The moldings on modern doors are often a separate piece of wood glued onto the doors, but the Mansion’s doors are self-molded, meaning the moldings are carved into the door’s frame. By reviewing the moldings throughout the Mansion, the architectural preservation team decided on a profile for McAuley’s doors. Eighteenth-century carpenters chose decorative shapes that they would craft with molding planes. Since McAuley did not have a plane that matched the S-shaped molding, or ogee, adorning the Mansion’s doors, the team was forced to find a creative solution.
McAuley first drew the exact molding profile on cardboard, then stenciled the pattern on the rail. She cut two grooves and leveled them off into steps before establishing the curve with a round plane and a convex, or hollow plane. These guideless planes teeter if the carpenter’s hands are shaky, but McAuley’s skill created an identical replica of the S-shaped molding.
Assembling the Puzzle
The moldings on the edges of the stiles and rails meet in a 90-degree angle. In modern joinery, this corner would be created using a miter joint, for which each molding is cut at a 45-degree angle. The original Mansion door did not use miter joints; instead, the moldings on the rail were undercut to ride over the moldings on the stiles, an old technique called a scribe joint. Although McAuley knew about scribe joints, she had never made one before. To proceed, she reverse engineered the joint. She and Stuckey documented the joinery used on all of the Mansion’s doors and studied the 18th-century door fragment Litchford found in the architectural study collection to see details of the woodwork inaccessible while a door is intact.
Ultimately, McAuley ventured to North Carolina to consult an expert to learn the precise method to create the complicated joint. First, she measured and cut the desired angle through the molding, then she thinned the molding and gouged out a space for the stiles to fit snugly. By the end of the project, she had completed this process 60 times and had perfected her method and speed.
Once the frame was assembled, McAuley turned to the panels. Their large size required several boards to be glued together; a single large board would likely warp out of shape. She used planes to create the raised field at the center of each panel and the beveled edges, working a panel on all four sides and moving with and across the grain. Running a plane across the tough grain of the pine was an exhausting task that yielded beautiful results. After ensuring the panels fit, she fastened the frame together, wedging the tenons tightly and locking the joints with wooden pegs.
After approximately 450 hours of work spread across 36 days and consisting of countless miles paced while running hand planes along her workbench, McAuley completed the Mansion doors. Before they are painted and fitted, the preservation team must stabilize the Mansion’s frame. Through the generosity of donors, these doors will overlook the Potomac River for the next 100 years, granting future generations passage into the home of George Washington. While power tools could have completed the task in a quarter of the time, McAuley and Mount Vernon’s architecture staff chose the traditional process used by their 18th-century predecessors to create a more authentic product and to open the door for a fading craft to flourish.
By Kathryn Priebe with Thomas Reinhart