Question: We have an old front door on our old Old Town house. Years ago, we had it stripped to bare wood and then stained and varnished. I would be happier with a cleaner, smoother look and wonder whether the wood could be refurbished. Or would it be better to paint?

— Alexandria

Answer: A front door that shows wood grain is very warm and inviting, but to keep it looking good, you’ll probably need to refresh the finish every year or two. A good paint job, though, might last eight to 10 years. So if you want to reduce maintenance, opt for paint.

From the pictures you sent, it appears that the door was coated with a semi-transparent stain, then varnished. The stain reduced but didn’t eliminate damage from the sun. So, over time, some of the wood fibers near the surface — the ones that soaked up the stain — came loose and peeled off, along with the varnish. That left your door with bare spots devoid of stain. At this point, you could remove the varnish and then reapply the stain, or switch to a tinted finish that incorporates a stain. But to avoid winding up with a blotchy look, you’d need to sand down to bare wood first. To paint the door, you’d just need to sand off the varnish and smooth any rough areas of the wood, then prime and paint. If you do opt for keeping the look of wood, be sure to use a finish that protects against ultraviolet rays from the sun. Look for a finish containing “oxide pigments” or “trans-oxide pigments.” The particles reflect UV rays, keeping them from damaging the wood. Some other finishes offer UV protection because they have ingredients that absorb UV rays. That works, too, but the protection doesn’t last as long, as the UV inhibitors are used up in the process.

With either type of finish, you’ll get the best results by lightly sanding the surface and applying a fresh coat before the previous finish starts to peel off. The more direct sunlight that hits the door, the more often you’ll need to do this — maybe every year or two.

The homeowner’s front door. (Reader photo)

Question: We bought our home 12 years ago, and it was found to have high radon levels in the basement. A control system with a fan was installed. The fan seems about to give out, as it’s making a loud noise. Should we have our house retested, and is that something we can do ourselves? If the radon is high, how do we find someone to help us fix the problem?

— Clarksville

Answer: Retesting your home certainly makes sense. It’s the only way to know, because you can’t see or smell this gas, which occurs from naturally decaying uranium and is estimated to cause about 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year.

You can test for radon yourself, using a kit sold for $10-$12 at hardware stores. Kits use different methods of sampling the air, so follow the instructions for whatever product you buy. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends starting with a short-term kit, which needs to be left out in your home for two to 90 days, depending on the type.

If the result is 4 picocuries per liter of air (usually abbreviated as pCi/L) or higher, follow up with a second test. If the reading is above 8 pCi/L, make that another short-term test. If the reading is between 4 and 8, it can be either a short-term test or a long-term test, which takes more than 90 days. (Long-term tests are best for determining a home’s year-round average radon level, but if the reading is very high, it’s better to start fixing the problem than wait around for more testing.)

In Maryland, only Montgomery County has an official radon program, and it refers people to the Web site of the National Radon Safety Board. Even though you live in Howard County, you can use that advice, too. Click on the “find a professional” link on the board’s home page, You’ll find eight companies within 25 miles of your Zip code.

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