Opening Up the Barn

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Have you been thinking that it’s time your barn received a facelift? The exterior stall doors are old, sagging, not opening properly, and some of the wood is starting to rot. You’d like to install Dutch doors or add a window to each stall, but you’re just not sure how to go about it.

Take heart, it doesn’t have to be complicated. And, the benefits from these additions are numerous.

While Dutch doors have always been popular for their aesthetic value, they are also perfect for gaining direct access to the outdoors—a convenience, for sure, but also very important should you need to free a horse quickly, such as during a fire. In addition, the doors and stall windows are also great for increasing air circulation and letting in some natural light.

Preparing the Site

As with any construction, preparation is key. “Lay it all out on paper first,” suggests Dale Lehmer of Vintage Barns in High Falls, N.Y. “Once you have your plans, order your materials based on the design. It’s much easier to design it first than to just go out and build; otherwise you’ll end up with something that doesn’t fit or something you overlooked.”

Should you make your own doors or buy pre-hung units? That depends on how good a carpenter you are, and whether you have the right tools.

The consensus among the experts we talked to is to buy pre-hung doors. They are relatively quick to install and make it easy to avoid mistakes. “Pre-hung means that it comes as a complete system,” explains Don Floyd of Lucas Equine Equipment in Cynthiana, Ky. “The door is already in its own framework. It has hinges and a latch and the door is welded to the hinges. You just set it in the opening and screw your angle framework in there, which is what holds the door. As long as your opening is plumb (square) your doors will work properly. If you put a level up along the opening and discover that it’s out of plumb, then you might have to shim it (add a thin piece of wood to make it plumb) behind your framework before installing the door.”

Adds Lehmer, “Making doors is not rocket science, but if you’re not used to it, then it can be a lot of work. By the time you figure out your labor, plus the expense of buying the tools if you don’t have them, then you might end up saving just $1 an hour. If you have to make 30 sets of Dutch doors, that’s a lot of work! You may be better off either buying them or hiring a carpenter.”

Doing it Yourself

And if you still want to build them yourself, what exactly will you need to do? “If you’re installing new doors to improve upon what is currently there, take a look to see if you can’t make them wider and taller,” suggests Hannah Banks of Harrison-Banks Architects in Boston, Mass. “Then remove the old door and framing and cut back as required in order to install the new door. Then simply install the new framing.

“If you are replacing an old door with the same size door, you still need to remove any exterior trim in order to inspect the framing around the opening. If you see any moisture at the base of the framing members, replace them. And because the trim of the door is often wood, you will likely find some signs of chewing and should think about replacing it. You can use metal trim or, if you want wood trim, then put in a 2x2 steel angle all the way around the outside edges, both inside and outside. It won’t add strength but it prevents cosmetic damage.”

Paying close attention to the sturdiness of the door frame is a must for two reasons: Horses can inflict a lot of damage and the doors themselves can be very heavy. In most cases, the door should be attached to a post that is anchored at both base and top. Explains Lehmer, “The doors have a lot of leverage and torque so if a horse leans on it, there’s a good bit of pressure that gets applied to the post. Make sure that the bottom of the post is attached to something—you don’t want to just dig a hole and bury it in the ground. That is the worst thing you can do because, in 30 years, between the moisture and the urine, there will be nothing left of it.

“If there is a concrete base, then we’ll drill a hole in the middle, put a 1/2 or 3/4 inch inch steel pin in there that sticks up in the air about 2 or 3 inches. Then we’ll drill a hole, dead center, in the bottom of the post and slip the post over that pin. That locks it in place so that if a horse crashes into it, it’s not going to knock the bottom of the post out.” To keep urine from rotting the base of the post, Lehmer recommends installing the door on a metal plate, installing metal straps to shield the bottom portion of the post, or both.

“You also need a place to attach the post to the ceiling,” says Lehmer. “I’ve seen people put a nail through the floor of the hayloft down to the top of the post. That is probably not going to be enough to keep it stable.” How you secure the top of the post depends largely on your structure, but it should be attached to something sturdy, such as a joist or the ceiling.

Once the frame is in place, consider whether you want (or need) a threshold. If the stall floor is slightly depressed, which does the double duty of keeping the bedding from creeping out, you may not need one. If your stall floor is level with the exterior, then a threshold should be considered for two reasons. First, it will prevent holes from forming in the area, which, when the door is closed, can create a place where a horse can get a foot caught. Second, with a threshold it is easier to keep the area free from the opposite problem—build up—which will interfere with closing the door. “If you’re going to regularly take the horse in and out through the door,” says Floyd, “then the threshold should be level with the exterior so he can come and go without tripping. A lot of barns that only use these doors for emergencies use a concrete block maybe eight inches in height for a threshold.”

If your floor is concrete, then why not add a concrete threshold, too? Concrete, unlike wood, is not susceptible to moisture and rotting. If, however, you prefer wood, first install a concrete “plinth” (a flat block at the base) to which the wood is attached. “We use a concrete pad, drill a hole in the center of it and put a steel pin in it, then we set the threshold?down over that steel pin,” says Lehmer. “I don’t like to have a big ledge [between threshold and plinth, for example] because horses can put their foot there and interfere with the door. But nor do you want it directly on the floor where it can get wet every time you hose the floor or every time the horse urinates.” Which is why the experts ultimately recommend concrete.

