and they may be
set into the face of the planks and could be
covered by the fillets. Early and vernacular
examples simply had a loop at the hinged end
which is hung on a pintle (an iron hook) set
into the door recess or door frame.
In stone-built medieval houses and in more
humble buildings of later periods, doorways
rarely had timber frames: doors were hung
on pintles driven directly into the stone
rebate. A timber door frame would otherwise be set into the building’s structure and the
joint between the frame and the wall was
sometimes covered with a timber architrave.
Newly installed oak is paler and more
natural in colour but turns grey as it ages
and weathers. It is highly likely that during
the door’s history it will have had more
than one decorative finish applied. This
might range from an early finish such as
a lime-wash, oil or wax to a 20th-century
paint finish, reflecting changing fashions.
To repair and adapt a historic door to
modern circumstances one might apply the
same principles for those developed for a
Obviously, doors are subject to more
human attention and wear and tear than other
elements. It is likely therefore that planked
doors, as described above, will have had
several repair regimes since they were first
installed and have their own story to tell about
the history of the building.
It is important, therefore, to gain as
much information as possible about the
doors. By taking a detailed look at them,
carefully examining the way they have been
put together, one may learn more than from
any written account. As with the building as
a whole, the doors are unlikely to be free from
alteration and addition and an assessment
must be made about the relative importance
to the historical narrative of each layer of
intervention. An informed judgement must
be made about which ‘repairs’ have enhanced
their architectural or historical significance
and which have damaged the doors or
detracted from the story.
|A plank door at Chester Cathedral showing decay to
the weatherboard, late filler repairs, additional bolts
and later replacement timbers with a varnished
finish (Photo: Donald Insall Associates)
|Evidence of an old paint finish found after removing
a cover fillet (Photo: John Nethercott & Co)
|New oak being spliced into old and a missing cover
fillet being remade (Photo: John Nethercott & Co)
Early timber doors are very likely to be
part of a listed building, so listed building
consent will be required for any alterations,
and advice should be available from the
relevant conservation officer or the national
heritage body as well as from amenity
societies such as the Ancient Monuments
Society. If the building is scheduled, scheduled
monument consent will also be required for
all conservation work.
At the same time as considering
the intrinsic values of the doors, a clear
understanding of their structural and
constructional integrity must be achieved.
As can be seen from the description above,
the early craft tradition developed to bind
the whole leaf together, and to resist gravity
and the lateral forces of opening and closing
throughout its life. Integrity must be one of
the principal concerns of the repairer.
Understanding how the doors were
originally put together should underpin
the approach to their repair. Measuring
and drawing the door should be reasonably
straightforward, noting evidence of past
changes, and from this the original, current
and possible future configuration of the
various components can be determined.
Once an overall conservation-led
approach has been established, the repair of
the constituent parts can be considered.
Missing sections should be replaced in new
timber. Normally this will be seasoned
oak, chosen to match the grain of the
original wood and pieced-in to follow
the grain. The aim should be to make an
attractive repair that is sympathetic with
the original but which, upon inspection,
can be readily understood as a repair.
With a skilled craftsperson on the team,
timber affected by splits and shakes within
individual timbers can often be consolidated
by judicious use of reversible adhesives. The
key is to repair each section of timber so that
it becomes ‘more itself’ and to retain as much
original fabric as possible. Care must be taken
in the choice of glue because a modern epoxy
resin may lack the flexibility required for
normal use of the door.
The most common problem to be found in
planked doors is the degradation of timbers
at the base of the doors. The end grain of
the planks is particularly vulnerable to the
harmful effects of rainwater, splashing surface
water and general damp, making it vulnerable
to decay. Rotten plank sections should be cut
back by the minimum feasible amount but
new sections of timber will have to be fixed in
place by mechanical means.
On a plank and batten door this
would mean fixing the repair timber to
(and therefore losing some material from)
the lowest batten at the very least. Some
carefully considered decisions may have
to be taken because cutting back to the
second batten to obtain a more secure
fixing might be a step too far in removing
sound and historically significant timber.
On external doors, one decision to make
here is whether or not to add or replace a
weatherboard to protect the base of the
door. This is a sacrificial board placed at
the base of the door to protect the area
most vulnerable to decay. In some cases
this board will itself be ancient, planted
over or even replacing the lower section of
the vertical boards. An assessment of its
significance will inform the decision.
If whole battens or planks are missing,
it should be relatively easy to determine
the form of the replacement but no attempt
should be made to artificially distress new
timbers to disguise the repair. The art of the
conservator is to produce a repair which is
both aesthetically pleasing and ‘honest’.
Other key decisions will include how
to make new mouldings adjacent to more
weathered, older timbers.
As with replacement timbers, so new
metal elements may be required. The
nails and hinges should all be within the
capability of a suitably skilled blacksmith
and finding the balance between an
honest repair and the overall visual
integrity of the door is the challenge.
Regaining the original pattern of the
clinch nails, if it can be accurately determined
and re-made, using new nails of a similar form (but perhaps not exact replicas) to the
original would go a long way to re-establishing
the historical integrity of a door and its
There is no single answer to the question
of what, if anything, to apply to a door
once repairs have been completed. Careful
examination of the surface and interstices
will probably throw light on past finishes and
it may be worth having these analysed by a
paint specialist. It is more than likely that
doors, especially the external faces, will have
been painted at some time and analysis of any
remaining fragments might provide evidence
of earlier decorative and protective finishes.
Consideration of the overall conservation
principles will also inform the approach
to finishing the door. The exposure and
vulnerability of the door to the elements,
evidence of its found state, and whether or
not a weatherboard has been added to protect
the base will also be factors in this equation.
If the conservation of the doors is part of a
larger project, which may include remaking
protection over the door opening itself, there
may be less onus on applying a new finish.
Sound, dry seasoned oak which isn’t subject to
regular wetting in a non-marine environment
may not need a new finish.
If there is clear evidence of a painted
finish that has degraded in places, it may make
sense to repaint the whole. A clear, natural
tung oil or Danish oil might be an effective
protective treatment and there are turpentine
with beeswax recipes to research and try. The
key point perhaps is to let the door ‘tell’ you
what needs to be done.
The brief for the conservation of a door
might include a requirement to upgrade its
security, adding electronic devices such as
alarm sensors, providing new ironmongery
or a letterbox. Draughtproofing and
weatherproofing would seem to be obvious
considerations for the comfort of inhabitants
and the conservation of energy.
Each door will present its own
challenges but the overall historic and
architectural significance of the door
should determine the level of intervention.
It should be possible to find a way to meet
the needs of modern inhabitants, without
affecting the integrity of an important door.
Hopefully, imitation ‘period’ letterboxes
or other inappropriate embellishments
will be removed during conservation.
The most effective means of
draughtproofing will be to repair the door
and its frame, replacing any missing fabric, so
that the original dimensions are restored and
there is a snug fit. A new weatherboard could
be fitted at the base and, if the floor is not too
sensitive, a new metal weatherbar could be
inserted into the floor below. It may also be
possible to devise a subtle means of draught-stripping
the door and frame.
Realistically, however, these post-medieval
doors will never meet modern weather tight
standards and the fact that many of these marvellous doors have a heavy curtain fitted
to their inner faces shows that owners are
happy to find pragmatic ways of living with
this part of our shared history.
CF Innocent, The Development of English
Building Construction, Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, 1916
L Hall, Period House Fixtures and
Fittings 1300-1900, Countryside Books,