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What’s true about fashion is true also about doors: If you wait long enough, the old styles come back in vogue. Pocket doors were ubiquitous in Victorian homes, where they were often used to separate large indoor spaces like living rooms and dining rooms. After fading from the architectural scene for a century or so, the pocket door has resurfaced, finding new fans for its space-saving functions and retro forms. Before you start ripping out walls, however, make sure you understand the mechanics of a pocket door to decide whether it’s the best choice for your home.
The Many Pros to Pocket Doors
Rather than swinging open and shut, the pocket door slides into a hidden wall compartment to allow entry and exit. A pocket door is perfect for rooms where you don’t have clearance for a swinging door or you just want to make the best use of space. After all, replacing a swinging door with a pocket door recovers at least 10 square feet of floor space behind the door and frees up real estate on the walls for fixtures or artwork. Moreover, as a pocket door simply withdraws into the wall, it’s even more utilitarian than its trendy cousin, the sliding barn door.
Pocket doors also work well where homeowners want a flexible partition. If a door rarely needs to be closed, or if you’re trying to isolate a smaller room—say, the laundry room, office, or pantry—from a larger open-plan area, pocket doors pull out when you need them and disappear when you don’t. Some designs can be adapted to modern uses—for example, a Dutch pocket door extends only half the height of a standard 80-inch-tall door and pulls out from one side or both, making it a great alternative to those unsightly or rickety safety gates that protect pets or children.
The Pocket Door’s Drawbacks
Unfortunately, pocket doors don’t work everywhere. Before moving ahead with the project, consider these potential complications: locking limitations, door frame stability, and wall space requirements.
Pocket doors don’t seal a room as tightly as a traditional swinging door, and the typical locking mechanism is flimsier than a tubular latch or deadbolt. (If the occupants of your home can learn that a closed door speaks for itself, you might skip the locks altogether and shop for something more creative. Some people use cabinet pulls or even antlers to make an otherwise pedestrian piece of hardware stand out.)
Should the flimsier seal not be problematic for your household, move on to examine the wall in which you intend to fit the door. The pocket-door frame isn’t as strong as the studs it will replace, so it might be inappropriate—or even prohibited—to install one in a load-bearing wall. Consider the work and expense involved, and consult building codes before beginning demolition. Another deal breaker: If the walls abutting the entryway are too short, or cluttered with electrical or plumbing fixtures or built-in shelves or cabinets, there will be nowhere for the pocket door to slide.
How to Know If You Have the Space
A pocket door requires a “sleeve” inside the wall of the door frame in which it retracts. For a traditional 32-inch-wide interior door, you’ll need at least 66 inches of linear wall space: 32 inches for the door and the rest for the housing. (Note: It’s OK if this sleeve intersects with another wall, but you might need special hardware to reinforce that juncture if a supportive stud needs to be removed.) The wall should also be thicker than four inches, as the standard door thickness is about two inches.
Another measurement to take during the planning phase is that of the doorway itself. Generally, when it’s open, a pocket door disappears completely and remains accessible via a recessed pull on the leading edge. If, however, you’d rather install handles on the sides of the door, it won’t retract all the way but it will be a little easier to open and close. Ask yourself: Is the doorway wide enough to sacrifice a few inches for that more convenient door pull, or do I need the full width of the walkway because it’s a high-traffic area? Weigh the pros and cons to having it jut out some—remember, the couple of inches your door eats into your walkway may give you wiggle room by requiring less than the standard 66 inches of linear wall space to house it when retracted.
Next, you’ll have to assess what else shares the wall space where the pocket door cage will go and how difficult these fixtures would be to move. The wall is a poor candidate for a pocket door if:
• Pipes or electrical wires run through it. Rerouting pipes and wires is beyond the skill set of the average do-it-yourselfer and adds to the installation cost. As well, because of the depth of the electrical box in which it’s housed, you won’t have room for a standard switch or outlet.
• You want to hang a heavy frame on a nail that penetrates far into ½- to ¾-inch drywall. This will impede the door’s movement and gouge the door.
• You need to install an assist bar or fixture that requires deep anchors. The pocket door cage includes split studs that can support a towel bar or toilet-paper holder but won’t meet the standards for a weight-bearing fixture. If the pocket door frame uses steel studs rather than wood, you’ll have to attach the wallboard to the bottom plate below the pocket door compartment, which further limits the use of wall space.
What to Expect at Installation
If all the stars align, you’re ready to introduce your home to this old-fashioned feature. Here’s what to expect with this project.
Assuming you’re not fortunate enough to be installing the door in a home that’s under construction, expect to remove the drywall on both sides of the wall where the pocket door will go. You’ll remove the studs as well to make way for a new door header and pocket door framework. If your home was built before 1978 and it’s likely that the existing walls were finished with lead-based paints, you need to follow protocol to dispose of the materials you’re ripping out.
Do yourself a favor and buy a pocket door installation kit or prefabricated frame—it simplifies the project by orders of magnitude. Kits come with all the hardware, including the track system from which the door hangs; premade units are just what they sound like, with all the parts where they belong. Both include detailed instructions that minimize mistakes. The prefabricated frames fit standard door sizes, but a competent do-it-yourselfer can customize.
Most pocket doors hang from recessed tracks, with the top of the door attached to a trolley system and glides that keep the door centered as it moves. But some are mounted from the ground—or from the ground and ceiling—if the door is heavier and wider than normal. A ground-mounted system can present a tripping hazard and limit accessibility, but you can find recessed tracks that eliminate this problem. Expect to spend more for this setup.
After installing the frame, you’ll hang the pocket door and adjust it so it’s plumb. Remove the door to paint it and install any recessed hardware, then remount it before hanging new drywall on both sides from the frame’s split studs and nailing baseboard or other molding to the base plate. The last step is to finish the jambs.
Once you start using your new pocket door, you’ll wonder why home builders ever abandoned such an ingenious device that does its own disappearing act.