Unfolding the story of Andalusian doornails

Old doors have always fascinated me. When traveling in rural Italy, urban India, the British countryside, Antigua Guatemala or my native Norway, I have always snapped more door photos than vistas or anything else, certainly more than those of my traveling companions. When I lived in Paris, I started an additional obsession with door knockers. However, it wasn’t until we moved to southern Spain that I realized that there was a whole new world of other door paraphernalia to explore – like doornails.

Now a doornail is not any old nail. Per definition it is a stud set into a door for strength or ornament. In other words, the nail feature may or may not have a structural reason to be. In my case, this is really irrelevant, as the doornail in itself, especially the original Andalusian hand-forged doornail, is like small piece of art. It really needs no further purpose.

When we bought our ruin and future home in Ronda a few years back, I immediately started visualizing the stunning antique door we would employ as our piece de resistance entrance. We started a province-wide search, covering antique stores and flee markets. We discovered a company in Granada’s Alpujarra region that were said to remake the traditional Arab style doors for a considerable, but seemingly fair cost judging by all the hand-carved details. A place near Marbella had a couple of these masterpieces in stock, so we went to see them. We were sadly disappointed. The style resembled what I call Late Flint Stone, due to the excessive hand chiselling. To the naked eye, the wood looked like the plastic-y hobbit houses one see in cheap adventure parks. Once again I discovered that what we say in the film industry is true – some things are good from far, but far from good. There are no ‘bueno, bonito y barato’ (good, nice looking and cheap).

Our next step was to snap photos of doors during our walks and travels. I began collecting images of the perfect handle candidates, door wickets, keyhole embellishments and examples of antique doornails that we would love to use to ‘fortify’ our future street entrance.

We asked our neighbours where to find an old door and were told to contact Salvador Sato, an older rondeño gentleman who allegedly had a storeroom full of antique doors. His warehouse turned out to be a vast former stable on the windy road adjacent to our community garden. We had passed it a number of times without knowing what riches were hidden behind the nondescript green garage doors.

And treasures there were. Salvador had lofty hall upon lofty hall filled with old doors. There were doors for castles, cathedrals, señorial mansions and cutting edge city dwellings. There were towering entrances worthy of a medieval fort, ancient enclosures of any type, style and state and stately twin panels to separate ones great reception halls from ones ballrooms or smoking chambers.

The place was a virtual museum, a heaven for restorers and utopia for door lovers like myself. The only thing Salvador did not have was a door to suit our rustic home, whose façade was merely 3 metres wide. Our entrance was simply too small. Salvador kindly suggested he could cut something down to size, but for one we didn’t want to ruin any of his precious doors and secondly, we didn’t know what size we would be allowed to make our front door, seeing that the original opening was made for the squat Andalu’ farm stock. Therefore, we thanked Salvador for the most interesting tour and continued our search.

Months passed and we finally got our building permit, though we still had not found our door. Using photos as reference, we got a local carpenter to build us one from scratch. While he was making the door, we kept searching for hardware. By chance, one day we passed a wood carving shop where we found about six-dozen antique doornails of two different types for sale. “We’ll take them all”, we told the bearded artisan, thinking that if one type didn’t work, we could always use the other. The nails were rusty, greasy, with paint splatters and thick globs of black metal paint, but since this was the only place in two years of continual search that we had found true antique doornails, we simply couldn’t let the chance pass by.

I spent three weeks scrubbing each of the about 80 nails with boiling vinegar. If anyone tells you that restoration is not a labour of love, they have never tried it. And I wont even start talking about the smell… Once the nails were clean, dry, and protected with a matte varnish, I gave the carpenter my drawing of the nail pattern we wanted, so that he could cut them down to size and bolt them into our new battle-ready front door.

For a long time, Salvador’s doors stayed on my mind. Finally yesterday, I wandered down to his workshop to have a chat with him and to photograph his world, so I could share this unique repository with other antique door and hardware lovers.

Salvador told me that he had worked with doors since the early 1960’s. While his family dealt in antiques, he only wanted to restore old doors. And they are still his passion today.

His collection includes a set of 16th century doors from Cádiz with the most amazing lion head doornails. At the time, Cádiz was more important that Madrid, hence the grand style.

There were also some 18th century front doors from Puerto Santa María, the town where Columbus set off from on one of his expeditions.

The coastal areas usually used mahogany or cedar for their doors, while the doors from the interior, such as la Serranía de Ronda were usually made from pine or walnut.

Just like Andalusian doors have a story, so have their nails. Most Andalusian homes used to have doornails on the exterior doors, due to the extreme climate. The inner set of entrance doors had none, though they traditionally would have carvings and fine embellishments. Larger towns, such as Cordova and Antequera have their own style of doors, with artistic rod iron grid work above the door panels.

The doornails on the coast and in urban areas were often made from bronze or brass, while doornails in smaller towns, like Ronda, were simple in shape and made from forged iron.

Unfortunately, the historical buildings in Ronda with antique doornails are slowly being robbed. A doornail makes a very cool souvenir…

The typical Ronda entrance had massive simple round doornails, though I have seen some larger buildings in the historic town with fabulous fleur-de-lis shaped nails.

Common in our town is also an iron kick board, extending up about 2 feet from the ground, to protect the doors from mud and foul weather.

Another typical feature is the traditional door wicket, which is an older type of the modern spy-hole. This one can be seen in endless variations when walking through almost any historic town in Andalucía.

As our town used to have many skilled ironsmiths, there is a fascinating selection of keyhole frames on the old entrance doors. Some will be in the shape of a Phoenix or an eagle, others, like ours, in the shape of a lopsided heart.

Of course, there are door knockers to die for, in fact, better than in my Paris days. I found this one, with a face of an angry little man the other day, while strolling through the old town.

Finally, we must not forget the keys. Salvador also restores these to perfection, although most homes probably will chose to have a secondary, well disguised, modern lock for additional security.

Salvador has enough work for 10 lifetimes in his warehouse, but these are the last testament to a piece of Andalusian history that is rapidly being replaced by modern home enclosures. Sadly, there are no more old doors to be found.

So, if you happen to have a mansion in need of a striking entrance piece, you might still be in luck, but you better hurry.

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