We've been talking a lot about our backyard and garden area lately, and we're quite happy with how it's coming together this year. It may not be the complete overhaul that we have planned several years down the road, but it's really come a long way since the early days in our home.

It's amazing to look at the old pictures from just after we moved in and compare them with more recent photos. The time and effort we've taken over the years becomes far more apparent. But if you've been looking closely at our photos, there's one major change we made but haven't ever told you about. Here's a hint: 

From the day we purchased our home, the back door to our garden was a complete eyesore. Rumor has it that a retired high ranking officer in a branch of the armed forces owned our home back in the early to mid 1980s, and he was responsible for several of the unfortunate changes that were made to our home. He seems to have had an odd sense of style and design, and he was afflicted with the styles most commonly associated with the 1980s -- a double whammy for our little home.

At some point in his enduring wisdom, this previous owner opted to construct an entryway to our back garden more reminiscent of a porta potty that one might find at the Greek Parthenon than in your typical Old Town residence.

Built from assorted cheap wood not meant for the outdoor use, and using an original interior door probably removed from our master bathroom (I'm still actually pissed about that one), this calamity was never going to stand the test of time and was already falling apart by the time we moved in.

It had been backed into by a car or truck on more than one occasion, was infested by termites since it was built touching the ground, it was always (and I mean always) wet, and it was constantly peeling and flaking paint that would ultimately be tracked into the house on the bottoms of our shoes.

Several years ago Wendy and I had enough with this big fat Greek monstrosity. While some work was being done next door and a contractor that we had gotten to know was hauling away garbage we said "Hey, if we rip this down, will you take it away for us?" He obliged and we got to work.

The thing was built so poorly that we had it down in about two hours using little more than a hammer and prybar. That left us with a rather large opening in need of a new door.

We decided that we didn't need to buy a new door or gate for the opening because I could probably build one. Sure, why not, I mean, I had never built a door before, but it didn't look that hard.

Knowing the moisture involved in this location and the fact that we wanted this door to look somewhat rustic and simple, I decided to use pressure treated 2x8 as the material for the door. The rounded edges of the wood would give the door nice vertical detail, and the thickness would provide a good and substantial feel for the door.

Note: This was the first time I ever attempted this type of thing, and I made plenty of mistakes along the way. If I were to do it over again there are quite a few changes I would make. But I'll get to those things throughout and at the end of the post.

I started by laying all of the pieces of wood flat and joining them together.

This was in the days prior to my ownership of a nice biscuit joiner, so I decided to use my pocket hole jig instead. This was minor mistake #1, but not the worst thing in the world. Since both sides of this door are visible, and pocket holes leave a rather unsightly hole where the screw is inserted, so I'd have to fill those holes later.

Our plan was to mount a few pieces of pressure treated wood into the opening using masonry anchors, mount some strap hinges, and hang the door. So we measured the opening, and began cutting the joined boards to make them into a proper door.

I cut the bottom and sides using the circular saw, then used our jigsaw (the crappy one before we bought the good one) to cut the radius to give a nice curved top to the door.

Using a jigsaw for this was actually another mistake. Cutting a curve through one and a half inch thick wood with a jigsaw will almost always end up with some blade lean, and that will give you a lopsided cut. I compensated for this with lots of sanding, which stinks, and it still isn't perfect. If I were doing this again, I'd make a radius jig for the router and make several passes, removing a little material with each pass. Ultimately, I would be left with a even and consistent curved edge, and using a radius jig would give a perfectly symmetrical cut. Live and learn I suppose.

After the boards were all screwed together and the door was a door, I used a two part epoxy wood filler (Abatron's Wood Epox) to fill the pocket holes. The plan was to place these holes to the outside so we didn't have to see any of them from the interior of the backyard.

We had purchased an old cast iron air register cover off of eBay a very long time ago that Wendy felt would be perfect for a garden door window. (She's been obsessed with secret gardens after reading the book The Secret Garden as a child, so I was happy to oblige.) So I used the jigsaw to cut a small arched opening in the middle of the door where we could mount the cast iron piece. Again, I should have used the router for this, but the jigsaw worked pretty well. Here's the exact pattern of the grate that we have.

