Fix Sticky Doors

Everywhere we go, we find doors that don’t close properly. Often, the answer is right in front of us and the repair is simple.

First, look carefully at the edges of the door and the jamb (the frame all around the door, including the floor). Visual inspection will show you anywhere the door rubs (scrapes) against the jamb.

If a door doesn’t close flat, it’s probably warped. Flex it back into shape. Press the bottom of the door against your foot and press the top with your hands to make it match the jamb (remove the glass from a storm door first). Painting a wooden exterior door seals it from the weather to reduce warping.

A door can rub or stick against one small spot because the edge of the jamb is not flat. When the door was installed, the carpenter used thin wooden wedges to line everything up, but they fatigue over time. All that may be needed is a large hammer to pound the frame slightly. Hold a scrap of wood over the area so the hammer head doesn’t put dents in the jamb. Since you might move the wood slightly, you may need to touch up the paint where the jamb meets the wall moulding.

Study the top and bottom of the door on the hinge side. Compare the gap between the door and the jamb (beneath the bottom hinge) to the gap above the top hinge. Often, the gap at the top is much larger. Since the door has four square corners and the jamb has four square corners, this means the door is “twisted” inside the jamb. If the top-left corner has a large gap, the right edge of the door will sag, drag and stick. If you can lift the door by the handle to get it to close smoothly, it’s sagging.

Often, all that’s needed is to tighten all the screws on the hinges to make the door square inside the frame. If a screw hole is stripped (screw won’t grab), remove the screw, stuff a few sturdy toothpick pieces in the hole to take up the gap, and tighten the screw. If the screw’s threads are rusted away, replace the screw.

If the door is wearing and dragging on a weatherstrip on the floor, dirt may have collected under the strip over the years, lifting it slightly. It’s usually difficult to remove the strip, so try tapping it softly with a hammer to break up the dirt, then blowing it out, thus lowering the strip. Tighten any loose screws. Some weatherstrips have a matching piece on the bottom of the door; inspect with a small mirror and correct bends or damage. If you must remove the door, close it, then lift out the hinge pins with a flat screwdriver and a hammer by tapping upward on the bulb on the top. Be careful — wooden doors can be very heavy. To return the door, set it into the frame as thought it were closed, then gradually return the pins, each one a little bit at a time. Tap down with a hammer to set them home.

If the latch won’t grab, or a deadbolt is sticky or can’t be bolted, first see if the door is hanging square (see above). Look carefully to determine where the bolt or latch fails to fall into the plate (bottom edge, top edge, or side edge?). You may find a wear pattern on the plate that shows you where the latch moves across it. Most plates cannot be moved easily. If things are really out of whack, one easy repair is to purchase a universal, adjustable plate at a home improvement store; they are flexible enough to meet almost any need. If your door is very close to latching properly, you might try a small file, a small rotary burr on a drill motor, or even a small hammer and chisel to remove enough metal from the plate (and maybe the jamb, too) to let the bolt or latch fall into the plate. A few layers of paint may be all that’s blocking it. Removing the plate may (or may not) make it easier to work on it, depending on the tools you have.

If a lock is worn and your key sticks, try spraying in lock graphite. Avoid oil of any kind — eventually it collects dust and makes the lock dirty. Try a different key and buy a copy of the better key. You can have a locksmith re-key a lock, but it’s far less expensive (~$20) to pull the lock out yourself and take it to his shop to be re-keyed than to have the locksmith come to your home (~$80 to $100). Some hardware stores will re-key a lock for $10. Leave someone at home since your door cannot be locked. Consider having the back door re-keyed to the same key at the same time. If it’s sticking just enough to be annoying, try lifting up on the key, or pressing downward on the key while it’s in the lock to see if it works better that way.

Worn doorknobs (locksets) are easy to replace. For interior doors, you might just remove four screws and take it to any home-improvement store. Some require that you remove the knob and pop off a plate to get at any screws — look for a tiny hole with a springy button inside near the edge of the handle, and then for a small slit or dip to pry on the edge of the plate. The manufacturer’s name is often above the latch if you need some instuctions.

If you have trouble twisting the knob to get the door to open, you’ll probably eventually find a child or a guest (or you) locked in or out of a room. If you replace the lockset on your front door, consider saving money and headaches by replacing the back door at the same time with a packaged pair of locksets keyed alike. Locksets, like nearly everything else in modern homes, are only designed to last 20 years; long enough to raise your family and move out.

Homes built before World War II have old “mortise” locks. The keyed part is usually held in place by a setscrew right beside it on the mortise hardware. Loosen the setscrew one turn, then use the key in the lock to unscrew the lock counter-clockwise. If you need a skeleton key to lock an interior door in an old house, you can find universal keys online or in home improvement stores. It is impractical to modify an old (mortise) door to accept a modern handset. You’ll likely have to replace the door, which is also too difficult for the average homeowner.

Take precautions for lead paint if you sand or file anything and your home is over 30 years old. Wear a mask, ventilate well, vacuum carefully. Lead makes you permanently stupid.

Exterior storm and screen doors have their own set of rules. Inspect the latch plate on the jamb — it may be adjustable with just a setscrew. Loosen the screws and the plate will move or modify to make the door seal tighter or looser. Test and readjust. If the button latch is sticky, take it apart and clean it.

