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Pocket Power

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Image caption: A glass-paneled pocket door is used to separate the kitchen from the entry foyer allowing a level of formality while providing light into the main hall. Carib Daniel Martin | architecture + design; Photography: Studio by MAK / Katherine Ma

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” a band of heroes set out on a dangerous quest; early on, they survive a killer blizzard and monstrous pursuers only to be stopped cold when they can’t open a magic door hidden in the side of a mountain.

Fortunately, magic doors in real life are much easier to open – and conceal, too. They’re called pocket doors, and they may provide the perfect solution for homeowners facing spatial challenges that a normal hinged door can cause.

A pocket door hangs hidden inside a wall cavity when open and slides horizontally on a high-mounted track when closed, instead of swinging out. In lieu of using a protruding locking doorknob, these doors usually employ a recessed pull or handle with a knob inside that, when turned, triggers a privacy latch or bolt mechanism that can lock the door into place when closed.

“Pocket doors remain a popular choice among homeowners today because of their ease of use and versatility in placement,” Richard Woods, owner of Albany Woodworks in Albany, La., says. “With a traditional door, you don’t always have the clearance to open it up into a room or tight area. But a pocket door slides smoothly into the wall and can be made in a variety of widths.”

John Nations, construction manager for New Pointe Communities, a custom residential home developer in San Diego, Calif., notes that conventional doors take up about 10 square feet of swing.

“A pocket door is less restrictive and easier to operate, especially for older owners,” notes Nations, who adds that many buyers of his new homes opt for this handy feature.

Carib Daniel Martin, a Kensington, Md.-based architect, says pocket doors are ideal for closets, especially the walk-in type, “where a swing door can block clothes or force you to shut yourself inside a small room. They’re also good for areas where you want to have an open doorway but on occasion desire privacy – like a home office.”

Pocket doors may be the perfect answer for a doorway serving a narrow hallway, a laundry room, or even a small bedroom, too.

“But they may not be the best solution for bathrooms and kitchens, especially if you are sensitive to smell, because they will not be as effective at preventing odors from travelling as conventional doors are,” says Gideon Lipnickas, CEO of the Chicago-headquartered design/build firm New Concept 180. “These doors also aren’t the best for sound resistance, unless you choose a solid core pocket door.”

While a pocket door can be installed by a thrifty do-it-yourselfer, Nations cautions against it. It can be difficult to locate and prepare an appropriate wall cavity – one that’s free of plumbing and electrical.

“I recommend hiring a licensed and experienced contractor for the job. I’ve heard many a horror story related to homeowners trying the DIY route,” Nations says.

Martin concurs.

“If they are not set perfectly level, they will continually shift open or closed,” he adds.

Framing a newly created doorway that wasn’t there before can also be tricky.

“There are special considerations and costs involved in this, so do some installation price and contractor comparing before deciding,” recommends Woods.

As mentioned, a solid core door is preferred – preferably 1¾-inch thick, suggests Martin.

“Hollow core doors are light, and when you pull them shut you generally lift up, which can cause the door to come off the track,” Martin says. “In addition, don’t skimp on the hardware. Buy the best track, with ball-bearing rollers and integrated stops, and properly sized mortised privacy latches.”

Lastly, try to have the door set with a 2x6-framed wall versus a 2x4-framed wall.

“This creates a more stable wall plane, which is particularly important in rooms where the wall will be tiled,” Martin says.

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