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Interior and Exterior Door Closing, Sticking and Locking Q&A

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Dear NH,

My front door does not lock properly. Our builder returned and made some sort of adjustment a year or so ago but the problem has recurred. The deadbolt works, but the regular entry latch doesn't seem to catch all the time. How can this be fixed?

This is a problem that is peculiar to owners of new homes. This is happening because your new home is in a state of flux. Wood framing is drying out, the foundation is settling… in other words things they are a-changing! Aside from the more obvious manifestations, such as mysterious cracks appearing in walls, odds are ALL of your doors have changed from their originally installed condition. Of course, the doors that no longer work correctly will get your attention first!

The changes in the door frame have caused the door latch to hit the strike plate rather than entering the hole in the plate, preventing the lock from working. If you look at the door from the hinge side when it is almost closed, you can see how the latch aligns with the strike plate. It may be above or below the centerline of the strike plate depending on how your house has settled.

There are two ways to do this repair, depending on the severity of the misalignment. Small errors can be corrected by first removing the strike plate and then enlarging the opening enough to allow the latch to engage. Holding the strike plate in a pair of Vice Grips or in a stationary vice is helpful when performing this repair.

If the settlement is severe, though, this repair won't work since you might have to file off so much metal that you would hit the screws that hold the plate onto the door frame! Not a good plan! Instead, you will have to relocate the strike plate on the door frame either higher or lower. This will require some wood filling and painting to restore the frame to it's original condition.


Dear NH,

We have a beautifully stained oak front door. Lately, the door has begun to rub on the top edge of the door frame. This is starting to damage the finish. Is there anything that can be done to stop this from getting worse?

Oak, hmmm? My handyman intuition tells me that your problem may relate to the weight of the door. Oak doors and some solid-core flush doors can weigh up to a hundred pounds. This weight takes a terrible toll on hinges and on the frame itself, which might have been designed for doors half the weight. Consequently, the door will tend to sag from the top, causing the top of the latch-edge of the door and/or the bottom of the latch side to rub.

I am with you... no sense getting involved in refinishing if there is another method that can hopefully yield the same result! So, before we jump to any premature conclusions, why don't you make a visual inspection of the door when it is in the closed position. Now look at the hinge side of the door. Does there seem to be a greater gap between the door and the frame at the top than at the bottom? If so, the hinge, frame or both have begun to distort from the door's weight.

Replacing the hinges may be futile unless you have a much heavier-weight hinge installed. There is another repair I have used successfully on sagging doors. Look at the top-most hinge and you will see that it is attached to the door jamb with either three or four screws. Remove one of the screws closest to the center of the door jamb and replace it with the same size screw but long enough to extend through the door jamb and into the door frame. I always carry a number of #10 x 2 1/2" flat-head brass wood screws for this very repair. The door jamb should be pre-drilled so the oversized screw doesn't split it, but the frame need not be predrilled. Tighten the screw in until you can see the hinge being pulled slightly back towards the frame and STOP! Test the door, and you should find that it now clears the latch-side frame with no rubbing. If you overtightened the screw, you might cause the top of the door to rub, so don't overdo it!


Dear NH,

I have a crack in my bathroom wall that leads from the ceiling to the top of my bathroom door. In the winter, the crack expands so I cannot totally close my bathroom door. In the summer, the crack contracts and the door closes normally. My house is 30 years old, and we have a slab foundation. How can I fix this crack so my door shuts normally all year long? Your help would be much appreciated.

T

T,

Thanks for writing. Many homes have similar "seasonal fits"... wild expansion and contraction in doorframes and moldings. I have seen homes where crown moldings (the moldings around the top of the walls) separate from the ceiling up to a half-inch in the summer, only to settle back in the winter! So take faith... you are not alone!

Frankly, it is impossible for me to tell you how to fix the seasonal movements since there are many possible causes. You may be able to slightly modify the structural frame above the door to take the pressure off the doorjamb. This would require at the least the removal of the doorframe moldings and probably some of the wallboard. Then again, there may also be other framing problems that may need the trained eye of an engineer to discern. However, if your interest primarily lies in the repair of the symptom… the difficult door… here is my advice.

I am going to assume that, with 30 years under its belt, your home is stable and not in need of serious structural assessment. With that as a disclaimer, the best and most efficient way to solve your problem is to deal with it when it is at it's worst. For example, if the rubbing problems manifest themselves mid-summer, then that is when you should do the repair. If you try to do the repair during the season when the door is working properly, you may either 1) over cut the door or 2) under cut the door. Hey... what's the point, right?

The repair itself is not complicated. Get up on a step stool and see just where the door is hitting the frame. There will be telltale-signs such as damage to the paint (or stain) on the frame. You need to make a judgment as to how much of the top of the door needs to be trimmed off to allow for proper closing. Usually, it is the latch-side that is the culprit though the rubbing area can extend almost all the way to the hinge side! Once you determine how much of the door top needs to be removed to allow for proper closing, make a mark with a pencil on the door.

The trimming can be done with the door on or off, depending on the amount of wood to be removed and (of course) the tools you have available. If the trimming required only involves around half the width of the door and is less than an eighth-inch in maximum thickness, I would normally leave the door on the hinges and use a belt sander with a fairly coarse grit belt (36 to 50 grit) to trim the top of the door. I use dust collection equipment and drop some tarps on the floor to catch the wood dust. Be warned... belt sanders can be quite heavy so it takes a strong, steady hand to do this repair "au naturel". Steady back and forth movements allow the sander to give a taper to the sanded area. Keep the sander moving, but spend more time in the areas with the most material to remove. If you need to practice, put a 2x4 in a vise and go for it!

