Thursday, February 21, 2013

Minor Interior Door Repair: 1830's thumb latch hardware

This weekend, I had a very minor repair to make to the latch between the dining room and hall on the first floor. The problem was simple, the screws were falling out of the door. This has happened to three doors since we moved in--we're just too hard on the old things, I guess.

The first time it happened to a spare bedroom door, I had no idea what to do, and locked the door latch up in my desk drawer so noone would try to "fix" it wrong. Several months later I stumbled across a note in an issue of Old House Journal, with the advice to shove the wooden ends of matches covered with carpenter's glue into a stripped out screw hole, let it dry for 24 hours and then re-screw the screw into the now newly filled hole. Bingo! It works.

Here it is demonstrated--

Problem -- door latches, but without a working handle on the other side, can only be unlatched from this side:

Hardware removed, with two match sticks glued into the stripped hole:

Match sticks sawed off:

And, just for fun, a close-up of the door without its handle. Easy to spot, in the ridging of the paint, the fact that there was, at one time, a slightly shorter but similarly shaped handle on this door, and, before or after that, a bolt on the other side (screw holes above the latch).

In any case, it was the work of a few minutes to re-install the handle:

And, the view on the reverse of the door, also showing another spot where some kind of hardware was once installed.

The view from the side,  showing both sets of hardware back in place:

And, for good measure, a couple views of the installation of the piece on the frame that receives the latch that looks like a hook, which is called a keeper (ignore the other handle on the door behind):

And, finally, a view of the entire latch mechanism, closed and secured:

The whole process makes me curious about the history of these door latches, though. I've never lived in a house with NO interior door knobs. Not one in the entire place. Every door has a version of this cast iron latch, and they're all virtually the same in look and feel. That fact, in and of itself, makes me feel pretty certain that they're replacements.

But replacements for what? The photos above make it clear there never was a traditional door knob assembly on this door. Every other door in the house is the same. So, this house was built with this kind of latch.

What are they? A bit of digging around on the web revealed that they are colonial thumb latches, most often imported from England during the 1700's, but at some point, made also in the U.S.A. Used from the colonial period up through the 1830's, and then sporadically to the late nineteenth century.

Easy to find today, as reproductions. I've found them here on the website for House of Antique Hardware, called rim latches on their site. And, as antiques, on Ed Donaldson's Hardware Restorations, where he displays images of antique thumb latches.

Most of the doors in the house seem to be original to the house, or to the era it was built in. Who knows where these two hall doors were first used. I don't think there was a doorway between what is now the dining room and the hall, originally. There certainly wasn't a door to what is now the half bath (which you can see behind the hall door, in the photo below) when the house was first built. But I do think they are original to the house, because the wood is ancient and the four-panel solid wood construction, but very thin, is an old construction and the layers of paint and age of the wood are consistent with other original elements, like the windows. And, because all of the doors show signs of having been shuffled around, like an old, slow, giant game of musical chairs. Musical doors.

Which is a long way of saying that these are old doors, and now fixed! Cool, says Minky, from her perch.


  1. I lived and grew up in a house n Wilmington DE, reportedly built in 1925, with the same door latches throughout the house. Who needs locks if everyone is friendly ! The sound and feel of the latches became very familiar and comfortable, solid but not paranoid like a bank vault or hospital door latch. I am about to use a similar latch on a shed I am building in TN in our remote location - no lock! because if anyone really wants to get in, a chainsaw would be the weapon of choice-so why add building damage to the loss of any theft? On the bright side, you can't get much simpler, historic, and rustic.

    1. The outside doors of the house have locks! Trust me. But to your point, I didn't grow up with these latches and so I don't have that feel for them and really appreciate your mentioning it. In Pugsley, rooms for which one wants privacy, or where a lock is required (like the door to the basement) have a slide bolt. You can see one of them in the photo just above, of the door for the half bath. Thanks for the comment!

  2. This is such a good work.I can appreciate your post very interesting blog as much as i know Door Repair is important to all, Thank you for sharing your blog, good job.

  3. We always neglect windows. We look for stylish doors but windows are often left plain and symmetrical. For a good looking house try to make sync in between windows and doors!
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