Q: We’ve had a problem with our front door or the doorframe swelling. When this occurs, it’s difficult to turn the key in the lock and open the door. It’s worst when it’s very hot, but also occurs when it’s cold.
The temperature where we live ranges from the 50s in the evenings to the mid-90s during the day. Our house is wood-framed, and we live near the ocean. The front door faces south and gets lots of sun.
What can I do to solve this problem? I’m somewhat handy, but was wondering if this is a project that I should tackle or whether I should call in a pro. If a specialist is recommended, what questions should I ask to be sure this is the right person for the job?
A: Just about any carpenter can handle this job, but loosening your sticky door is something you can and should do yourself. It should be an easy fix and, best of all, it will cost you only a little time and elbow grease.
You don’t complain that the door itself sticks once the key is turned and the latch disengages from the strike plate. This leads us to believe that the problem lies with the alignment of the latch and the strike plate.
You’re right about the cause. Expansion and contraction of the wood frame, coupled with moisture inherent with your seaside location, is causing the door to move ever so slightly. The solution is to give the door’s lockset a little attitude adjustment.
Assuming we’re on the same page, let’s start with some basic lock nomenclature. The latch is the portion of the lock that extends into the doorframe. It passes into and through the strike plate, a metal piece mortised into the frame to receive the latch.
Exterior door latches have a small tubular piece attached to the latch. The proper name for this part of the latch is a deadlocking plunger. The purpose of the deadlock is to prevent the latch from being forced or pushed back with a knife or card to open the locked door. You can try this by taking your thumb and holding the deadlock pushed back, now take your other hand and try and push the latch back. You can’t.
Kevin had a similar problem with both his front and rear exterior doors. He lives in a high-desert climate where the winters can be cold and wet, while summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees. Both his doors move in the frames. He solved the sticking problem by taking a round metal file and enlarging the interior of the strike plate. This allows the latch to move freely into the hole.
The next time your lock gets stubborn, you should check where the lockset is binding. To determine this, check where the latch is in relation to the strike plate. Is it high or low? Either way, if the latch is in contact with the edge of the strike plate, turning the key to lock or unlock the door is restricted.
Coat the latch with a chalky substance. Flour will do in a pinch. Close the door, open it back up and look at the outline of the latch on the strike plate. Use the file to enlarge the strike plate hole so that the latch moves freely.
Often, exterior locksets have a metal insert fitted into the hole drilled into the doorframe to receive the latch. You’ll need to remove this to enlarge the hole in the strike plate.
This is also a good time to lubricate the latch. A couple of squirts of WD-40 or lubricating oil on the latch when turning the doorknob will ensure smooth operation.
A final tip: When doors are first installed, all edges should be painted to retard moisture penetration. This important step is sometimes neglected. Check the top and bottom edges of the door to make sure it’s sealed. If not, either paint it or seal it with a clear sealer. This will help inhibit expansion and contraction.