Sagging and Dragging

Next time you see a beautiful set of Dutch doors, inspect them closely and you might find that one of the panels is sagging, the latch doesn’t shut properly or that there are big gaps between door and frame. By understanding why, you can avoid the same mistakes when it comes time to install your own. And the causes can be numerous. “If they used green wood then the wood can twist and get smaller,” says Lehmer. “Or, it could be that the hinges are not big enough. If the hinge itself is sagging, it’s pulling away from the wood. Perhaps the builder used screws on the hinges instead of bolting them. Or perhaps the installer didn’t secure the bottom of the post and it moved, which will swing the whole door out of kilter.” Whatever the reason, the most important thing to remember about Dutch doors is that nearly everything has to be built to be especially sturdy.

Window Installation

As with door installation, plan before installing windows. First, decide what sort of windows will work best for you. Awning type windows that are hinged at the top and swing out at the bottom are popular because you can keep them open in bad weather without letting much rain or snow in. They usually have a crank at the bottom to open and close them.

Double-hung windows with two sashes, each on its own track, are easy to find and relatively inexpensive, but since they are flush with the wall, they will let the rain in when left open. Casement windows, which are hinged on either side and swing open, suffer from the same problem, but offer good ventilation.

“Pocket” windows, units that slide into a pocket built into the wall, are good for ventilation, but require more maintenance because debris can get into the interior track. Also, the window and pocket frame can contract and expand, making opening and closing difficult.

Second, decide whether you want tempered glass or plexiglass (or lexan, which is bullet-proof plexiglass). Avoid plate glass—it leaves jagged edges when it breaks while tempered glass shatters, leaving no sharp edges. While the dangers of breaking are practically eliminated with Plexiglass, it can become scratched and turn yellow over time.

To create a window, “First take off the exterior siding where you will be putting the window,” says Banks. “Then cut and install the framing. The framing should be the same depth as the wall. So if you have a 2x4 wall, then you’ll have 2x4s for the window framing. Then reinstall the exterior siding around the window.”

What size should the window be? Besides large enough for the horse to stick its head out or, if that is not an option, big enough to allow for good ventilation and light, there are other considerations. “Line up the tops of all the doors and windows,” says Banks. “It’s pleasing to the eye. You don’t notice it if the doors and windows have the same head height, but you do notice it when they are different.”

Where to Buy?

Where can you find quality pre-hung doors and windows at a fair price? “Look in various horse magazines to find what you like,” says Banks. “Call up the manufacturer and ask them to send brochures.

“Once you decide on specific doors or windows, ask the manufacturer where there are installations in your area. Then go see those doors or windows in operation.”

What should you look for? “Make sure that the trim is tight around all sides, the hinges are sturdy, the doors aren’t creaking on the hinges, the hardware is easy to operate and that the doors open easily.

“Also, be sure that all operable hardware is on the outside. In case of a fire, you don’t want to have to reach in and undo any latches.”

If you’ve narrowed your search to a few companies, all with products you like, how do you decide between them? “If you’re buying a kit,” advises Lehmer, “make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. For example, check out the gauge of the metal. If one company has U-Channels (a steel outline with channels that you slip wood into) for the wood that is 8-gauge and another is selling 12-gauge, well, the 12-gauge is heavier and will cost more.

“Another thing to watch out for is the size of the wood. If a company says that they use 2x6s, then check out the actual finished dimensions. You have to ask because it might be anywhere from 1 and 5/8 inches thick to 1 and 3/4 inches thick.

“Finally, determine the moisture content of the wood because that can vary. You will have to ask, because they probably won’t advertise it. Generally, yellow pine is around 18 percent which is a good moisture content, while green wood can be up to 90 percent moisture. If the wood is green, it will shrink. But you also don’t need expensive kiln-dried wood [at about 6 percent moisture], because the wood will probably end up somewhere around 12 to 15 percent moisture anyway, and even higher in a damp barn.”

If you are handy with a hammer and saw, installing Dutch doors and windows does not necessarily require the services of a professional. Just pay attention to materials, plan ahead and you and you horses will enjoy the healthy benefits of added ventilation and light.

Rules of Thumb

Other things to consider before starting your building project:

  • If the outside of your doors will be exposed to rain (no overhang to protect them), consider omitting the popular “X” boards. Rain can get underneath and rot the wood. Putting the “X” on the inside is a good option, but protect them with metal strips as horses love to chew wood.
  • Metal guards should be placed on all edges of the lower door to discourage chewing.
  • Wood doors should be at least two inches thick. Anything less may not survive a kick.
  • Install a steel stall screen behind the top door in case you have a horse that needs to be contained.
  • Windows should have bars spaced two inches or less, so a horse can’t get a hoof caught in them.
  • In cold climates, be sure that the operating hardware can easily be handled with a mittened hand.
  • During installation, be sure that there is adequate flashing to prevent moisture from getting inside the wall.

—EF