If All You Have is a Screwdriver

…You can make your house a little more secure.

If I were to tell you that the easiest way to get into your house is through the door, your response would probably be some approximation of, “Well, yes.”  The reality, though, is that the statement is equally accurate for criminals as well.  Your doors just are not all that strong; or, rather your doors are adequately strong, but the method of holding them in place is not.  I will not say that kicking a door open or down is easy, but on the average American mass-built home, it will only take a few firm strikes in a specific set of locations.

Unless you have had the chance to wander around an under-construction home that did not have its siding or interior put up yet, the reason may not be abundantly clear.  To help out, I found a few diagrams that may better illustrate what goes on inside your walls.

doorjamb1
Image borrowed from http://www.woodworkingtalk.com/f5/exterior-door-frame-construction-4723/ , original source unknown.

The structural aspects of most house walls are comprised of drywall, 2×4 studs that hold up the wall and the house, some kind of exterior sheeting (used to be plywood, then OSB, and now it is frequently some kind of foam), and then the exterior siding of your house (vinyl, Hardie Board, brick, whatever).

Things get a little complicated when it comes to doors.  When the house is being built, the door frame is outlined by studs and other structure, but it is naturally built a little large to account for doors predominantly coming “pre-hung” these days.  Basically what that means is the door is already mounted to its hinges and those are attached to the framing wood around the door, and all you have to do is insert the entire assembly into the stud frame, attach it, and trim it out.

doorjamb2
Image borrowed from http://www.woodworkingtalk.com/f5/exterior-door-frame-construction-4723/ , original source unknown.

This makes installing doors a lot easier for builders and home owners, but also presents a problem – the door frame wood is really soft.  Like “you can chip it away with your fingernails” soft.  And the strikeplate for your latch and the hinges for your door are all mounted only in the frame, not the house studs.  That frame is then attached to the house studs, but the wood between the hinge screws and the framing screws is the problem if someone tries to force your door.

Take a look at the images to the right/above again – your exterior door is exclusively attached to the red-highlighted pieces of borderline-decorative wood in those diagrams, when you really want it attached to the yellow structural 2x4s.  Worse, there is typically an air gap between the door frame and the 2×4 framing; that air gap is typically taken up by shims, but it is not helping things stay strong.

So… what is the fix?

Bigger, better screws.

In the below image, the bottom screw is a typical screw that is used to attach your hinge to the door frame, the middle screw is a typical screw that is used to attach your strikeplate to the frame, and the top screw is the one I used to replace the bottom two.

img_20170110_103259893

Those little screws only mount into the soft wood of the frame of the door.  The longer screw will go clean through that soft wood, and dig all the way into the 2×4 stud that actually makes up the structural component of the doorway, if not the adjacent one as well (if you are lucky enough to have double-framed doorways).

Personally I prefer the decking screws found at any big-box home improvement retailer (and Amazon, for that matter), both for their coating and for coming with Torx heads (see the first warning below), but any wood screw of 3″ or longer should be sufficient for the task.  The “wood screw” part is important – be sure to get screws that have flat heads and are angled for countersinking.

For strikeplates, I would recommend replacing both screws with the longest screws you can find (there are additional things you can do to strikeplates that we will discuss in the future), but for hinges you only need to do two out of the three or four screws holding it to the house.

Some of you might be thinking, “What about the screws attaching everything to the doors?”  You are not wrong, but there are a few details.  First, the screws holding on the plates over your door catch and deadbolt do not need to be anything more than decorative – the mechanism of both of those are what is really holding them into the door.

Second, most exterior doors are solid wood, fiberglass, or wood sandwiched between sheets of metal – if yours is not, you might consider upgrading it while we are here.  In all those cases, the hinge screws are already biting into something more solid than the trim around the door.  You can certainly upgrade the screws, but be mindful of any windows, trim, or other features in the door that might be affected.

As usual, security offers no guarantees, and, yes, the upgraded screws may be insufficient to stop someone from breaking down your door, especially if they bring specialized tools.  But this stronger hardware will make the task a lot harder for the aggressor, and the more you can frustrate him, the more likely he is to find a softer target.

Three warnings:

First, do not over-tighten the replacement screws.  That air-gap I mentioned before is only held in place by very weak shims, and you could easily crush it by cranking down on the screws.  Get them snug with your existing hinges and strikeplates, but not over-tight.  This is especially important if you choose a screw with a driver pattern like Torx; unlike Philips-head screws, it will not automatically cam out if you over-torque it.  You can seriously dork up how your door is hung, so please be careful.

Second, do not strip the replacement screw heads.  Since you are sinking these into studs, extracting them again if you want to replace the door could be a right regular pain.

Finally, be mindful where you are putting these screws; if there is a trim window immediately adjacent to your door’s hinges, a 3″ screw might be enough to break the window from the inside.

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6 comments

  1. To add to your third warning: If you have a light switch or fixture next to the door, you may want a shorter screw – if it’s long enough to go completely through the stud, it’s possible it could catch the wiring and damage it.

  2. Also it’s best to replace the hinge screws out of sequence and to make sure that you never take all of the screws out of a hinge at once–take one out, replace it, and go on to another one. Hanging doors is a more ticklish business than it appears and you don’t want the door to end up dragging when you are through. Personally I tend to put a door stop wedge under the far end of the door to prop it up when I’m working on hinges.

  3. […] Strike Impact.  Basically, they take a hammer and beat on the lock when it is attached to a closed door.  If the door opens, the lock fails the test.  Grade 1 locks have to survive two strikes of 60 foot-pounds, two strikes of 90 foot-pounds, and two strikes of 120 foot-pounds; grade 2 only has to do the first two tests, and grade 3 only has to do the two 60 foot-pound strikes.  Remember that even if the lock survives, your door frame might not. […]

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