Fix Sagging or Sticking Doors

Fix tight doors by tightening hinges and jambs—sanding is a last resort.

Overview

The standard prescription for a sticking door is to plane the rubbing edge so that it swings freely. This always solves the problem, but it's a major hassle. You have to remove the door and lug it out to the garage. When the planing is done, you have to refinish the planed edge. Before you go to all that trouble, try the three shortcuts described here. In most cases, one of them will cure your sticking door.

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Tighten all the hinge screws

Screws magically work themselves loose over the years. If your door rubs near the top or drags on the floor, use a screwdriver, not a drill, to tighten the screws. With a drill, you're more likely to overtighten the screw and strip the screw holes or chew up the screwheads. If you find one that's already stripped, try these fixes: Replace stripped-jamb screws with 3-in. screws. These long screws run through the jamb and into the framing behind it. If the screw hole is stripped in a solid door, predrill with a 1/8-in.bit and drive in a screw that's an inch longer than the original. If you have a hollow-core door, reinforce the screw hole. Dip toothpicks or wood splinters in glue and use them to fill the screw hole. Then drive in the original screw.

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Adjust a hinge

Door hinges aren't truly adjustable. But by driving a long screw through the jamb and into the wall framing, you can draw the hinge and jamb toward the framing and slightly reposition the door. Before you drive a screw, close the door to determine exactly where it rubs against the jamb. If it rubs near the top of the side jamb (which is most common), draw in the upper hinge. If the door rubs at the lower side jamb or head jamb, draw in the bottom hinge. If the door rubs all along the side jamb, draw in all the hinges. Often, you can move the door up to 1/8 in. with this method.

To use this technique, remove a screw near the middle of the hinge (rather than the top or bottom screw). Drive in the 3-in. screw with a drill. When the screw is snug against the hinge, give the screw another quarter turn. Close the door to check the fit. Continue tightening and checking until the door no longer sticks. Keep an eye on the door trim as you tighten—if you begin to create gaps at the trim joints, stop. It's rare, but you might find that you can't draw in a hinge at all because the jamb is already tight against the framing or shims.

Case Study: Fixing a Sagging, Self-closing Door

Doors in older houses sometimes close on their own because they’re out of plumb. If the wall is out of plumb or the house has major settlement issues, you may need to do major work to fix the problem, but if the door slowly “creeps” closed and the wall is still plumb you can usually solve the problem by tweaking the hinges a little.

Check the gap at the top of the door. If it’s wider at the doorknob side, remove the center screw at the top hinge and replace it with a predrilled 3-in. screw angled slightly toward the middle of the jamb (Photo 1). The screw will pull the jamb and door tighter to the framing and hopefully fix the problem.

If the door still creeps closed (but less so), go to the “Kleenex box” shimming technique (Photo 2). Put one shim behind the middle hinge and two shims behind the bottom hinge.

Photo 1: Draw in the top hinge
Photo 2: Shim the hinges
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Draw in the jamb

This is really just another version of the hinge adjustment described above. By driving a long screw through the “latch” side of the jamb (rather than the hinge side), you can often draw in the jamb and give the door a little extra space. Try this only if drawing in the hinges doesn't work; it leaves you with a large screwhead hole to cover. Countersink the screwhead with a countersink bit (about $8 at home centers). Drive a screw near the middle of the area where the door is rubbing. You may need to add a second screw. Tighten screws gradually and watch the trim to make sure you don't open joints. Cover the screwheads with wood filler and then sand and paint or stain the filler to match.

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Plane the door with a belt sander

If your door still sticks after you've tried tightening and driving screws, you'll have to plane it. Start by scribing the door where it rubs against the side or top of the jamb (Photo 1). A carpenter's compass is the best tool for this ($3 at home centers). Then remove the door (see Editor's Note, p. 27). The best tool for “planing” the door isn't a plane, but a belt sander (Photo 2). You could also do the job with a hand plane or an electric planer. Belt sander prices start at about $50. Begin with a 50-grit sanding belt. This coarse belt removes wood fast. Keep the sander moving so you don't grind a hole in one spot. Some older doors have a beveled edge, but don't accidentally create a bevel if the door didn't originally have one (Photo 3). When you're about 1/16 in. away from the scribe line, switch to an 80-grit belt and sand to the line. Finally, use a 120-grit belt to smooth the door's edge.

If you sand the area around the mortise that holds the door latch, you might end up with a latch that protrudes. Solve this problem by deepening the mortise with a sharp chisel. The belt sander will leave sharp corners on the edge of the door. Round them slightly by making a couple of passes with 120-grit paper.

Hang the door back on its hinges to check the fit. Don't be surprised if you have to remove the door and sand off some more. If there's a 1/8-in. gap between the door and the jamb, you're ready to paint or stain the sanded edge. You can remove the door or finish it in place (Photo 4). If the top or bottom edges of the door are unfinished, paint or varnish them. A coat of varnish limits shrinking and swelling because it slows moisture movement in and out of wood.

Tips for Removing and Rehanging Doors

I've spent much of my carpentry career working alone, and the most important thing I've learned about removing doors is to get a helper whenever you can. A second set of hands means less damage to the door, walls and your back. Here are some other tips that save time and trouble:

  • If you plan to remove the knob and latch, do it before you remove the door. They're easier to remove when the door is standing upright.
  • Support the swing end of the door with shims. Just slip them under the door; don't force them in tight. The shims keep the swing end from dropping as you remove the hinge pins.
  • Tap pins up and out of the hinge knuckles with a long screw, bolt or screwdriver. My favorite pin pusher is a worn-out 7/32-in. drill bit.
  • Remove the bottom pin first and the top pin last. Be ready to catch the door as you remove the top pin.
  • Hinge pins can be stubborn, but resist the urge to give them a hard whack. Hard blows go off course and dent woodwork.
  • If you find that the hinge knuckles won't slip back together, loosen the screws on one hinge a little. The hinge leaf will move slightly and mesh with its partner. Tighten the screws when the door is in place.

Removing a door
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