French doors originated in France in the 17th century. At first, they were used as a kind of floor-length, single-pane window. As the architectural fashion of the time and the ready availability of glass led to windows being used much more heavily and in new ways, the idea of making an entire door out of window glass with a thin wood frame took hold easily.
When mounted in pairs, they are called French windows, due to their resemblance to the traditional casement window. Typically, when French doors are paired they open at opposite, outside edges. This allows a doorway to be twice as wide as either single door. This is partly due to the fact that in the 17th century it was difficult to make very large French doors that were not unduly delicate. Mostly thought it was because the concept of symmetry was extremely important in architecture at the time, and that arrangement was considered to be quite elegant.
Like most architectural features, French doors became more elaborate over time. As glassmaking and construction techniques advanced, different types of French doors became available. Today, several different styles are popular, with each being best suited to different purposes.
What Are Modern French Doors?
The French doors available to architects and homeowners today vary widely, but can be divided into two main types: internal and external French doors.
The chief concern with interior French doors is that they transmit light and a sense of space between rooms. They might be clear or frosted, shaded or curtained, traditional wood-and-glass or made from some surprisingly high tech materials, but they all seek to connect two rooms or spaces, where normal doors divide them.
Exterior French doors share all of these concerns, but are also built to be sturdy, secure and thermally efficient. A nice, open feel is lovely, but a homeowner needs to have confidence that their exterior doors will keep unwanted guests out.
Beyond the interior/exterior duality there are few limits to how French doors can be designed. Some types even eliminate the glass ‘windows’ (technically called lites or lights), opting for translucent panels or stronger but still transparent materials.
French doors are seen in many places around the modern home, allowing both light and privacy for offices, pantries, bedrooms and even bathrooms or garages – though the latter two are more likely to have more opaque panels than true lites.
French Doors, Patio Doors and Sliding Doors – What is the Difference?
French doors are often mislabelled ‘patio doors’, due to the popularity of using French doors to open onto a patio or other semi-secluded exterior space. In fact, any door opening onto a patio is a ‘patio doors’, regardless of its style or construction.
A sliding door is defined by its method of closure – it slides along a track either alongside or within the wall that encloses it. However, if you have a pair of sliding doors that are composed mostly of glass panels, the distinction becomes rather academic.
What Are French Doors Made Of?
Again, one could make a French door out of nearly anything. However, most French doors sold today are made of either timber, aluminium or uPVC frames, with panels of transparent materials including shatter-resistant glass and a variety of plastics. Each choice has different benefits, and appeals to different styles.
- A uPVC French door shares most of the benefits of uPVC doors in general. Such doors are secure, thermally efficient, weather resistant and are generally hard-wearing. As most uPVC French doors will be double-glazed, they will be very good at keeping heat in and noise out.
- Aluminium framed French doors are also quite popular. These are possibly the strongest type of French doors, and are very well suited for use as exterior doors for that reason. As aluminium is rust-proof and easy to maintain, this type of French door can be expected to look its best for many years without hassle. They are slimmer than uPVC doors, and often chosen for that aesthetic.
- Timber is the traditional material for a French door frame, but they are not the same technology of the 1600s. Hardwood and steel-reinforced timber construction makes them very secure with multi-point locking mechanisms. They are probably the most common type of French door used inside a property between rooms, such as a living and dining room areas.
Customising Your French Doors – Let in Some Lite
One of the reasons people love French doors is their sheer versatility. Nearly any room can benefit from one of the many types and styles available. In addition to a huge choice in the size, shape and material of the lites, there are a host of other options:
There are many different things you can do with a transom for French doors. Many people opt for a windowed transom to match the doors themselves, but different spaces might benefit more from an opaque transom of the same type as the doors’ frame.
Substituting a screen for some or all of the lites on a French door allows for a brilliant amount of airflow, while keeping out insects and other pests. Of course, this is best suited to spaces where another, more weather-resistant door can also exclude the wind.
Frosted glass lites are another popular choice. These allow light and a sense of airiness through without sacrificing privacy. Some designers opt for frosted glass up to eye-height but clear lites above, for the best of both worlds.
Many French doors feature integral blinds, usually between 2 panels of double glazing. This allows you to control the transmission of light – and sight – through the door, but never needs dusting!
Other French doors feature lites that open – a window within a door. This is ideal for letting a bit of breeze through without leaving your door open.
Other French Door designs incorporate side panels – opaque, clear or translucent lites set in the wall outside the door, but arranged to give the feeling of a very large, open doorway even when the doors are closed.
French doors can even accommodate dog doors and cat flaps without compromising their style or utility. The options are nearly limitless.
How Wide Can French Doors Be?
French doors are very versatile, and have been used to make up entire walls. However, a single set of French doors becomes impractical for doorways much beyond 4 metres in width. Within that limit, it is possible for a bi-fold French door (each door consisting of 2 hinged panels, but attached to the wall by only one of the panels) to be practical, attractive, secure and weatherproof. For doorways beyond 4 metres wide, it may be more practical to use multiple sets of doors, possibly separated by door-height panel windows or opaque panels.
How Secure Are French Doors?
This varies by design and manufacturer. However, all exterior French doors from reputable home improvement companies are manufactured with safety and security in mind, and to meet (or exceed) the UK standards set out in PAS 24:2012, BS and 3621:2007+A2:2011.
To secure your exterior French door, all that is normally required is to use the lock system. However, there are add-on devices that can be of help. Fitting a door chain or door limiter bar allows anyone inside to see and talk to with callers without allowing them access, and to prevent entry even to those with keys. These are simple to fit to timber doors and French doors, but a professional installer should be used if your door frame is uPVC, aluminium, or any similar material.
French doors, in particular, can benefit from mortice sash locks or mortice security bolts, as described here. It is also advisable to choose laminated glass lites rather than normal or toughened glass, particularly for exterior French doors. Again, take special care with uPVC or aluminium French doors, as these extra locks may not be compatible.
French doors have a very long history, and are likely to see use for hundreds of years to come due to their beauty, light transmission and convenience. Modern examples come in a variety of materials, but all offer substantially upgraded security, weather protection and durability compared to the first French doors developed in the 17th century.
There are many different styles of French door on the market today, and most of these can be further customised with lites (or window panels) in a wide range of shapes, sizes and even materials. With so many options, French doors can be found which will complement and enhance virtually any home or space.
Modern French doors are used both internally and as external doors, and have similar safety and security ratings to single leaf, opaque panel doors. The addition of curtains or even integral shades gives the homeowner the option of openness or privacy – whichever seems best at the time.
There are many factors to consider when choosing French doors, from the type of material to the number of security features, to the colour and style. Every type of French door is guaranteed to enhance your home and the best option simply depends on your specific requirements and budget.