Tip & How-To about Water Heaters

How to fix a door that won't latch

Do you have a door that you have to lift up or push down or close very hard before it will latch? I have dealt with this problem many times. It can be very satisfying to fix, and it's usually not very hard to do.

Old houses (and not-so-old houses) often settle over time. This can shift walls and door jambs, causing misalignment. Or the hinges wear down a bit causing some sag. Or sometimes the problem is just that the door or the door jamb has warped a bit. I'll cover the fixes in order from simplest to more complex. See the picture of a door at the bottom for reference.
Before doing any surgery, start with the obvious. Are the screws in the hinges tight? If the top ones are loose, then the door will sag. Usually you can just tighten them up. But sometimes you can't because the screw holes in the door jamb are stripped. You can try stuffing a couple of tooth picks or little metal strips in the hole, but that is not always going to work. The best thing to do is to get some 3 inch screws (of about the same diameter as the originals). The original screws only went into the door jamb,which is only 3/4 inch thick. But about an inch beyond the door jamb in the wall is a two by four that the 3 inch screws can bite into. Be careful you don't over-tighten the long screws so much that you distort the door jamb.

OK, now the hinges are OK, but suppose the door still doesn't latch right. On the opposite side of the door frame (where the hinges are not), there is a little metal plate called a strike-plate. It has a hole init that the plunger from the door is supposed to fit into. (The plunger is the thumb-sized spring-loaded tab that sticks out from the edge of the the door and retracts when you turn the door-knob.) The problem is that the plunger is not aligned correctly with the hole in the strike plate. In older homes (say over 50 years) it is usually a vertical misalignment (that is, the hole is too high or too low). Or it can be the case that the door doesn't quite close far enough for the plunger to reach the hole. Get down on your knees and look closely at the position of the plunger relative to the hole in the strike plate as you slowly open and close the door. (Don't get a black-eye when another member of your household tries to enter the room!)

Once you identify the misalignment, here's how to fix it if the misalignment is not very great. Mark the strike plate with a sharpie to indicate where the hole needs to be enlarged. Remove the two screws holding the strike plate, and remove the strike plate. Use some tape on the door to hold the plunger in temporarily - this will prevent damage to your door jamb while the strike plate is removed.

Hold the strike plate in a vise and enlarge the hole with a file. If you don't have a vise or an appropriate file, find someone who does to help you. Put the strike plate back on, and you should be in business.

If the amount you have to enlarge the hole is so great that to do so would obliterate one of the screw holes in the strike plate, then you will need to move the strike plate instead of enlarging the hole. You don't want to move the strike plate unless you have too. If you try to move it less than about 1/4 inch you will have trouble getting the screws to grab on in new holes instead of the old holes. Before you commit to moving the strike plate, remove it and hold it in place where you would like to be. See where the new screw holes will have to be. If you have wood where the screws need to go,then mark and drill new holes for the screws. You will also need to use a chisel to remove a bit of the jamb so that the strike plate can sit flush. But before you start to chisel, put the strike plate in place temporarily with the screws. Now use a sharp knife to cut the outline of the strike plate. Remove the strike plate and then use a sharp chisel to carefully cut the depression (it’scalled a mortise) that you need. You may also need to enlarge the clearance hole in the door jamb (for the plunger).

But what do you do if area of the door jamb where the strikeplate goes is just in too sorry shape to fix it? In this case you need to start over with a fresh wood surface for the strike plate. This is best done using a router. You will need to contrive a fixture so that you can guide a router to cut out a nice neat rectangle ½ inch deep out of the door jamb where the strike plate was. This rectangle should be about 3 inches longer than the strike plate. You will probably have to remove the casing so that you don’t cut it with the router, but you only need to lift if off about 1inch in the area of the strike plate. You might also need to remove the stop from that side of the jamb so that you have a level surface to work from, but you might be able to make your fixture work around that if you use a guide bushingon the router. After cutting out the rectangle, cut a piece of ¾ wood to fit the rectangle and glue it in place. After the glue dries, plane it down flush with the jamb and fit the strike plate where you need it.

If you would like more detailed info on this last method using a router, please add comments and I’ll expand this or write another tip.

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