The mortise lock from our bathroom door

Mortise locks

My dad and my stepmother, Alice, are coming to stay for Thanksgiving, which is, incidentally, my favorite holiday. MT & I have hosted it every year since we were first together. It’s the 5th Thanksgiving we’ve hosted in the house, and the 11th overall. It’s also my favorite weekend of the year. We don’t go in for the mad shopping. We generally just do whatever we want to the house, or just relax, or just see friends. That Friday – Sunday is magic.

Prior to Thanksgiving day itself, we are models of action, efficiency, and planning. Well, MT is a model of action, efficiency and planning. I’m anything but efficient. The discussions start in September: how many people (a number which always seems to equal 16), what will we serve, when do we start setting up the table, what did we do last year? I invariably state that we shouldn’t bother preparing salad, because who wants to eat salad on Thanksgiving? It takes up valuable stomach and table space. MT puts in orders with Paulina Market (turducken, turkey breast) and First Slice (butternut squash lasagna, balsamic pear pie, key lime pie). Negotiations with family/guests reveal who will bring what, and we figure out what we’ll actually be preparing.

And lists are made. And remade. Repeatedly. I try to remember if we saved a master list from last year, and then MT produces her small journal of past Thanksgivings and I say, “oh, yeah.” As of today, the list looks like this:

Pre-Thanksgiving punch list

As you can see, this isn’t the shopping list. It’s more of a pre-Thanksgiving punch list.

  • Brushing the dog is an ongoing pursuit this time of year, as she sheds her summer coat.
  • The shadow boxes were decoupaged by MT, and it was my task to hang them in the powder room.
  • There are 3 wooden radiator covers that need to have old insulation removed and new foil-backed insulation installed.
  • I’ve been meaning to add some blocking between a couple joists in the basement.
  • The storm window in the bathroom needs to be swapped with the screen.
  • I’d love to caulk around the tub.
  • I also hung a vintage thermometer (sadly lacking its glass tube) in the powder room.
  • And the Adirondack chairs and the fire pit need to be stored for winter.

But let’s talk about those mortise springs. An earlier version of this list had the following item:

  • bath lock

This is the master bath upstairs we’re talking about. Right next to our bedroom. Most of the time, when it’s just us, the lock isn’t used. If the door is closed, that’s really all you need to know. But when we have guests, the lock is pressed into service. Our house was built in 1917, though I keep finding evidence that it must have been started in 1916. In either case, that door has been in almost daily use for close to a hundred years. MT asked if I could take a look at it before my dad and Alice came to stay.

Here’s the thing. We know our house, just like you know yours. We know all the sounds it makes, and we know how to keep those sounds from being made. This house is amazingly solid, but after so many years, almost every door has developed a unique quirk or three. In this case, when you close the bathroom door, it needs a little extra push before the latch engages. It’s very slight. My diagnosis is that the stop molding needs to be adjusted by a fraction of an inch, so that the top corner of the door doesn’t press against it so tightly. And I still hope to do that, but I know what’s involved and can imagine it spiraling beyond its scope. (Our gut-renovation of the kitchen a few years ago began when the 1970s wall oven stopped working 2 weeks before our first Thanksgiving in the house and we decided to replace it with a standard oven/range which involved some minor demolition of the cabinets on that wall and boom a few weeks later we’re tearing out the stairs to the basement and moving the powder room and digging up the basement floor to repair the sewer and 9 months later we have a new kitchen.)

That’s why I decided to just remove the mortise lock from the door, open it up, and lubricate it. The photo at the top shows it on my workbench, right after I opened it up. These old locks are beautiful examples of simple engineering. They’re like very rough clock mechanisms. The lock is upside down in the photo, so the bolt/lock is at top, and the latch is below it. If you look closely, you might see that there appear to be two latch springs. That’s because the spring broke at some point, and the shorter bit got jumbled up in there. The latch still worked, but it didn’t push out all the way because the spring was shorter.

This is an easy fix, you say: just replace the spring. Sure, go ahead and search for “mortise lock springs” or something similar. Maybe you’ll have more luck than I did, but these things just aren’t sold any more. I found all kinds of instructions for fixing these locks, but replacement springs themselves are hard to find.

Because it’s easier than traversing 2 stories and a basement, I traveled through the house in my mind, looking for springs, yes, but also checking all the doors. I figured there must be one we don’t use much and I could swap springs or entire locks with it. Trouble is, we actually use most of the doors in our house. But then I found a good source: the door to what we call “Frank’s Office” in the basement. The jamb is barely a jamb and the latch doesn’t even begin to catch (originally, this door was probably located on the long-lost wall that separated the kitchen and the breakfast room; the original jamb is also long-lost). The knob felt nice and springy when I turned it.

The door to "Franks's Office"

The door to “Franks’s Office”

As it turns out, the mortise locks on these doors are different sizes, so a direct swap wasn’t possible. So I opened it up:

Mortise lock from "Frank's Office" door. I've already temporarily inserted the broken spring from the bathroom door. And note what's probably the patent year in the lower left: 3-7-11. That's before the Titanic sank.

Mortise lock from “Frank’s Office” door. I’ve already temporarily inserted the broken spring from the bathroom door. And note what’s probably the patent year in the lower left: 3-7-11. That’s before the Titanic sank.

The spring in this lock was a narrower diameter, but it works in the bathroom lock. For now, anyway. I added a few drops of machine oil from the bottle that sits near the boiler, put it back together, and slid it back into the bathroom door. It’s so quiet now. Perhaps this means we won’t be awakened when a guest is trying to get out of the bathroom at 3:30am.

Oh, so you’re wondering about “Frank’s Office” door. I’m watching two different Ebay auctions that are selling 8-12 complete antique mortise locks. They shouldn’t be too expensive, and even if the brands don’t match, the springs just might.

Perhaps I’ll have a project for Thanksgiving weekend.


3 thoughts on “Mortise locks

  1. Chuck B says:

    Have you tried a hardware store? Most good ones that have the bins of small parts have a whole slew of springs in various sizes. Betting you could find one that would work.

  2. Lisa says:

    Terrific post, Dave. So reflective. And your Thanksgivings are truly magical! Do you see the alligator face in the lower right corner of the top mortise lock photo? Just sayin’ xo

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