The final step of the build was to mount a couple of 2x4 boards to the back of the door to secure and stabilize the whole thing. We were going to do a diagonal cross piece as well, but that looked far too "barnyard" for our backyard.

Once we had fit and ensured the door was the proper size, Wendy primed and painted both sides with a high gloss oil paint.

The paint is another item I'd do differently if doing it over again. Our door has warped over the years due to water that snuck in between the boards and onto the unpainted/unprimed area. If we were building the door today I would, at the very least, pre-prime all of the pieces before assembly. I might even pre-paint all of them too.

Once the paint dried we hung the door in the opening using some simple black strap hinges that you can get at almost any home improvement store. 

I used the wire wheel to clean up the grate, then I covered the antique cast iron grate with a low gloss polyurethane and screwed it to the door. We also touched up the paint around the door, where the porta potty surround once stood.

And that, my friends, is the story of how our back gate transformed from a Greek porta potty to the secret garden door you see in all of our photos today. I believe the total cost of the wood, paint, and hardware supplies was in the range of $150, plus $65 for the antique grate. I'd say this was a major impact for just over $200.

As I outlined along the way, there are plenty of changes I'd make to the project if we do it again. But the majority of this changes are just to make the door last longer, look better, and not warp. The mistakes I made were all rookie moves, and I know better now. But regardless of those mistakes, it's still 1000% better than it was before.

Who knows, maybe some weekend we'll replace the current door with a new one and I can make some new mistakes to learn from. Well, the grate needs to be cleaned up a bit, and a new coat of poly needs to be applied, but otherwise, I think this door is going to be staying for a while.

Have you built any garden or exterior doors? What wood and techniques did you use in construction? Maybe your backyard has something equally as unattractive as our former porta potty and you'd like a change? Let us know what you have in the works.

Comments 14


5/24/2012 at 11:09 AM
One of our interior doors was removed who knows when, and I found it nailed to an opening in the shack that collapsed. It must have been out there a long time - it was rotten, weathered, and had a gigantic warped crap down one of the entire upper panels.

So, I understand being pissed about your former "garden gate"!
So frustrating!! You have to wonder what the person was thinking when they sacrificed an original detail like this.
Carrie Cole Jolly
5/24/2012 at 11:14 AM
Enjoyed this read!
5/24/2012 at 11:57 AM
WOW, that door is so awesome ! I, too, am still dreamy over "The Secret Garden" so I was especially into this post. That door looks like it could have been from right out of it. Super lovely
Thanks so much Rachel! It was such a great book, wasn't it? :-)
Karin K
5/24/2012 at 12:09 PM
Beautiful!!!! Nice job.
:-) Thanks Karin! We're so happy with how it improved the view out back.
5/24/2012 at 2:12 PM
We recently constructed a small picket fence and we made the decision to pre-stain the entire fence before installing anything (event the posts). It was the best home improvement decision that we have made in a long time!
Good thinking! I'm sure it saved you a ton of time and headache. (Or should I say neck-ache, since you didn't have to tilt your head at weird angles to make sure you stained every crack and crevice?)
5/24/2012 at 9:03 PM
No, never made a secret door but I may hire you guys to do that for me. I gots the garden plans, just no secret gate.
What's a garden without a secret gate?? You need to get on that girl! :-)
5/24/2012 at 10:01 PM
That looks so much better than the wannabe imitation Greek Revival mess that was there when you bought the house. It gives it an old English look. Almost like something you would expect to see on a rowhouse, excuse me - "terraced house" courtyard in London or Liverpool. Very nice touch!
Thanks Tom and Jada! Although the Greeks have better food... we'll take London courtyard over Greek mess any day! :-)
5/30/2012 at 4:13 PM
Lovely gate. My poor sad nasty gate is up for replacement this summer, and you've inspired me. Tell me, is there any special type of polyurethane you'd recommend for your cast iron register?
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