One of the joys and delights of living in a 155-year old house is being able to routinely delight in the craftsmanship of a bygone era.

Of course, one of the struggles is that the very craftsmanship you are delighting in is, in fact, 155 years old and, as such, is prone to breaking.

This can be true on many fronts, of course, but of particular focus over the past couple of weeks has been doorknobs, and one door in particular - the one to LB's bedroom.

Most of the doors in the house have similar hardware - a mortise lock with white porcelain doorknobs and escutcheons). This style of lock means that every door on the main two floors has a door with both a sash lock and a deadbolt in it, the deadbolt operated by an old fashioned skeleton key. Every door - including the closets, the bathroom door, the laundry room door, etc.

Every door has a deadbolt in it, but only a handful of them actually work. In most cases this appears to be due to seizure secondary to age, the overactive paintbrush work of prior generations, or perhaps a combination of both.

LB has one of the two front bedroooms in the house. During my grandparents' occupation of the house, and likely for quite some time before, these rooms were not occupied by people. Rather, they held a vast array of generational cast-off stuff - things that, apparently, were unwanted but considered too nice to be thrown away. By my childhood they were not frequently opened and entered, except by occasional exploring waifs.

One might have expected this relative lack of use to result in the door hardware being less harshly used and, as such, perhaps better suited to withstanding a few years of exposure to the exuberance of youth. Alas, this does not seem to have been the a case. LB's doorknob had worked loose to the point that the jiggling of the handle would prevent the sash lock from catching reliably. I made one attempt, early on, to address this by retightening all of the various and sundry screws and attachments related to the handle (not all of whom seemed to be present and accounted for), but the success of this was short lived. Ultimately it was clear I was going to have to take things apart and effect a more complete repair.

Taking things apart is often a frightening proposition in a house of this age - it has a tendency to open a can of worms well beyond expectation.

In the case of LB's door, disassembling the doorknob revealed a harsher life for this door than I'd originally predicted.

Rough life for the old door

The number of gouges and striations in the area of the iron handle plates suggested that the door handle had been adjusted, and readjusted, multiple times over the past century and a half. It also made it clear why it was so hard to tighten it back down - there was virtually no wood left in which a screw could take purchase.

This wouldn't be a problem with a cylinder latch set - in that case, the two sides of the latching and handle mechanism screw to each other through the door. But the mortise lock is a large rectangular block of metal directly in the door - there's no going through it without potentially destroying the latching mechanism.

My solution, for now, was to head off to the hardware store (they say I "saved big money", but I'm never sure if I should actually believe them) and get dowel and wood filler, as well as additional screws. I used the dowel to fill the deeper, still intact holes, and the wood filler to bring everything back to more or less even with the door surface. Then I let the material dry and cure.

door with filler

The guidelines on the product said to give it at least two hours to properly cure, so to be safe, I gave it a week. Plus, you know, there's nothing more entertaining than listening to your teenager struggle with trying to open and close a door without a handle for several days. Also - it's remotely possible that I got a little busy...

In putting the handle back together, I discovered a couple of additional interesting features about the handle itself. Most of the handles in the house use a system in which backing plates go against the door, are covered by a porcelain escutcheon, which is held on by a threaded brass cylinder that screws into the backing plate. The handle on LB's door looks like this too, but it was hiding a secret. The backing plate on the inside was different - it wasn't threaded like the others, with a smaller inside lip, and the brass cylinder had been cut down so that it would fit into the new opening.

Hidden Differences

The cutting down of the brass cylinder could not be accidental, and one suspects that this is the result of a previous generation needing to replace the backing plate, and being unable to find a part that matched exactly. And, given that the room was virtually never entered, exactly was probably felt to be unimportant.

For our situation, exactly was the thing that was needed. I scavenged the backing plates off of the closet in my office - the door to that is never shut, as it is a pass-thru for electronics cables, and a previous tenant had already scavenged the mortise lock from it anyway. This seemed to do the trick, mostly. However, I found that the porcelain escutcheon would no longer fit on the inside with the scavenged backing plate. I have multiple escutcheons, and tried them all, but to no avail. In deference to the teenager's week of suffering, I deferred painting the wood filler for later, went ahead and put it together without the escutcheon, which is functional, albeit less attractive.

No Escutcheon

It don't fit no more

Shortly after making this decision I noticed that one of my ancestors had made the same decision previously, just across the hall.

it wasn't just me

This makes me feel a bit better, though I'd like it all to go together correctly. Still, at least the offspring now has a functioning door behind which one can pretend there is no one else in the house...

These aren't the first door problems we have had, and they aren't the only door issues that my ancestors have faced. We have doors where the screws in the hinges have worked loose - sometimes to a significant degree (the downside to pine as a building material), and a couple of doorknobs have been replaced by completely different handle sets. The door into the basement was clearly a struggle for someone:


The set on the inside is loose, as you can see, and will not tighten (I would not be surprised to find a very similar situation inside there as with LB's door). And on the basement side of the door:


The repairs required an additional wood plate, and it appears that a decision was made to caulk or epoxy the escutcheon against the wood, likely because it would not screw tight.

I haven't gotten to the epoxy point yet, but I can see how one might get there...