Special Cases: Choosing Color for Exterior Doors and Windows

A fifth in a series about choosing exterior colors.




I've been trying to come up with a pithy aphorism about eyes being the windows of the soul, but the front door is the soul of the home, but as you see from my example, it's not really working out. But there is an proverb in there somewhere, because the front door is so absolutely vital to the look of your home, it's character and sense of invitation. While not always true, often builders orient the front door so that it is the focal point. (Occasionally builders get excited about columns or shutters, and bury the door, which has always struck me as a little odd.) The front door is the portal to the home, the threshold to the private sphere. Not to get too overblown about this, but the ancient Celts used to set impediments in the doorway, such as a beam or a stone, as a subtle reminder to be mindful of the movement between the worlds. Tibetans pound bits of metal into thresholds, for similar purposes, to affix the way in and out.


My remarks are intended to apply to doors that are to be painted. If you have a natural door, it's usually best to leave it natural, if it is in any kind of salvageable condition. If you are unsure about what color the front door should be, then go outside, cross the street, and take a good hard look. This color should probably not be any of the other accent colors; a front door should be unique. I tend to argue against light-colored doors, but my grandmother and I always disagreed about this. She would say that a white door looked clean; I believe a white door is almost instantly smudged and scuffed, and therefore looks and is dirty. I, personally, find reds and purples to be really wonderful door colors, because they have such a warmth and life to them. Now, I don't just mean Viking purple and Fire Engine red, I mean the whole gamut from soft, warm, almost brown reads, to purples that are just this side of black. The color need not be an aggressive color, but an undercurrent of the emotions suggested by red and purple can really create vivid entrance.




First, a note on windows. There tend to be at least two different kinds of window on a Minneapolis or a St Paul house: storm windows and sash windows. Storm windows tend to be affixed on the outside, are a single pane of glass, and are there for the noble purpose of reducing your heating and cooling costs. The air between the storm and the inner windows acts as an insulator. Storm windows, in turn, tend to break into two different kinds: the traditional kind, which much be changed with the seasons, as there is both a storm window and a storm screen, and the combination storm, a modern invention that has sliding panes of glass and screens and do not need to be changed with the season. Combination storms can come in all variety of materials: wood, vinyl and aluminum.


Underneath these windows tend to lurk the double hung sash window, with a lower pane that slides up and an upper pane that (theoretically) slides down. There are also casements, crank-outs, pull-ins, and a variety of other, newer windows that tend to be fitted with thermal glasses and have no storms. Even houses that have had all the old storms removed and replaced with combination storms tend to have at least a couple of the traditional storms on oddly shaped or otherwise stationary windows, usually the ones that never open: the big front window, stained glass, piano windows, or the pair that sometimes flank the chimney. I wanted to make a note on definitions, as we, as professionals, often get into semi-comical conversations about their windows, as the specific terminology isn't always known to the homeowner.


Windows are tricky, because they are almost always a mix of styles and materials: the lower windows redone in the 20s, the upper windows in the 70s; some have wooden storms, some vinyl, some aluminum. Windows that used to have storms and screens that hung into place but have been fitted with modern combination storms, often still have the hanging hardware in place. For crying out loud, have these removed! This has nothing to do with color selection, but it makes me so crazy I feel obliged to repeat it at every opportunity.


Windows read as black from the outside, which may strike you as strange, but it's true. Because of this, we often recommend that sash windows be painted with a color other than white, so that the pane divisions don't appear distracting. The same holds true for storm windows, especially if they are fit inside a light or white trim. Traditionally, storms were painted black or dark green (especially a color called “Black Forest Green” that can be found in the Benjamin Moore color charts.) You generally can't go wrong with this. Exterior color choice is by nature conservative, and the traditions are tried and true. We have also had good results with other dark, rich colors, such as reddish-browns, bronzes, and almost purple charcoals. I also once painted the storms in a porch an aluminum silver, and it was brilliantly cool. The storms on the body of the house were dark green though.


This brings me to another thing: because of the mixture of different kinds of materials on a home, some times people feel trapped into matching all the storms to the white vinyl storms, or whatever material will not be painted. While it's certainly a valid choice to make all the storms the same color, by all means, feel like you have permission to paint all the wooden storms one way, and leave the vinyl white. I have white vinyl storms on most of my house, but I recently replaced the storm over the picture window, because it had been installed broken. I went with a wooden storm, and I intend to paint it a dark green. Most of the time, the visual context for the window is for people standing on the front porch. It really doesn't matter that it won't match the windows on the second story, because they aren't seen together much anyway. Moreover, white would look incongruous with other Victorian colors on the porch. Porch windows are in a different context than third story storms, and it's okay to tailor your color choices to specific parts and usages of the house.