Impassioned Craftsman Creates Art with Old Doors

Updated September 1, 2016
Greg Doublestein of The Front Gate in Indianapolis works on a door
Greg Doublestein works on the finish of an antique door at The Front Gate workshop in Indianapolis. (Photo by Frank Espich)

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Some call them midlife crises. Others, like Greg Doublestein of Indianapolis, call them awakenings. Why would a Johns Hopkins University graduate, and former Reagan administration aide and corporate vice president, leave his starched shirt and tie behind for days filled with grime and sweat? “One day I woke up and said, ‘What am I doing? This amounts to moving this pile of paper here to this pile over there,’” Doublestein says. “I knew the only place for me was to work for myself. I needed a creative outlet.” Doublestein found that outlet in an unconventional manner. “I looked around at everything, to see what wasn’t getting done well, and I kept seeing all these million-dollar homes with cheap entries,” Doublestein says of the front door, door frame and surrounding windows he found on some homes. That discovery led Doublestein, whose woodworking experience amounted to constructing a clock and coffee table kit during high school, to found his own company – The Front Gate – in 1994. After learning from some of the country’s best wood finishers, he formed a small team of talented pros to restore antique doors and make new ones from scratch, and they’ve transformed hundreds of entryways since.

Vintage doors

While new doors (Doublestein often recommends white oak, the same wood used in old ship hulls and whiskey barrels) cost $3,000 to $4,000, old wooden door restoration at The Front Gate typically starts at $1,000 to $2,000. Expensive, sure, but Doublestein’s business hinges on one fundamental question.

“If you have a gorgeous house, why would the entry be an afterthought?” says the door craftsman, whose restorations include doors that date back to the Civil War era.

Along with the quest for visual and protective perfection, each door’s connection to the past enthralls Doublestein.

“When I touch one and think that it was made by a guy 150 years ago, who did everything he could to make a nice door for these people, if I can make it last another 150 years, I’ve left something,” he says.

Greg Doublestein of The Front Gate in Indianapolis power-scrubs a door
Doublestein power-scrubs an old door in a large dipping tank. (Photo by Frank Espich)

Doublestein disassembles the doors, which may contain up to 12 panels, and strips layer after layer of paint. The paint gets tougher the further you go, down to lead paint, milk paint and genuine oxblood, which emits a foul stench when stripped. At the bottom, old-school primer is the toughest of all. While he can strip most doors in four to six hours (for as little as $250-$300), a full entry might take several days and comprehensive restoration multiple weeks.

The Front Gate glass expert Gary Zelinger working on stained glass for a restored door
The Front Gate glass expert, Gary Zelinger, prepares stained glass for insertion into a restored door. (Photo by Frank Espich)

Sunlight is a wooden door’s worst enemy, and sun damage dictates how each restoration proceeds and the finish used. Once all panels reach ideal condition, Doublestein creates the protective and cosmetic layer that shields the door for decades to come.

“God put bark on wood for a reason,” he says. “Once you take it off, it’s your responsibility to put new ‘bark’ on so it’ll survive the weather it’s in, and we can do it.”

Whether using color or stain to show off the door’s natural grain, Doublestein utilizes the Swedish linseed oil system and others created overseas.

“I use what they use on wood shingles on churches way up in Swedish hills that no one will do again,” he says. “Europeans have hundreds of years of experience. Why wouldn’t you use it?”

The finish of an antique door from The Front Gate in Indianapolis
When a door leaves The Front Gate, it's considered furniture-grade. (Photo by Frank Espich)

Finding a match

Doublestein is a rare type of tradesperson, and not just because he works most days until 3 a.m. He genuinely doesn’t care about money, and turns down easy cash.

“If you want to sell your house, if you can’t sit down for two hours to talk about your door, if time is a primary concern or if price is what’s moving you, you probably aren’t my customer,” he says. “Are we looking to just keep the bad guys and weather out, or is this part of the art of your home? If it’s the former, you might not be interested.”

A finished door with brass knob by Greg Doublestein of The Front Gate in Indianapolis
Doublestein's doors offer detail, beauty and history you can't find at a store. (Photo by Frank Espich)

For the most complicated projects, Doublestein might spend two full days on a client estimate, which at five to six pages includes dozens of options for every facet.

“Literally, every job and every door are different, and that frustrates some customers,” Doublestein says. “Someone calls and asks, ‘How much?’ and they don’t want to hear my 20 hours of research or read six pages of proposal, but I have to do it.”

That commitment to detail didn’t dissuade Angie's List member Donna Infanger, whose front door got a Doublestein makeover.

“He was very knowledgeable about the wood, the finish and how I should proceed,” Infanger said. “We talked about every option and the result was beautiful. It's a scary prospect to have someone take your door away (for three weeks) and tell you it'll look great, but I'm very pleased with how it turned out.”

In an age where service is often viewed only as a business transaction, Doublestein connects with door and owner alike. Once, a man who lost his wife two years earlier came to hire him for a job the couple planned prior to her death.

“I could see he was hurting, and I told him I wished I could fix it. He said, ‘I know. Nobody can, but our time together has really helped,’” Doublestein says. “That’s the best thing. It isn’t just about doors. Making a difference, that is what drives me.”

Have you hired a true craftsman who's passionate about his work? Tell us about it in the comments section below!

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