Changing wall opens new doors to design Windows, entries can alter room's look


February 09, 1997|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

THINKING ABOUT renovating a kitchen or bath? Turning a spare bedroom into a family room with an outdoor deck? You've probably spent some time standing in the doorway surveying the space, checking out the placement of doors and windows, and musing on your options.

If we put the stove over there, we could move the fridge over beside the door is there room for a dishwasher? If we put the new bathtub right where the old one was ... is there room for a whirlpool?

If you're looking at the space as static, however, take another look: It's not as hard as you might think to alter the size and position of wall openings. Sometimes a small change, such as replacing a window with a door, can make a big difference in how well the space works in its new incarnation.

An example famous in our experience is the big, square, ugly, awkward kitchen in some friends' house that defied remedial help. The homeowners, Karol, Randy and others struggled for a couple of years to come up with a plan that would make the space more usable. Finally, a professional kitchen designer looked at the room and said, "Oh, we'll just switch the door and the window on the back wall." And the rest of the design fell into place.

Even if you're not renovating an entire room, replacing an ugly door or stubborn, old-fashioned window can make the space more comfortable to use.

Randy's been working on a kitchen where the original sliding-glass doors had simply worn out. The homeowners liked the look of sliders, but wanted something that worked. So Randy and his assistant took out the old doors, modified the opening slightly, and installed new doors.

The main structural consideration with any door or window is supporting the weight of the structure above. The horizontal boards that carry the weight and translate it to side supports are called the "header." Most carpenters make the header out of double 2 by 10s or 2 by 12s, with a sheet of 1/2 -inch plywood in between. The plywood is strong in a vertical direction and makes the header the same width as a 2- by 4-inch wall.

If you need a smaller opening for the new door or window, you can simply use some combination of framing wood and plywood to fill in to the appropriate size.

It's a little more complicated when you need to enlarge the opening. In most cases, that also means enlarging the header -- since the span is wider, the weight to be supported will be greater. (If you don't feel comfortable playing with the header, you can hire a structural engineer to figure the load and a contractor to do the carpentry.)

You'll need to build a temporary wall inside the house, about 12 inches or so from the door opening, to support the ceiling or roof weight while you are working on the header. Twelve inches should allow you to work from both interior and exterior sides, which makes things easier.

The temporary wall should be solid, with double top and bottom plates and a stud under each joist or rafter. The temporary wall should be a tight fit when it's in place. The studs should be immobile and feel like they have weight on them.

The new header rests on "jack" studs, 2 by 4s (or 2 by 6s, if that's the way the rest of the walls are built), at either side of the opening. If the span of the header is more than 6 feet, you need double jack studs on each side. The header should be installed at the height of the new door plus at least 1/2 inch -- consult the directions that come with the door.

Once the header is in place, install short "blocking" studs between the header and the top wall plate. The weight of everything above (roof or upper floors) is supported by the top plate; the blocking, or small studs, will transfer the weight to the header. When the header is in and everything has been nailed, you can remove the temporary wall and let things settle on their new supports.

Installing 5- or 6-foot sliding-glass doors, or an atrium-type door, is a job for two people. The door is heavy and there is a lot of measuring and leveling. Tools should include nails or screws, shims, silicone caulk, hammer, level and tape measure. A plumb bob is useful to check the alignment of the header with the sill.

Most replacement doors are fastened to the framing by nailing through a flange at the top and sides with 2-inch roofing nails. The flanges need to be nailed to solid wood, so the opening should be filled in to match the side of the new door. Check the sill to make sure it's level; if it's not, use solid, continuous wood fTC blocking under it. The sides, or jambs, must also be straight, plumb and square with the sill. If they're not, use shims to adjust them -- remembering that there must be solid wood under the flanges. Before installing the door, measure the opening diagonally in both directions. The measurements should be within 1/4 inch of each other; if they're not, you'll need to make further adjustments.

Problems often occur when you're installing a new door in an old house where the structure may have settled, or earlier carpenters were sloppy. In that case, you may need to get fussy with the opening before putting in the door.

Most new doors come with excellent instructions, usually with illustrations, so just about anybody can figure out how to put them in. When the new door's in place, caulk everywhere the instructions indicate and install metal or vinyl flashing over the top trim of the door to seal it from water.

Randy Johnson is a Baltimore home-improvement contractor. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail us at, or write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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