Door-lock repair is the quicksand of domestic life. You are striding along, ready to take on the world, when, Whammo! The door is stuck, and so are you.
Unlike other annoying home repairs, a broken lock demands immediate attention. If the door won't work, you are trapped on the home front.
More than once I have been confidently setting out into the world, only to be quickly brought to my knees, and end up gingerly trying to put a doorknob back together.
I have pulled snapped-off keys out of locks with tweezers, a hatpin, and needle-nose pliers.
One Saturday morning when all these methods failed, I had to remove the lock from the front door. I asked my wife and kids to guard the fort, while I hurriedly carried the ailing mechanism to the one nearby locksmith who was open on Saturdays. When I phoned him, he said he was closing in one hour. I got to the shop in time and the locksmith removed the stub of a key with a "key extractor." I had brought along another front-door key, and he made a replacement for the stub.
The whole morning was wiped out. But at least I could now properly bar the door.
I have not snapped off a key when I was outside the house trying to get in. But just in case, I have read up on the correct procedure. One book on balky locks advised me that sometimes it is possible to unlock a door afflicted with a snapped-off key by turning the lock with pliers or a screwdriver.
The book did not say what you do when the pliers or screwdriver don't open the door, but I think you first shout some "bad" words and second call a locksmith.
One tip I have picked up along the way is that it is generally not a good idea to take the entire lock-losing apparatus out of the door. It is better to take a few parts out, like the shank that runs through the door and the doorknobs. But not the latch assembly.
Granted, taking the entire locking apparatus out of the door is educational. You get to see, up close and personal, how your door locks. But, in my experience, when a lock gets free of an old door it behaves like a kid who finally gets off the farm. Once it has tasted freedom, it has real trouble fitting back in its old confines.
This is especially true for old locks that have beautiful doorknobs. Doorknobs can be temperamental. And, like people, the pretty ones tend to be more sensitive than those with run-of-the-mill looks.
Take the elaborate brass doorknob that used to adorn our dining room door. It never quite fit right. And so, in my rookie year of home owning, I took it out of the door to polish it and make it fit snugly. That was about 10 years ago. In the interim, I and a skilled carpenter have attempted to put the doorknob and its mortise lock back together. Both of us have failed. As a result, our dining room has adopted an open-door policy.
There are also doorknobs that refused to form lasting attachments to the shank that turns the lock. They hang on for a while, but when the pressure to get permanent hits, they bail out, like the never-married men over 40 who have been in the news lately.
I have one of these uncommitted doorknobs. It is an ivory-looking number that resides on a closet door. I have tried nails, screws, even glue to fix it to the shank. It refuses to be tied down. From time to time it will stick, but then the going gets rough -- a sudden jerk from one of the kids -- and it says goodbye.
I admire the handiwork on the old elaborate doorknobs. But for day-to-day work, I prefer the plain, no-nonsense tubular locks. They are round, and have three tubes, or prongs that run through the door connecting two aluminum doorknobs.
These doorknobs are not pretty. But they don't break. They stand firm even when a kid throws open the door and the doorknob punches a hole in the plasterboard of a nearby wall. And the screws that open up the workings of these modern doorknobs are readily accessible. This is important when you need to remove a doorknob.
When, for example, one of your children locks the bathroom door from the outside in an attempt to see if his new pocketknife can pick the lock.
Not that this would ever happen.
My wife and I were eating a quiet supper when it happened to us. As soon as the kid delivered the news, my wife sprang into action. She made sure (1) that the kid was separated from the pocketknife and (2) that I was kept away from the kid.
Since I couldn't grab the kid, I grabbed my toolbox and stormed to the locked door. I spied the heads of the two long Phillips screws on the outer ring, or rosette, that run around the doorknob. Slowly I removed the screws. The doorknob assembly came loose. But the latch remained firm, keeping the door closed.
I needed something to coax the latch into letting go. The part of the doorknob designed to do just that was on the inside of the bathroom door. I couldn't get to it.
I thought a minute, then remembered that I had a few leftover parts from a previous doorknob repair. Sure enough, I found the needed doorknob part, one that looked exactly like the side of the doorknob that was locked inside the bathroom.
I slid the new doorknob part into the latch, and turned it. With the flick of a wrist, the bathroom was liberated.
That's my final tip. When working on doorknobs, always carry a spare.