Spike Carlsen is a former editor at We do everything by our own hands and is the author of three books: A Splintered History of Wood, Ridiculously Simple Furniture Projects and Woodworking FAQ.
Our Greek Revival house stood garageless for the first 150 years of its life, so I knew when it came time to add one, it had to honor the character of the old girl. I also knew I had a bad case of sticker shock after shopping for a carriage house–style overhead door. Wood doors of the style I was looking for started at $2,800 and climbed to three times that amount. So I did what any self-respecting do-it-yourselfer would do: I built my own. And I did it using an inexpensive hardboard door, cedar boards and tongue-and-groove paneling.
You can use the techniques shown to customize a new door or update an old one. Note: The design shown on the following pages isn’t exactly like my door shown above. I changed some details, especially about the arch.
Tools and materials
Since most “off the shelf” doors these days are metal or fiberglass, you may have to special-order your hardboard door through a home center, lumberyard or garage door dealer. Do your homework: I had some quotes as high as $800—more than twice what I paid.
I purchased cedar boards, rough sawn on one face and smooth on the other, for the rails and stiles, and 1/4-in. x 4-in. x 8-ft. cedar tongue-and-groove material—often used for interior wainscoting or closet lining—for the recessed slats. Choose material that’s straight with a minimum of knots. Cedar is ideal because it’s lightweight and naturally rot resistant. In some parts of the country, you may need to special-order it.
Use a pneumatic finish nailer. This will allow you to work twice as fast as hand nailing, and since the nail heads leave only tiny dents, the primer and paint will fill them, saving you hours of nail setting, puttying and sanding. The nails are important, but it’s the adhesive that holds the boards flat and secure for the long haul. I used heavy-duty “subfloor” adhesive for that task. The caulk is equally important since it keeps moisture from getting between the boards and the door. I used white silicone caulk—itself a tenacious adhesive—for that job. Some silicone caulk isn’t paintable—and it’s usually available in a limited number of colors. If you can’t find a silicone caulk that matches the paint color of your door, buy a “paintable” version.
To ensure accurate cuts, beg, borrow or steal a power miter saw.
Structural and Safety Considerations
I actually built and installed my garage door 10 years ago—and haven’t had a lick of trouble since. Before you launch into your project, keep these factors in mind:
- When you modify a door, you’ll most likely void the manufacturer’s warranty, so take pains to create watertight seals wherever you can.
- Since you’re adding 3/4 in. of thickness to the door, the vertical garage door tracks will need to be set back from the opening an extra 3/4 in. You may need oversize jamb brackets for the job.
- Your door will be 40 to 60 lbs. heavier once the wood overlay is added. Figure out the total weight of your door and install springs and a garage door opener rated for that weight.
- Make certain each of the four hardboard door panels has a heavy-duty horizontal reinforcement bar along the back to prevent bowing. Those bars are installed when the door is hung.
- If you’re working with an existing door, make certain it’s in good shape. Remove any loose or flaking paint so the glue and caulk have a solid surface to adhere to.
Hanging a garage door is tricky—and potentially dangerous—work. I suggest you do what I did: Have a professional hang the door. A pro will know how to install the door, the track and the opener safely. Plan to talk BEFORE you start your project to get additional input into the work you’re doing.
Start with a game plan and a sketch
Photo 1: Mark out the layout
Lock the panels together with 1×3 cleats and drywall screws. Snap chalk lines to indicate the edges of the rails and stiles. The four “openings” between the stiles should be of equal width.
We designed our 16-ft.-wide door to resemble a pair of smaller carriage house doors, but you could come up with other designs. You can increase or decrease the number of vertical stiles, install a straight top rail instead of an arched one, or install crisscross battens for a barn-door look.
Measure the height and width of each door panel, as well as the overall height and width of the assembled garage door, and sketch it out on graph paper. Draw in the rails and stiles and how they meet so you have a solid game plan.
Position your four garage panels on the floor. Make sure they’re in the proper order (if they’re new, they’ll be marked top, middle, middle, bottom) and that the edge grooves overlap properly. Temporarily secure them to one another using 1×3 cleats and drywall screws (Photo 1). Transfer the measurements from your graph paper to the door, then snap chalk lines to indicate the edges of all the rails and stiles.
