Squaring and Repairing Old Doors

Old wooden doors can be restored to form and functionality with some effort and ingenuity.  There is a wealth of good information available in print and in the cybrary on the topic of restoring old wood to its former function and beauty, so I won’t attempt to reinvent that wheel here.  As such, I’ll link you to a few good sites on the topics of repairing split door panels, replacing rotten wood with solid wood and tightening up loose rail and stile joints.

This article focuses on Victorian-style entry doors, but the information transfers to period interior doors, and doors in general.  Just about any larger city in the country has a plethora of houses constructed in the Gilded Age before the turn of the previous century.  Many of these fine dwellings have been restored to their original opulence and beauty.  Many more, unfortunately, suffer the ravages of time:  peeling paint, rotten wood, deferred maintenance, modern “improvements,” and, well, old age.  Exterior doors suffer from exposure to the elements, and, as one of the most utilized components of the structure, experience constant use and abuse throughout the life of the house.

Here’s a pictorial guide to the terminology defining the different parts which make up many doors, especially vintage ones:

Cabinets are my stock-in-trade, but I have a special place in my heart for doors:  I’ve installed umpteen million in new construction and remodels; repaired, refinished, rehung, refurbished, rebuilt, reused, recycled, reclaimed, remodeled, restored, reinvented and replaced at least as many.  I know doors.  I know doors so well, I could have been Jim Morrison.

You should not have to accept as inevitable an old door that sticks, rattles or just plain won’t open (or close).  This is not only a serious aesthetic problem, as the door looks like crap, but a security issue as well.  Exterior doors must be functional:  they are the last line of defense against criminal intrusion after the fence, the dog(s) and the camouflaged bear pit in the yard.  Oh, wait a minute:  this is the Obama era.  The last line of defense is a good offense, i.e., a Glock, SKS or the “fashionable” AR-15 (or all three.)  At one time the best defense against burglary and home invasion was a properly installed dead-bolt lock in every exterior door.  Times have changed.

Repair of a sagging, out-of-square door literally coming apart at the seams is specialist work.  The average DIYer (unless they read this) probably won’t be able to come up with a satisfactory solution.  Cutting or planing the part of the door that rubs or sticks only enhances the visual blight (it’s still sagging) and doesn’t address the real issues.  Alternatives to repair also have their downsides, but if you’re made of money, or don’t care about retaining the original look of your house (shame on you), you can consider the following:

  • Reproductions
  • Architectural salvage
  • New (modern)
  • Custom millwork

Reproduction doors are available, but in limited sizes and styles.  In the 19th Century, door factories turned out a wide variety of door styles and finishes, many up to 10 feet in height.  Companies competed fiercely for the business of the Industrial Age homeowner.  Today’s reproductions have many of the features of original products, like solid wood construction, no veneers, specialized joints holding the parts together, and period hardware.

Although you will likely find a style that appeals to you, finding an exact duplicate of the original door is improbable.  Standard sizes are 36 inches wide by 80 inches tall.  Fewer stock choices are available in other widths and heights.  Old-school doors came from the factory complete with stain and finish:  plan to do this after delivery, as modern reproductions are shipped unfinished.  Plan to spend between $1000 and $10,000, or more, for your dream door.  At that price, you would hope the manufacturers would find a way to make the door look “old,” but it will look brand new.

Architectural salvage outlets can be found in many cities as the source of period doors and lots of other stuff that might fit your vintage home’s decor.  Of course, the selection will be limited to whatever the local “deconstructors” have acquired in your region in any given time period.  The condition will be “as found,” and, because of the stuff’s rarity and uniqueness, it won’t be bargain priced.  Again, you might be able to locate a piece that suits your needs and taste, but you’ll have to look long and hard for it probably.

New, modern doors look so out of place in truly vintage decor that you will most likely think twice about taking this route.

You may hook up with a contractor or designer who has a source for custom made millwork, and can design and specify a particular door style, wood species and finish to replicate your basket case of a door.  I’ve seen custom made furniture that attempted to pass as antique in look and style, down to the fake wear and tear of “distressed” wood.  This is usually accomplished by striking the wood with a bag of carefully selected bolts, screws and other pieces of metal in a random pattern.  However, just as the term “random pattern” is an oxymoron, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the piece is a new construction.

So you’ve decided to keep “Old Saggy” in the family for some reason if only to preserve the original character and provenance of “this old house.”  Good for you!  Now the fun begins…

If the door is still tight and square, try this:

Tighten all hinge screws by hand;  a power screwdriver might spin them and ruin the threads cut in the wood holes.  Before doing this, support the door from underneath so that it sits square to its opening; you might notice some or all hinges are loose at this point, a good sign of an easy repair.

Almost certainly, some of the screws will not tighten up.  This is also an easy fix, but you will have wait until some glue dries to proceed:  Remove the screw from the bad hole.  Whittle (you know how to whittle, don’t you?  You just put your lips together and blow) a plug the size of the hole diameter and depth, or use a dowel.  Put carpenter’s (yellow) glue in the hole and on the plug.  Insert the plug in the hole.  Wait for the glue to set.  Drill a pilot (smaller) hole for the screw and replace the screw.  Do this with any other suspicious screw hole, or renew them all just to be thorough.  With the door open and supported, tighten all the hinge screws in the door and jamb.  Did this trick fix the sag?

The hinges are tight, but the door butt joint seams are separated.  What will you do?  Butt seam separation sounds serious.  And it is.  Just hope it never happens to you or a member of your family.  The door is one thing; your family is quite another.

If the door is sticking because the rail and stile have come apart, the fix is also pretty straightforward.

