One of the most common calls a handyman gets is when someone’s door latch is not working properly. This can result in a door popping open, with embarrassing results. Especially if it’s a bathroom door! Below, I describe some steps to make this repair.
Here’s a video that Ethan did on the subject:
A “demolition” screwdriver is used in the easiest fix. Here’s an Amazon link to one from Klein Tools:
Here’s a link to a really comfortable, versatile 11-in-1 multi-bit screwdriver:
Anatomy of a Lockset (with Door Latch)
First of all, the many parts in a “doorknob” combine to make up a “lockset”. The lockset I describe in this post is on an interior door. As you can imagine, because they contain robust locks, exterior locksets are more complicated. With that in mind, here are the basic components that you need to know about:
Doorknob (or Handle)
You have a doorknob or a handle on both sides of an interior door. These knobs or handles may include a simple lock, but that’s not important in this conversation. Not to be too obvious, but this is the part of the lockset that you turn. (Unless your hands are wet and you’re trying to turn a smooth, round, cranky doorknob! Not a problem if you have door handles. If you do have handles, the problem is transferred from your hand to your shirt sleeve.)
From now on, I’ll just say “knob”.
This is the stamped plate that fits between the knob and the door itself. Typically, there are two screws in each rosette that hold the whole lockset together. (If yours are loose, tighten them before proceeding.)
Door Latch (Bolt)
Here is the first of the two components that make up our problem. This is the component that sticks out of the edge of your door.
There’s a spring in your lockset. When you turn your knob, the door latch retracts and you can open your door. When you release the knob, the latch springs back out. Helpfully, one side of the latch is beveled, so you can close the door without turning the knob.
This is the only lockset component that’s not on your door. Instead, it’s mounted in shallowly routed spot, opposite from the door latch. There’s a rectangular hole in the plate and an equivalent hole in the wood jamb behind it.
And That’s the Rub!
If the door latch and the holes in the strike plate and jamb are not aligned, your door won’t latch. Look at the picture at the top of this post. As you can see, the center of the bolt is below that of the strike plate. That’s the case with almost all doors that don’t latch. So what do you do?
Before You Mess With Your Door Latch
By all means, try this first. If it works, you don’t even have to do anything to your door latch. To begin, look at the vertical gap between your door’s edge and your jamb:
Often, this gap can tell you about how well or poorly your door was installed. Or, especially in the case of older homes, things have shifted and sagged.
If the Gap Is the Same, Top to Bottom
If this is the case, your door was hung by a professional carpenter. And, your house hasn’t settled (at least in this spot!).
If the Gap Is Narrow at the Top, Wider at the Bottom
Generally, this happens when the door sags away at your top hinge. Check the hinge screws on the door and the jamb. If any are loose, tighten them. If they don’t grab, longer screws should help.
There’s more meat to the door than the jamb. Hence, door screws tend to stay put, while jamb screws fail much more often. If your jamb screws can’t pull the door so the gap is even, try longer screws. Here’s a link to some 2 1/4″ (57 mm) bronze hinge screws:
When you install these screws, you’re probably reaching the studs of the door opening. The door should move away from the jamb, making the gap more even. But, more importantly, this lifts you door latch. Check to see if your door latches now.
If the Gap Is Wide at the Top, Narrow at the Bottom
If this is the case, your door opening is probably out of square. Plus, this condition rarely causes the door to not latch.
My Door Latch Still Slips. On to the Fixes.
Bummer! Well, no one said home repairs would be easy!
Fix 1. Bring to Bear the Demolition Screwdriver
Generally, this easy fix doesn’t solve your problem. But it’s worth a shot, because it is so quick and easy. Take a look at this picture:
Slide the blade of your demo screwdriver, lying flat, into the strike plate hole. Carefully but firmly (without smashing any appendages), whack the screwdriver with your hammer. Strike as close to the strike plate as you can. Be careful not to scratch anything.
Essentially, the idea here is to drive the strike plate down a bit. Maybe even crush the wood at the bottom of the hole. Did it work? Oh well, maybe the next fix will do it. (Crosses fingers.)
Fix 2. File the Strike Plate so the Door Latch Clears it
You’re at the point where you have to start taking things apart. With a screwdriver (generally the Phillips bit), pull the screws and remove the strike plate. Using a file, try to abrade the bottom of the hole in the strike plate. Even better, grind it with a Dremel tool.
Reinstall the plate and try your door. Does it latch? Yes! You’re done! No? #$%&#@*!! On to the most involved fix:
Fix 3. Reposition the Strike Plate
Again, pull the plate off. Hold it firmly about 1/8″ (3mm) below its original position. Using a sharp pencil, draw a line along the bottom of the plate. Be sure to mark the back corner, too. Then, draw two circles in the screw holes. Lay the plate aside.
Carefully, with a chisel or a really sharp utility knife, cut along your mark. Only cut to the depth of the thickness of the strike. Remove the waste wood and clean up your cut.
Now for the screw holes, old and new. If you try to drive your screws in your pencilled circles, they’ll probably wander into the old holes. To stop this from happening, you need to fill those holes before going any further.
Toothpicks and Super Glue?!
The easiest way to fill these holes with wood is to use toothpicks. Or maybe a kebab skewer. In either case, apply super glue liberally and gently tap the wood in as far as you can. Let the glue cure. Usually this only takes a few minutes. Once it’s set, score the wood with a knife and snap it off. Tap it with a hammer to make sure it’s flush.
Now, you’re ready to drill. Using a sharp finish nail or an awl, make small indentations in the center of your circles. Then, chuck your smallest bit into your drill. Drill your two holes. Be careful! Thin bits can snap easily. Drill a small amount, back the bit out, and repeat. Next, move up a bit size and enlarge your holes. Increase the size of the bits until you’re at the size appropriate for the screws.
Now, before re-installing your strike plate, hand-drive the screws. Back them out. This makes it easier to install the plate. Go ahead and put the plate on.
One more step. Look at the wood behind the bottom of your strike plate. Probably, it’s sticking up a bit and is in the way of the door latch. If so, gouge it out with whatever tool works. Note: you can leave the strike on, or take it off to do this cutting. Personally, I found it easier to pull the strike, make my cut, then put it on a final time.
Done! Now Your Door Latch Works Perfectly!
Thanks for reading. I’m Ross James with The Honest Carpenter.
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