Conserving the North Door

Around 900 years after it was installed, the North Door of the cathedral was in need of some cleaning and repair. We recently carried out work to repair the door and are working to make sure it will last for many more years to come.

Process of conservation of the north door.

Why was conservation work needed?

The North Door is one of the historic treasures of Durham Cathedral. The wood it is made of dates from between 1109 and 1144. There have been small repairs made to the door over the centuries, but most of it is original.

In 2019, when new lobbies were being built inside the cathedral, the door was checked by a team of specialist conservators. They reported that, while the door was in good condition for its age, it was very dirty where it had been exposed to the weather. Also, the metal parts, such as hinges and handles, had some rust on them, and protective layers of paint were peeling away. Action was needed to be taken to make sure the door was kept in good condition for the future.

Who did the work?

The conservation work was carried out by Skillingtons Workshop, a specialist conservation firm based in Lincolnshire, and was generously funded by the Friends of Durham Cathedral.

Find out more about the Friends of Durham Cathedral

How was the work done?

The conservation team used a ‘minimalist’ approach, doing as much as necessary but as little as possible.

  • First, they used a dry brush and a low-power vacuum cleaner to gently remove trapped dirt from the open grain of the wood.
  • Next, after carefully testing hidden parts of the wood to make sure it would not be damaged, they used water and a mild detergent to clean areas of the door where there was more stubborn dirt.
  • The conservators then applied four layers of Tung oil to the door to re-saturate the wood, replacing natural oils lost over time and providing a protective coating. Tung oil is made from the seeds of the Tung tree, from Southern China. Used since ancient times, it is mentioned in the writings of the Chinese scholar Confucious, from about 400BC. It is popular as a natural, environmentally-friendly wood finish, does not darken as it ages, and protects against mould growth. Each layer took a day to apply, and needed about a week to dry before the next layer could be added.
  • The team also cleaned and removed rust from the metal parts of the door, finishing them with a wax coating for protection. These include the locks, handles, hinges, and the replica Sanctuary Ring. Any paint removed during cleaning was saved and sent for analysis, in case it might be historically significant.

The work took eight weeks to complete, and was a ‘once in a generation’ clean. Now, the door not only looks much better, but is also protected from the weather. It can continue to be used and admired for many more years to come.