How to Diagnose (and Fix) a Door

It’s a rare door in an old house that swings effortlessly and closes shut crisply.
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The older the house, the more likely it is that at least one door will bind, scrape the floor, or refuse to fully close. Causes for binding and sticking include paint buildup, seasonal expansion and contraction, loose hinges, or loosening of the joints between stiles and rails.

old green door, old green stairs

An 18th-century, four-panel door has a slight sag at the top and a notable gap near the bottom, indicating it may have suffered ill-advised repairs in the past. There should be a narrow, consistent gap between the door and jamb on all sides.

Like other historic elements in the house, treat the door with respect. Resist the urge to cut or plane any portion of the door, and make repairs that are both strong and that permit the door to continue to shrink and swell with seasonal changes. To figure out why the door won’t operate properly, open and close it a few times. Ideally, there should be a consistent gap of about 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch between the door and jamb on all sides. Once you’ve identified one or more sticking points, consider these options for returning the door to optimum condition.

Binding

A door that sticks or binds at the top, on one side or the other, or along the bottom may be suffering from excessive paint buildup, loose or poorly installed hinges, or seasonal swelling.

To remove paint, scrape away excess layers, where the door rubs, with a scraper, or use or eco-friendly paint remover. Try the door and see whether that’s resolved the problem. If not, there may be an additional problem.

installing stile

To remove a stile, first remove the pegs that hold it to the tenon on the rail using a pin punch that’s smaller than the peg.

Hinges usually work loose at the top of the door. To check, partially open the door and lift up on the knob while pushing the door up toward the jamb. If the hinge moves, it may be loose enough to cause the door to bind along the side or scrape the floor at the bottom. Try tightening the screws. If that doesn’t work, the screw holes are probably stripped. If that’s the case, secure the leaf of the hinge that makes contact with the door with longer screws—provided the stile is solid wood. If the hinge is still loose, you’ll need to remove the door, drill out the old screw holes in the jamb, and then patch them with a wood-repair filler (Abatron’s WoodEpox is one brand). Once that’s cured, re-drill pilot holes for new screws. Since most jambs are only ¾" thick, be sure to use screws slightly less long. The screw heads should be small enough to fit flush with the hinges. The same repairs work for loose bottom hinges, too.

A door that scrapes the floor or won’t fully close at the top in hot, humid weather can be planed, but there is a downside: once the door shrinks when cold weather returns, there may be a gap at the plane edge—a major consideration for exterior doors in cold climates. Plane as minimally as possible, and consider adding compressible weather stripping along the planed edge to help the door close tightly when colder weather returns.

Joint Separation

Old doors are made out of vertical stiles and horizontal rails that hold two, four, or more recessed panels in place. The joints that hold them together are formed by tenons that jut out of the rails and into the stiles. Gaps that appear between the rails and stiles can result from the weight of the door, poor construction, seasonal conditions, or all three. Open joints usually appear at the top of the door first, but if left unattended will continue to effect other parts of the door. Doors with loose joints can sometimes be repaired in place, but for best results remove the door and work on a supported surface.

removing wedge in door

To extract a stubborn wedge that hasn’t been glued in place, drill a screw into the wood, then ease the wedge out with a claw hammer.

Begin by removing any paint, filler, or caulk from the joint with an environmentally safe paint remover or stripper. If the joint has a through tenon, remove the old wedges, visible on the stile face on the edge of the door. If the wedges won’t budge, pull gently at the joint and push it back and forth a few times until the wedges come loose. Using a syringe, inject carpenter’s glue into all the exposed areas of the joint, working as much glue as possible onto the broad sides of the tenon.

Push the tenon fully into the mating joint and clamp tight. Wipe up and remove all excess glue—this can be messy. Make new wedges, slightly longer than the old ones, and drive them in securely. Once the joint is dried and cured, chisel and sand the wedges flush with the edge of the door. If the joint opens back up, add a couple of pegs or dowels through the stile and tenon. Stain or paint as needed to finish the door.

old house white door

A raised panel door that doesn’t quite close at the top may be suffering from excess paint buildup, either on the door or on the hinges.

Panel Movement

The panels in a traditional door are designed to move slightly in place with changes in temperature and humidity. While this gives the door greater longevity, it can also mean that bare wood appears at the seams and joints when exposed to the weather.

To avoid exposed seams on an exterior door, use a prep coat that’s flexible once cured, such as an oil-based stain. Saturate seams and joints heavily with the stain before applying a finish coat—preferably a flexible alkyd exterior paint or stain.

removing door

To remove the door, first loosen and remove the hinges. Hold the door steady or wedge it underneath to take weight off the hinges.

Removing a Door

To remove a door for repairs, close the door and wedge it underneath to take weight off the hinges. (The more weight on the hinges, the harder it is to remove the pins, increasing the chance of damage.) 

  • With a hammer and flathead screwdriver, tap the pins gently up and out. If the pins resist, try a penetrating spray-on oil (WD-40 or a natural oil, such as coconut). If paint buildup above the pin is interfering with removal, scrape away the paint or soften it with paint remover.
  • If the pin is still stuck, carefully grasp the finial with a pair of locking pliers with a pair of locking pliers. Turn the pin gently, just enough to break the bond.
  • For stubborn pins, remove the lower ball or finial and knock the pin upwards with a punch and hammer. If that fails, unscrew the hinges from the jamb, taking care that the door is firmly wedged or supported in place.
  • Free up all the pins before completely removing them. Since the top pin supports most of the door’s weight, work from bottom to top.
door terminology

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