Doors are often considered a purely functional element of a building’s design, but they are capable of making meaningful contributions to life. When I needed to build fourteen interior doors for the Oak Hill Road house, it may come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading my journal that I wanted to create the most special doors I could imagine, employing and highlighting the beautiful local materials available to me. My goal was to build doors that would delight the eye, and also please the sense of touch and sound.
While the chairs described in my last journal entry were the fruit of one tree, the doors came from many. I had hoarded exceptional walnut for decades, since my college days, in the belief that someday it would have an important use. That day finally arrived when I needed to select the walnut boards for the doors’ large central panels. The big barns at Listening Rock Farm had afforded me the space to stockpile hundreds of wide walnut planks over the years. All along the walls I leaned approximately 120 boards that fit the minimum size criteria - 24 inches wide by 8 feet long - and then studied them to determine which ones looked the most exciting and expressive, like a work of art. The first one I chose had an ancient bullet, perhaps from the Revolutionary War, lodged in its center. The metal of the bullet had altered the color of the wood, generating a lovely blue streak, and the grain had grown around it in spectacular patterns. I then picked the remaining thirteen panel pieces deliberately for their individual, intrinsic beauty, also keeping in mind the relationship between the panels of the doors that would be placed near one another.
Each central panel is surrounded by stiles and rails, which are, in turn, surrounded by door jambs and casings. Like two sets of frames around a painting, those pieces were chosen not to compete with the central panels, but to complement and support them with consistency.
A door shows that it is a serious architectural component of a room through its actual weight and feeling of solidity and stability. Walnut, by its nature, feels solid, as well as deliciously smooth and sensuous. Creating stability is more of a challenge. Seasonal humidity fluctuations cause cross-grain expansion and contraction in wood. I have built the doors to minimize the effects of variable humidity by using “stave core” construction, a technique that involves building a stable core with a finished visual face consisting of a walnut exterior. For all of the stave core lumber, I cut the trees, milled the lumber on our sawmill, and air-dried the wood for three years before beginning construction. The door’s stability is influenced by the drying process of the wood, the direction of the wood grains, the species of the core wood, the nature of the glue used for assembling the door, and the types of joints connecting the parts. I used soft glues and cut every piece of every door meticulously to minimize cross grain movement. Doors are usually mass-produced as part of a building’s architectural millwork. I built each door with painstaking care as if it were a fine musical instrument.
People like to hear doors close authoritatively. In Georgian architecture, doors were designed in such a way that they could be adjusted to control the sound as they close, in a process called “tuning” a door. The noise made by closing a door arises from the door latch snapping into the void in the strike plate. A door is tuned by adjusting the amount of tension required to make it latch shut. The tension is created by hanging the hinge side of the door in a perfectly straight, vertical line, and forcing the door to bend on its swing side by bowing the stop, so that the top and bottom of the door hit the stop before the strike catches. The bend, and resulting tension, can be increased by installing a strike plate with the edge of its void further from the door, or can be decreased by using a strike plate whose void edge is closer to the door. If the bend is too great, there is too much tension in the door, and the sound will be too high. Too little tension, and the sound will be too low. No tension at all, and the door will rattle. My ideal would be to set the tension so that each door’s sound is identically deep and sonorous.
The hinges, mortise locks, and strike plates – the parts that actually initiate the sound – all need to be well manufactured of cast bronze to be able to tune a door. We were fortunate to have at our disposal exquisitely-crafted bronze hardware salvaged from buildings that were being demolished next to our farm in Amenia, NY. The reused hardware offered the dual advantage of providing the highest quality I could find as well as reducing our embodied carbon footprint for the project. And I love giving fine materials a second life.
I have never seen anyone tune a door, but I believe I can do it. I plan to erect the new house during the upcoming year, and will at that time hang and tune the doors. I know they will be beautiful, solid, smooth, and stable. I have pondered the possibility that they may fall short of symphonic. My family and friends may judge the acoustics harshly. There may be digital audio sensors involved before it is over. But it is my hope that when I have finished hanging these doors, they will resonate with the potential that everyday objects can offer our daily experience.