Cheap Like Me? Make Your Own Screen Door

I made a wooden screen door to replace the nasty aluminum one on my house. Here’s how I did it.

First, I measured my door opening, then added a 1/4″ or so to accommodate fitting the finished project , I expect that to be the most difficult part of the project, because in my 1895 house, nothing is square (or level, for that matter).

I decided to go with poplar, because I plan to paint the door with several coats of exterior-grade latex. Were I using a clear finish, I might have opted for teak, cedar or cypress, because they hold up well in exterior applications , though I’d have added a few layers of spar varnish for good measure. But poplar is cheap… and so am I, which is why I decided to make the door myself instead of ordering a custom one. But I did troll a lot of custom door sites for design inspiration.

I had to balance my plan decisions with the tooling available to me. I knew I wanted to use traditional wedged through-mortise construction, and we don’t have any 1/4″ bits for the mortiser that can cut much beyond 2″ deep. So I decided on 4″ wide stiles. For visual balance, I also opted for 4″ wide rails for the top and center, and a 6″ bottom rail. Not only do the extra 2″ at the bottom visually ground the door, the wider rail adds strength , and will hopefully discourage the cats (at least 2″ worth of discouragement, anyway) from trying to jump through the screen to get at the many stray cats that hang around my porch (anyone want a cat? I have a few to spare , and they’re already altered. Seriously , I’ll even throw in a bag of free cat food).

So $38 later, I had a pile of 5/4 straight-grained poplar, ready to work. I milled it flat on the jointer and planer, cut the two stiles to length at 84″ strong (yes, I’ve just slipped into carpenter jargon) and all the rails to length at 33″ strong. I marked out the three mortises on each stile with a 3/4″ shoulder at the top of the top rail and a 1″ shoulder at the bottom of the bottom rail, and 1/2″ shoulders for the rest. I really don’t know why , it just seems sensible that the two places at the outside edges that will bang hardest against the frame should have a stronger shoulder.

Then I set up the mortiser with a 1/4″ bit, did my best to center it perfectly across the edge of my stock, and started plunging. I cut all three mortises on the first stile a little better than 2″ deep, the flipped it end for end and cut them again , that way, if you don’t get the bit perfectly centered, the mortise still ends up in the center (if a little larger than you intended). Then I flipped it edge for edge, and followed the same procedure on the other side. The holes met in the middle (after I cleared the dust out with a screwdriver). Then I cut the mortises in the other stile, and took an ibuprofen break. (I have a bad right shoulder , mortising hurts. Wah.)

I measured the width of the mortise carefully, and set up the dado stack on the table saw to cut the 4″-long tenon faces (with repeated passes). Because the shoulders are inconsistent, I cut them by hand with a carcase saw, and cleaned up after my cuts with a chisel (I simply must work on my hand saw skills). A test fit revealed that two of my tenons were a wee bit fat, so I cleaned those up with a float (a shoulder plane would work, too). Once everything fit well with hand pressure, I eyeballed the middle of each tenon and cut a kerf.

Then it was over to the band saw to cut some long, narrow wedges from my poplar offcuts. I used an old toothbrush to spread glue on all surfaces of both the mortise and the  tenon, then fit all the joints together, and quickly moved on to the wedges. As I mentioned, I did a poor job of cutting the tenon shoulders by hand. So while the plan was to wedge the center of each tenon, the reality was that I had to wedge some of them at the top and/or bottom as well. I’m told this is actually a traditional approach… so yeah, I meant to do that. I checked for square then clamped it up to dry and went home for the day. The next day, I stopped in to take it out of the clamps and used Jameel Abraham’s new carbide-tipped “Skraper” to remove the squeeze-out. That little tool works like a champ.

Next I’ll rout a rabbet for the screen inserts, make the screen frames, and decide on the hardware (which will be by far the most expensive part of the project).

- Megan Fitzpatrick

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12 thoughts on “Cheap Like Me? Make Your Own Screen Door

  1. Danny H.

    Sorry to bother you again ,but I’m curious about the work bench top in this blog. It looks like it’s made out of the stuff they use to manufacture beams or trusses, you know, the flack board with lot’s of glue. Am I right, or is it something else.

  2. Danny H.

    Megan, I know I’m coming in late on this blog , but I just came across it and I just had to let you in on a “cat tip”. Cat’s, as you may know, like to mark their territory. And at my house they were marking the front door. To solve this I installed a shinny ( see your reflection in) kick plate along the bottom of the door. Problem solved. This really works !

  3. Greg Little

    It must be screen door week. I just finished building a new screen door from teak to replace a home depot overpriced aluminum screen door with a with a particle board filling that was falling apart. I used lap joints with teak pegs on the top and bottom and mortise and doweled tenon joints on the center rail 6 coats of spar varnish, some 3 " solid brass hinges from Lowes that were only $2.99 each on a closeout sale. I had the local hardware store make 2 screens with a heavy sunscreen mounted in a dark aluminum frame. I routed out a 3/8" x 3/4" rabbit to set the new screens in an covered it with a teak trim held in with stainless screws. My wife and I have 4 cats and are hoping they spare the screen from their claws.

  4. Ernie Gradillas

    Megan:
    You could’ve put raised panels in the bottom portion of the door instead of screen. That would keep the cats out/in.

    Will poplar hold up to outside conditions, even if it’s painted? You also say you started with 5/4 stock, preumably surfaced on 2 sides which leaves you, after milling, with a board width of close to 1". If you plan to put a latch on your door, will you have enough width to accomodate the mechanism? Your project looks nice.

  5. Mike Price

    Nice job Megan. I was especially interested in the mortise-tenon joints. Yours look solid. I am an amateur who cut his first mortise-tenon joints today. They came out beautifully. I used a plunge router, straight bit, and a jig to cut both. Good luck with your door. Let us see a picture of the final product please!

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