Trouble Free Installation

The Last Step

A guide to expert door installation

Character, warmth and style – all can be attributed to the wood door. It is the door of the home or office that you first have physical contact with. You cannot avoid seeing it or touching and moving. It has action – perhaps more than any other part of the building. And no material is better suited to a door than wood.

Everyone can appreciate a good looking, properly fitted door, but few artisans have all of the technology required to fit, hang and install door the door hardware so it always fits and operates perfectly, regardless of the ill effects of time and weather.

Following is an abridged version of a technique that I use on every door that I install. I hope you find it useful. (The instructions are for installing an exterior 1-3/4” in an existing frame.)

To fit a wood door properly in a used jamb or frame, or a metal frame, first remove the butts and weather-stripping. Clean the frame with a mild solvent, such as mineral spirits, to remove any particles of dirt. If this dirt or dust gets into the veneer of the door, it may not come out.

Check if the frame is square. This is best done with a large square made of 3/8”plywood. Use the factory edge and make it measure about 6’ high x 2’11” wide; cut on a diagonal so the other piece can be used to make another square for a 2’8” door. By setting this square in the existing opening, you can see very quickly what you need to do in order to fir the door: how much to angle the top, plane off the sides, where not to plane and so on. Do not use a framing square, because it is not long enough for you to fully understand the opening.

Work with the door on two sawhorses, with the pull side up. Make a mark at the top corner of the door on the hinge side, so you won’t get confused as you fit the door. Plane and simultaneously bevel all edges so the door fits the opening. (The high edge of the bevel is on the pull side of the door). A properly fitted will have at least 1/16” clearance on both sides and top and 3/16” at the bottom. The bevel should be, for most doors, 1/8” in 2”.  This will allow for weather-stripping and prevent hinge bind.

If you have to plane off the top or bottom of the door, first cut through the veneer with a utility knife using a flat piece of steel as a guide. Do not use an aluminum level, because it can easily be cut by the knife and the knife my lift the level of the door, leaving a very crooked line and a small problem. Caution: Be sure you sand a radius onto the bottom of the door before you first attempt to place it in the opening, so the veneer or stile does not get chipped when it is lifted in the opening.

Mark hinge locations on the door. First, make sure you are satisfied with the hinge locations on the frame. Do the mortises, and fix the new hinges. Are they deep enough? Are they positioned properly on the frame so that the screws will be centered on the edge of the door? Make any adjustments to the frame, and place the door in the frame.

Using a pry bar and wide putty knife, lift the door until it is tight at the top, and pry the door over against the hinge side of the opening. At this point, the door should fit the top and hinge sides of the frame perfectly, that is, without any noticeable gaps or high spots. At the latch side of the opening, there should be at least a 1/8” clearance from the top to bottom but no more than 3/16”. A clearance of ¼” should exist evenly at this point between the top of the threshold and bottom of the door. You should use shims to keep the door up and over to the hinge side. You are now ready to mark the hinge locations on the door.

Taking a utility knife, push the point of the blade into the bottom of the mortise and the edge of the door at each mortise. Then make a small mark on the face of the door where the hinge will be. (All of the marking done on a wood door should be done with a #2 pencil or softer, as the veneer can be easily scratched with a sharp, hard lead pencil). Now, place the door on the latch edge and hold it upright with a sash and door holder or other device. Next, transfer the pencil marks from the face to the edge of the door by making a large X; make the knife cut a little deeper if it hard to see. At this point, you are ready to mortise the door with a router and jig or, the old-fashioned way, with a wood chisel.

I use a custom-made aluminum jig that is adjustable for hinge backset, because it makes the required backset easy to achieve, regardless of the hinge backset on the frame. Remember when establishing the hinge backset on a wood frame, a minimum clearance of 1/16” must be kept between the frame stop and the push side face of the door; a metal frame requires 1/8” of clearance. If a no-clearance condition exists, say after several coats of paint, the door will bind, stressing the hinges and loosening the screws until the door will not operate.

After the backset is set on the jig, the depth is set on the router and the jig is set over the X and against the knife mark. Standard hinge templates are not made to be used as describes above, but you can take one of the three jigs from a template kit and use it by itself if you first determine how you can align the jig to the door. This is done using a 2×4 or an old door. Set the jig, route out the mortise and before the jig is removed, make a knife mark on the 2×4 at a point on the jig that is square and flat against the 2×4. Now remove the jig and, using a scale (6” stainless-steel ruler), measure the distance center to center on the knife mark and the mortise edge – this is the measurement you need to raise or lower the marks on the door to get a perfect alignment on all three hinges. You will also have to allow for clearance at the top of the door because you marked it when it was tight against the top. I use a jig that requires only the placement next to the original mark on the door. This custom-made jig does save time, but it is not necessary for a perfect fit.

Install hinges on both the frame and door, then hang. If the door hits the frame on the latch edge, adjust the hinges using a piece of fiberboard from the box the new hinges came in or the back of a writing tablet. Fitting a piece of this fiberboard, 3/8” wide and as long as the hinge is high, under the hinge and toward the hinge rim will move the door toward the latch side about 1/16”. Placing this shim at the back edge pulls the door toward the hinge side of the frame almost the same distance. Doing this as required, planning the door slightly in selected spots and sandpapering the high side of the bevel will soon produce a perfectly fitted door, ready for finishing and hardware.


Lynn Ward is owner and operator of Ward Door Specialists, Chicago.  This article was originally published in Doors and Hardware magazine


Do’s and Don’ts

Do: When using brass screws, first run in a steel screw to cut the threat and remove it. Then run in the brass screw. This will help prevent the screwdriver tip from slipping up on the screw and leaving a very unprofessional-looking screw head.

Do: Every screw on a door and frame should have a pilot hole.

Don’t: Don’t use too small a hinge for a door or too short a screw. Loose screws and sagging hinges cause many door and hardware malfunctions in both wood and hollow metal doors.

Don’t: Don’t sand off or round off the high edge of the bevel (the pull side of the door). It Is the edge that gives the door a close tolerance look, but still plenty of clearance.

Don’t: Don’t install key-in-knob locks and deadbolts to close to one another. This will weaken the door and provide less security under stress. The standard use is 16” center to center.

Do: Always use sharp tools.

Do: Always remove all pencil marks from the door, preferably with an eraser. It is the installer’s job to leave the door clean, not the painter’s.

Do: Always keep your hands clean and dry. If your hands are damp or oily, you will most likely leave the door dirty and sometimes stained.