Q: A door knob in my older (1920s) house came loose. It spins when I try to turn it. Is there a way to tighten old door knobs?

A:  A lot of  people who have pre-1940s homes ask this question. Fortunately the answer is, Yes. You  can tighten your loose door knob easily! Here’s a short video of the process, as well as a more detailed explanation below.

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Here’s My Door Knob Video

Why Does My Door Knob Get Loose?

The problem happens because door knobs were constructed differently back then. With older hardware, the turning shaft or “spindle”  comes through the door slab. It connects directly to the knobs on either side. This means that the door knob has two jobs. First, it acts as a lever to turn the latch. Second, it acts as a fastener for holding the whole lockset together.

Modern door knob hardware solves this problem by using two long screws that pass through the handset holes. They fasten into threaded shafts on the far side, clamping the lockset together. In this case, the knobs themselves are only responsible for turning the latch. They no longer hold everything together as well.

Back To Your Spinning Door Knob

So, to keep your old knob from spinning, securely fasten it to the shaft coming through the door from the other side.

loose old door knobs removed show spindle shaft coming through door handle

With the door knob removed, you can see the square spindle.

To help things, look closely at the shaft in the picture above. You see that it is actually square, and that the corners have threads cut into them. This is because the knob is threaded onto the spindle. There is a little set screw to lock it into place.

To mount the door knob, spin it clockwise onto the shaft.  (Just like you’re turning a nut onto a bolt). Spin it until it’s almost touching the plate on the door. But, leave a little gap–about 1/16″. This helps the knob turn more easily.

Don’t Lose the Little Screw!

Now, locate the little circular set screw on the knob. It will be somewhere along the handle neck, and will most likely have slot for a flathead screwdriver. (In some cases, there are two set screws.)

These set screws move inward as they’re tightened. That way, they clamp down onto the shaft inside the handle, trapping it in place. BUT, it’s important that they fall on the grooved walls of the shaft. Not the threaded corners, which they can damage.

Remember, as you spin the knob into place, take note of the orientation of the shaft. Keep the square walls pointed up and down. This way, you can position the set screw in one of the four locations perpendicular to the shaft.

tighten loose old door knobs with a screwdriver

Tightening the set screw in the door knob.

Now, Tighten the Screw

With you’re knob positioned where you want it, carefully tighten the set screw. Use a decent amount of force. Don’t go overboard, and don’t damage the flathead slot on the screw!

Give the knob a test turn to make sure that it’s securely fastened. Turn it in both directions. If it still doesn’t grab, the shaft in the door is probably worn down. If this is the case, remove it and get another one.

The Door Knob Itself May Be Damaged

Likewise, the knobs themselves go bad over time. What usually happens is that the bulb on the end detaches from a casing in the neck. The bulb doesn’t come off, but it spins and spins. This makes it impossible to get the neck to turn the spindle.

(This is how unwary party-goers get trapped in bathrooms, Which results in embarrassing rescue operations!)

If you need to replace the shaft, the knob, or both, remove the all hardware. Take it with you to an architectural salvage store and ask if they have a match. Many knobs get pulled out of old houses, so they are pretty easy to find. Again, be sure not to lose the set screw! Put everything in a baggie to be safe.

remove old door knobs to match them and replace them

All the door knob hardware safely stored in a bag

A Last Important Point

Make sure that both sides of the door work the same way. The knob on the far side mounts to the shaft in identical fashion. So, it’s possible to have the same problem on both sides of the door. But, it’s fixed in exactly the same way.

That’s pretty much it. If door knobs malfunction  in your old house, do your guests a favor–tighten them down. Rational thought goes out the window the moment that door won’t open!


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