An aside... some folks are under the mistaken impression that the top of a door can be "planed" with either a hand or power planer. No way, Jose... a plane will rip the bejesus out of the door, especially the edges of the door where the wood grain is vertical. Planing is only for the edges of a door, regardless of the type of door you are working with!

If the door requires more severe trimming, remove it from the doorjamb by extracting the hinges and place it across two padded sawhorses or on a clean, covered tabletop. Then, I would use a circular saw (with a saw guide clamped to the door) to cut off the excess wood. The guide is important since the cut is usually at a slight angle. Even after over 20 years in the business I still prefer to use a guide... the chance for error is minimized. A trained hand on a circular saw is a marvelous thing. However, when you are making a very thin cut, it is too easy for the blade to wobble. The result could be a very amateurish-looking cut! When placing the guide, be sure to allow for the thickness of the blade... the "kerf" in technical terms.

Certain types of doors tend to chip when crosscut. Birch veneer on flush (flat-faced) doors is especially chip-prone. To counteract this tendency, make a "precut" with a utility knife along the cutting line most of the way through the veneer. Taping the area with masking tape and cutting through the tape can also help to minimize chipping, though this method is less reliable.


Dear NH,

You mentioned in your last newsletter that using a plane to shave the tops or bottoms of doors was not desirable. I will have to strongly disagree with you on this one!

Take an opportunity to view one of the video tapes on tuning a plane and watch them plane curls off end grain with a run-of-the-mill #4 plane. I also use a sharp (key word here) low angle block plane when only a few lick are necessary.

But by and large, I use my Makita motorized plane all the time to plane the tops and bottoms of doors. All you have to do is go from one stile almost all the way to the other and then move to the other side and come back to finish it off. With my plane I can take off less than 1/64 of an inch per pass. I use the plane to clean up my saw cuts and to save on dust when sanding. Typically I will saw, then motor plane and then use the block plane to chamfer the edges, before I give it a light sanding with an orbital sander or a sanding belt on a block of wood.

Try it you will like it. It is very fast and loads less dust.

KG

KG,

Thanks for writing. You caught me making a cardinal mistake... I expressed a strong personal preference as a rule! Bad handyman! To clarify... IF the homeowner has a very sharp hand plane or power plane, freehand cuts can indeed be made across the grain as you describe... inward towards the center of the door. In fact, a person can plane across the entire piece... even off the edge and against the grain... if a piece of pine is strongly clamped at the edge of the door (level with the edge to be planed). The clamped wood prevents splintering as the plane moves off the edge of the door by offering support to the weak end grain.

However, in my specific example... "tapering" the top of a door that has begun rubbing due to settlement of the home... a plane would not and, in my opinion, should not be the first choice of a tool to use. Most minor door rubbing on the top does not require cutting completely across the top. Hand and power planes can be "finessed" to make slight tapers or cut a little bit of wood off the very end of a rubbing door, but they are specifically designed to make a cut of uniform thickness across a surface... hence my preference for the belt sander for very minimal wood removal or a circular saw for more substantial cuts. I am sure a skilled craftsman as yourself has no problem doing this. However, the potential for serious damage to the door wielding a plane this way is much greater for the novice than with a belt sander (or circular saw with a guide, for that matter).

It is a rare and unusual circumstance that the entire width of a door needs to be planed EXCEPT during installation OR if the installation was somehow botched by the carpenter. Bottoms of doors are another issue. Usually cutting at the bottom is precipitated by changes in the flooring... installation of new, thicker carpet can cause doors to rub. In this case, I have found that sometimes a taper cut is required. Even when a straight cut is needed the amount to be removed can be too much to make planing a practical solution. Again personal preference... I would rather make one cut with a circular saw than twelve passes with the planer.

I also own Makita 3 1/4" motorized plane, and find it useful in some situations... for example when taking a smidgen more wood off a door edge AFTER making the initial taper with a circular saw. But frankly, the power planer is a messy tool, turning every bit of wood into a flying chip! Not my first choice when used inside the home! The dust collection system on the sander is fairly efficient... on the planer nonexistent! So yes, I use the planer, but sparingly.

I respectfully must stick with my feelings towards planing tops of doors, though. It is just as easy to use a circular saw for cuts fully across and don't have to futz with planing back from the edges as you describe. Using a 7 1/4" thin-kerf 36 tooth Matsushita carbide combo blade in my trusty circular saw, one cut and it's done. Sometimes I even end up with a useful piece of kindling!!

I doubt that very many do-it-yourselfers (aside from cabinetmakers) keep a hand plane of the sharpness and quality you describe. It's not that the tools don't work... they do with a bullet! I just feel uncomfortable inferring someone purchase a block or power plane they will rarely use instead of a great multifunction tool such as a belt sander... again in my opinion.

Home repair is like politics... both sides can make reasonable arguments and both sides can be right at the same time. This is one such case! All DIYers find comfortable ways to solve problems but there is always room for divergent views and alternate methods. As with many letters I publish here, yours offers food for thought and a sound alternate opinion. Thanks very much for expressing it!

NH

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