How to replace front door with sidelights
Q. I have an old wooden front door with sidelights. The door is in bad shape and leaky, but the sidelights are fine. Is it possible to replace just the door and not the sidelights to save money?
A. Front doors with decorative sidelights are very popular today. As you have found, the sidelights, which are fixed in the door opening, experience much less wear and tear than the door itself.
Even though the door looks bad now, inspect it carefully. It may just need some new weatherstripping seals, a coat of paint and some new hinges. The manufacturer of the door should be able to supply you with replacement seals and hinges. If not, most use standard sizes that you can find at home center stores. This would be your least expensive option.
Unless you possess better-than-average carpentry skills, it will be difficult to separate the door from the sidelights. They usually are sold as a single unit and installed as a unit in the door opening. You may have trouble making adequate space and supporting a new doorframe between the existing sidelights.
The decorative glass is often the most expensive part of front doors and sidelights. You might consider installing double doors instead of a single door with sidelights. These can look very stylish, and with smaller windows in each door, you still will get plenty of natural lighting and perhaps have more privacy.
Although it looks as though your door is a perfect fit in the wall opening, there always is a gap all around the door/sidelight frame. The doorframe is shimmed in this gap and attached to the wall framing in several spots, not continuously. When there are no sidelights, each hinge has an extra-long screw that reaches the wall framing. The door molding covers this gap.
There are several purposes for having a gap. It allows you, using the shims, to center and level the door if the house has settled or the wall opening is not true. It also ensures that the weight of the house is resting on the wall framing and not the doorframe. The door itself will shrink and grow with changes in the temperature and humidity level, so it needs a little room to move.
Luckily, single, double and sidelighted doors usually are made in standard sizes. Unless your house is very old, you should be able to find a replacement door/sidelight unit that will fit perfectly in the existing wall opening. When you order a new door, specify the wall opening dimensions, not the doorframe dimensions.
Remove the door trim to get access to the gap around the door. If you remove the trim carefully, you may be able to reuse it on the new door. You will be able to find the locations of the nails or screws by looking for the shims. Try to remove the nails or screws from the doorframe as they were driven in. If this is a problem, use a reciprocating saw to cut through them.
When you install your new door/sidelight unit, you might want to space it up slightly on a strip made of pressure-treated lumber. This would provide a little more clearance for when the door swings open over carpeting or a throw rug.