Custom Pocket Doors / by keith messick

Pocket doors are a wonderful way to save space and yet still provide for privacy.  In a traditional house, trim and casing is often used to cover or hide many things.  In a modern design, we would like to have a clean and simple expression of the opening, without lots of fussy trim adding clutter to the architecture.  This requires a custom pocket door installation.

To accomplish this requires coordination.  

The typical sequence of construction goes as follows (as relevant for this discussion):

1. Framing 2.Drywall 3. Paint 4. Finish Carpentry (hang doors / wood floors)

To successfully execute a custom pocket door, all of these trades must be consulted simultaneously.

The first issue is the door hardware itself.  Many of us have memories of pocket doors that are stuck in the wall and no longer used.  To avoid this scenario, start with the best hardware you can buy.  Consider the hardware as permanent.  You do not want to replace the hardware.  If the hardware breaks down over time, the entire wall will have to be opened up to access the door and hardware.

Pocket door kits are available for purchase.  They come with the hardware and usually a header that the hardware will be mounted to.  These kits will work.  But they will not produce the seamless, flush pocket door seen here.  The door(s) shown here must be assembled from an assortment of parts, all purchased, but delicately crafted to produce a beautiful end product.

The sequence goes as follows:

The door opening will be built by the framers.  However, framers are often called rough carpenters (as opposed to finish carpenters) for a reason.  They are trying to build all the walls or the frame of the house in rapid fashion.  Doors are the realm of finish carpenters.  You will have to micro manage the framing of the pocket door opening to make sure that dimensions are close to perfect.  The sides of the door opening must be plumb (straight up and down) and the floor and head (top of the door) must be level.  At the time of framing, several pieces of data are needed: the door size, the pocket size (depth, width and height), wall finish material, and floor finish material.  An alternative is to have the finish carpenters frame the opening (which requires coordinating the finish carpenters with the rough).

Once the opening is framed, the track can be installed (finish carpenter).  The track can be hung from the bottom or the side of a beam.  Before the door can be hung on the track, it must be either stained or painted (painter).  It is possible to put the final finish on the door after it is hung, but it is far easier when the door is outside of the pocket.  Once hung, it is difficult to get to all sides of the door.

After the hardware is installed, the door painted (or stained), and the door hung, the openings around the door pocket can be closed (drywall).  After the door is hung, there are several adjustments that can/must be made.  The height of the door will be adjusted based in the finish floor.  The door must also be adjusted to properly meet the wall (in this custom door, there are no door jambs-the door will come to rest against the wall when it is closed).  When the door sits in the pocket (door open), the edge of the door should align with the wall (where the door jamb would traditionally be).  When the door is closed, the edge of the door should sit flat against the other door jamb.  This assumes that the top of the door (also the track) is perfectly level and both sides of the opening are exactly parallel.  If these conditions do not exist, the door will appear crooked in the opening. This is one sure way to ruin a good thing.  A level head (top of the door) and plumb (straight up and down: vertical) walls are absolutely essential for a custom door to work properly and look elegant. 

In the real world, good framers can get things close to level and plumb.  It is the drywall subcontractors that have to work a little bit of magic to finish the areas around the door.  The beauty of the pocket door is that, when properly installed, it is relatively invisible when open.  To achieve this, the drywall must meet seamlessly at the openings.  The walls and the ceiling/floor must be in perfect alignment.  When achieved, your eye will move past the opening as though the door is not there.  However, if these surfaces are not in alignment, you eye will read the opening as a mistake.

Here are some pictures to help illustrate many of the points discussed above:

The black arrow is the slot (pocket) for the pocket door. This is one of three in this project. Note that the door is not yet installed. The track was installed during the framing. The measurements for the door are taken after framing is complete. On the plans, all three doors are four feet wide and 8 feet tall. In reality, all are unique to their opening. All must be specifically ordered and custom made for their respective opening. This one was 3'-10 7/8" x 8'-7/8".

It is much easier to hang the doors without any drywall. However, to keep construction moving forward, the drywall is left off around the openings. After the door(s) is hung, the drywall will be finished up to the door opening.

After the door is hung, the drywallers begin to close up the opening.

The areas around the opening are shimmed with strips of cardboard to get the drywall flush with the edge of the door.

After the drywall is hung next to the opening, the drywall guys install edge metal around the opening. This allows a clean finish right up to the opening of the pocket.

Note that the drywall crew consists of three different specialties: hangers (put the raw boards on the walls), metal guys (install edge metal around openings and corners), and finishers (apply joint compound to make the seams smooth for paint).

This is the finished pocket door. There are still some finishing details left: The door hardware has yet to be installed (the latch on the edge to enable you to grab the edge of the door and pull it closed. The slot up in the ceiling will be painted black to decrease the visibility of the framing.

Note the nice even alignment of the edges of the drywall. Seeing the finished product makes it seem all too easy. But custom pocket doors definitely take craftsmen that know what they are doing. It done right, they are beautiful and very functional.

A couple of notes on the installation and maintenance:

These doors have a custom hidden guide. The stock door guide was not used. It sits out in the door opening, ruining the nice clean and flush look of the pocket door. The custom fabricated guide holds the door steady as it opens. It keeps the door from swinging from side to side and hitting the inside of the pocket as the door slides out of the pocket. Once the pocket door is fully closed, the guide also holds the door and keeps it from swinging in the opening. This guide was cut from a steel angle. The grey looking goop on the guide is polyurethane caulking. It is used to coat the guide and provide a rubbery surface on the guide.

The black arrow, above, is pointing to an access door that will enable future adjustments to the door's hardware. The door will have a painted plywood cover on it eventually. This door is inside a closet. These access doors allow the door to be easily adjusted. Without these doors, it is not easy (if not impossible) to adjust the doors. When ever possible, these access doors should be planned at locations that aren't ready visible (such as a closet).

This is what the access door looks like after the drywall has been finished and painted. A small door will cover the opening. (Note that the blue line is masking tape left on the door from painting that has not yet been removed from the door).