I first snapped lines for the horizontal rails, then the lines for the two 1×4 outer stiles and the 1×8 center stile. I measured between the edge stiles and the center stile to find that center point, then snapped lines for the intermediate stiles (Photo 1). When I was done, the four spaces between the stiles were identical in width.
Rail and Stile Layout
Place the panels in the correct order and temporarily secure them to each other. Transfer your scaled drawing to the panels and snap lines to mark the position of the different pieces.
Install the rails, stiles and slats
Photo 2: Start with the bottom rail
Run beads of construction adhesive and caulk before nailing on the rails and stiles. The caulk locks out moisture along the edges while the adhesive provides long-term holding power.
Photo 3: Install the stiles
Apply silicone caulk to the ends of the stiles before butting them against the rails. Use nails sparingly; just enough to hold the parts in place until the construction adhesive cures.
Photo 4: Mark arches on the top rails
Center a scrap of plywood below the door and drive in a screw to act as a pivot point. Hook on your tape measure, hold your pencil at the desired radius and “swing” an arch across the top rail. In this case, the 10-ft. mark on the tape provided the perfect radius. Cut the arch with a jigsaw.
Photo 5: Get identical lengths without measuring
Determine the exact length of the slats for each panel, then clamp down a bump block to cut them to identical lengths.
Photo 6: Lay out the slats for symmetry
Temporarily fit tongue-and-groove slats together, then center this “test panel” in the opening. Mark the two end slats, then cut them to width for the installation.
Photo 7: Install the slats
Run triple beads of construction adhesive and a single bead of silicone caulk at the top of the door panel, then nail the slats into place, one by one.
Photo 8: Caulk the slats
Apply additional caulk where the slats butt into the rails and stiles.
Apply two beads of heavy-duty construction adhesive and a bead of silicone caulk to secure the bottom rail (Photo 2). Install the caulk bead so it’s just “kissing” the bottom of the chalk line; that way the caulk will smoosh out a little to help create a watertight seal along the top of the board. Set the bottom rail in place, rough side up, and secure it with nails every 12 inches.
Next install the edge, center and intermediate stiles (Photo 3). Their ends should be even with the seams between the door panels. Use your chalk lines as guides for laying down beads of construction adhesive and caulk prior to installing each board. Also run beads of silicone caulk at the outer edges to create a good seal. Install the 1×6 rails at the top of panel 3.
Draw the arches onto the 1×12 top rails (Photo 4) using a screw as a center point and a tape measure as a giant compass. Cut the arch using a jigsaw and smooth the edges by hand or by power-sanding. Install the arches using construction adhesive and silicone caulk.
Measure the height for the tongue-and-groove slats for panel 1. Mark one of the slats to length, position it on the miter saw, then install a “bump block” so all the slats you cut for panel 1 will be identical lengths (Photo 5).
Nest a dozen or so precut pieces side-by-side to create the test panel shown in Photo 6. Center it in the opening, then mark the two end slats so the slats will be centered during the actual installation. Rip the first piece to width as indicated by your mark, then install it with the tongue facing out. Continue installing the other pieces (Photo 7). Rip the last piece to the exact width so it butts tightly against the other stile. Install all the pieces in panel 1, then move up to the second panel. Your “starter pieces” in each section of each panel should be identical.
Once all your slats are installed, apply more silicone caulk where they butt to the stiles and rails (Photo 8). Remove the 1×3 cleats holding the panels together, place the panels on sawhorses and prime all the exposed edges and surfaces with a thick coat of stain-blocking exterior primer. Really work it into the exposed end grain of the slats to prevent moisture from wicking in. Once the primer has dried, apply two coats of good exterior paint, again paying special attention to the exposed ends of the slats, rails and stiles.
Call your friendly neighborhood garage door person to hang your new creation. Expect to pay $300 to $500 for installation of the door and an opener.
Required Tools for this Garage Makeover Project
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
- Air compressor
- Air hose
- Brad nail gun
- Cordless drill
- Miter saw
- Safety glasses
Required Materials for this Garage Makeover Project
Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.
- 1/4-in. x 4-in. x 8-ft. cedar tongue and groove
- Cedar 1x12
- Cedar 1x4
- Cedar 1x6
- Cedar 1x8
- Drywall screws
- Exterior primer and paint
- Hardboard garage door
- Heavy duty construction adhesive
- Silicone caulk