If the gap between rail and stile is small, open it up carefully to permit a little light cleaning of the gap.  You also need some room inside the gap to introduce a fair amount of glue to make the repair permanent.  Yellow glue should be fine, especially for interior doors, but you’ll want to consider using an exterior–grade outdoor yellow glue, or a water-resistant glue like polyurethane for exterior doors.  Polyurethane glue reacts with moisture to harden, then becomes a moisture-resistant joint.  Use a spray bottle to moisten the interior surfaces of the gap before adding the glue.

Use air pressure from a compressed air blow gun to remove loose dirt and particles from the gap.  Tiny scrapers can be fashioned from small nails, or dental tools.  Clean the gap thoroughly, then blow it out again.  Remove any drips or chunks of dried finish that might interfere with the glue bond.  (Use polyurethane glue sparingly:  a very thin coating on all surfaces will be adequate as this glue expands to fill tiny voids of 1 millimeter or less.  If the glue squeezes out of the joint, wait until it has partially hardened to ease removal.  Or use lacquer thinner sparingly to remove wet glue.)

Use a toothpick or wood splinter to apply the glue to the interior surfaces of the gap; avoid getting the glue on the door face itself.  You can “spread” the glue by partially closing the gap with pressure or hammer blows (protect the wood), then prying the gap apart a bit to check coverage.  When, like Goldilocks’ porridge, the amount of glue is “just right,” pull the seam together with clamps and go have a beer.

For insurance you might want to add a glued dowel inserted from the door edge through the joined stile and rail, or a long wood screw, countersunk and filled.

This should be a relatively permanent fix for a door coming apart at the seams.  However, a worst-case scenario, where the door is sagging because it not only has come apart, but has also changed shape from a rectangle to a trapezoid, requires more resources and ingenuity.

Unfortunately, this is where the intermet came up short;  I don’t know if I’m the first and onliest person to make this type of vintage door repair, but when confronted with the challenge a couple of years ago, I definitely felt as if I was reinventing the wheel.  To this day, I can’t find a standard graphic or reference to this technique, so I guess I’ll have to actually draw something myself.

"Old Saggy"

“Old Saggy”

How to Repair Old Saggy

How to Repair Old Saggy

The drawing above shows the problem:  joints at the rails and stiles have loosened up and failed, causing the weight of the door to deform the door into a trapezoidal shape.  The low side will always be opposite the hinges.  This door will never function properly without the little operation depicted on the right.

Firstly, the drawing on the right is a plan view, a.k.a. a “bird’s eye” view; you are looking at the door laid flat on the floor or workbench table.  The large perimeter rectangle in the drawing represents some kind of solid surface to brace against.  When I did this repair in my shop, I braced against the foundation walls surrounding the concrete floor pad.

You can see the door can be nudged back into shape using a hydraulic jack strategically placed at the low corner.  A hydraulic jack, or “bottle jack,” rated at 6-9 tons is strong enough to push the door members back into square.

Brace the other three corners against movement so all the force can concentrate at the one point.  You can add additional braces to secure the door from unwanted movement; do not place a brace on the end of the stile opposite the jack.

Work in stages.  The door will move towards square slowly.  Some pressure will build up in the structure, so occasionally stop applying pressure and gently tap the door parts with a non-marring hammer.  This will relieve pressure and move the door some more.

The door shown in the drawing is a six-panel door without window glass.  Even if the window is intact in the deformed door, remove it prior to beginning this task.  Otherwise, the window, which is probably original to the house and fragile, will shatter.  Replacement glass made to look like 150-year-old glass is available, but spendy.

When the door is back in shape, release it from its bondage and repair it as discussed earlier.  Refinishing might be the next step in restoring your door to its former glory.

Keeping any house in good order and functional is a challenge with modern structures, let alone houses built in the time of clapboard and gingerbread.  It’s never too late to catch up on some of those 150-year-old deferred maintenance projects.  After all, what else are weekends for?

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16 thoughts on “Squaring and Repairing Old Doors

  1. Typically, the top hinge gets the most strain. If it’s badly worn, new hinges are cheap. Or, swap the middle hinge with the top one. Cutting the top hinge mortice a bit deeper can also help. Nice post.

  2. Steve says:

    Many thanks. Need to set aside some time to try this – I have multiple “Old Saggies” in my place.

  3. Roger says:

    Thank you for giving a good explanation of how to square up an old door. I had envisioned doing this but your advise had put the finishing touches to that idea. Just one question, do you think placing dowels in all joints (I have six joints i.e.a rail a top, centre and bottom) would be overkill or not This exterior door is constructed of softwood, part glazed (top section), almost 80 years old and in pretty good condition apart from the joints. Thanks

    • You are welcome.

      Adding new dowels would ensure “Old Saggy” will stay square through the next 100 years, give or take…

      It will feel more “solid”, also.

      Regards,

      Bill Englander

      • dharmated says:

        I second the idea of using reinforcing screws or dowels. Fixing old saggy is time consuming and I would rather spend a little more time to reinforce to insure I don’t have to ever do it again. In the past on not-so-good doors I have used corner braces to reinforce, which may offend Bill’s aesthetic sensibility, but for example on a modern folding closet door it doesn’t matter much.

        Thanks very much, Bill, for this. I searched a long time before finding this procedure..

      • You are very welcome.

        I am a rather sensitive wood butcher…

  4. Ash Mohammed says:

    Many thanks for this post. Invaluable in repairing our front door.

  5. Linda V says:

    We have been fighting a “separating” front door for months. Thank you for this article on how to repair it and not fork out $$$$$ on a new door. At least not yet…

  6. Doug Richardson says:

    The toughest part of this project was finding the correct words to google to bring up your article, as opposed to the hundreds of articles on how to shim hinges. Now I have some psychological reinforcement to move forward correcting my out of square door, as opposed to an out of square door frame. Thanks Dr. Bill!….. 😉

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