The pneumatic closer that keeps storm doors from slamming is easy to fix. A wide-open storm door should close fast, then slow, then very slow, then latch. Closing too fast could smash a child’s fingers or the glass.

If the closer closes too fast or too slow, look for a +/- screw or knob, or see if a part can be twisted after removing the pin on the door. Adjust as needed (cheaper models are not adjustable). The adjustment is to compensate for a heavy glass door (winter) and a lighter screen door (summer). If the door just slams shut and cannot be adjusted, the closer must be replaced. They cost around $10-$20 and are simple to install (follow the instructions). Take the old one with you to match it better. It will be easier to remove if you open the door slightly, then lock the closer with the bent metal tab to keep it slightly open. Then remove the pins from each end of the closer (they’re different sizes).

If your door was caught by the wind and it tore the closer bracket out of the wall, see if you can install a new closer higher or lower on the door, since the frame is now damaged. Screw anchors let you enlarge the existing holes, insert the anchors, and return the screws. A flat plate of aluminum or steel might be used to create a new surface to mount. Obtain a protective strong chain/spring combination, sold in home improvement stores next to the door closers. Adjust so the chain prevents the closer from being over-stressed.

One common problem: the storm door cannot be propped open using the small tab on the closer’s shaft; it just doesn’t stay in place. You’ll see the tab has a fold; yours is too flat, so it won’t grab. Close the door and lift out the small pin on the jamb end of the closer. Remove the folded tab, hold the square portion with a pair of pliers or an adjustable (crescent) wrench and press the point against a hard (concrete) surface to put a little more bend in it, or use a small hammer and a vise if you have one. Return the small spring, then the tab, then the pin.

The correct order for the spring and the tab puts the spring closest to the body of the closer. This way, when you have the door propped open, simply opening it a little further releases the tension on the tab and lets the spring push it away from the closer toward the door jamb.

Folding (bi-fold) closet doors have a setscrew on a flat plate near the top hinge/post that gradually loosens itself and lets the entire post assembly slide sideways. The door sags and won’t close properly. Open the door, loosen the screw, slide the plate slightly closer to the wall, tighten the screw. Test and adjust. There may be a similar adjustment on the post at the bottom, but it rarely needs adjustment. When properly set, the closet door should just miss scraping the wall on the hinge side. If the door does not snap closed securely, move both sliders slightly.

If the post on the top or bottom of a folding closet door has been abused, it won’t sit securely inside the door. Lift the entire door straight up to inspect the lower post. If the hole in the bottom of the door is severely damaged, consider using epoxy (two-part) glue to restore its integrity. You can’t easily move to new holes because they sit into a vertical wood frame inside the door.

Cupboard doors have weak hinges that are easily bent if the door is ever forced. Some hinges are adjustable, so look carefully at yours and adjust them as needed to make them operate smoothly and accurately. Inspect and consider bending or replacing simpler hinges as needed. If the door doesn’t close flat, use your hands to gently flex and flatten it.

China cabinet doors will stick if the cabinet is not level and square. Tape a long string and a weight (plumb bob) from the top of each corner to near the floor to see if it’s level. After you make sure nothing will fall inside the cabinet, carefully lift each foot slightly and put matching sheets of paper, cardboard or plastic under each foot to level the cabinet (at least one foot should be on the floor). A filled cabinet will sit differently than an empty one. Use a lever or have an assistant gently lift a corner to make lifting smoother and easier. When finished, all the strings will accurately follow the edges of all the corners.

Doorwalls and screens get stuck in their tracks because they’re dirty or need adjustment. Use the brush attachment on a vacuum cleaner crevice tool, toothpicks, etc., to get up all the dirt in the tracks once each year.

If your doorwall has worn or scraped areas on the lower track, the door is riding too low and dragging. You’ll see a small hole, near the bottom, on both edges of the sliding door that adjusts a roller assembly. Lift the screen off its track and inspect the bottom to see an example. A screwdriver is used to turn a screw inside each hole.

Lift the door slightly to take the tension off the roller assembly, place a block under it or have someone else hold it up, and turn the screw a half-turn. Try to slide the door. If it’s worse, repeat but turn the other way. Do the other side of the door. Check the rollers at the top — they should leave just enough room to slide the door without being lifted. If you can lift the door too much, it could get lifted out of the lower track (usually during a party). Properly adjusted, all four rollers hold the door in place without dragging or having too much clearance on the bottom.

There should be just enough clearance to move smoothly. Too much clearance will weaken the roller assembly. If you can lift and remove the sliding screen, clean the roller assemblies with Windex and Q-Tips or similar. You may have to loosen some or all of the roller adjustments to lift the door out of the frame.

A spray oil like WD-40 may make heavy doorwalls slightly easier to slide if elderly people use them, but will hold dirt and require annual cleaning, and may drip on the track and get carried to carpets. Look for spots that bind and concentrate on fixing those spots.

Check and adjust locks and latches after you’ve adjusted a doorwall or screen.

Do NOT work on garage door hinges or tracks. These have heavy counterweights or powerful coiled springs to make the door nearly weightless. They can be extremely dangerous. Leave garage door repairs to a professional. Check your manual for electric garage door opener issues.

Doors are not complicated. Inspect all surfaces carefully and use your head. Anyone with simple hand tools can often fix almost any problem with any door in your home in just a few minutes. Inspect, comprehend, repair, inspect again.