Door locks

(Bob Kast / illustration)

Dear James: I am going to have a natural solid-wood front door installed with a new lockset. What types of attractive locksets are most secure, but reasonably priced?

— Dana L.

Dear Dana: Solid natural wood front doors are gorgeous, so you do not want to select an ordinary-looking lockset in it. Unfortunately, higher-priced locksets usually are the most ornate and have the highest quality and longest-lasting finishes.

It certainly can be confusing trying to select among the literally hundreds of locksets available at your home center store. Keep in mind that ease of operation and security are also important decision criteria.

Learning some lockset basics can help you make an informed selection. There are two basic designs of locksets: mortise and cylindrical. A mortise lockset fits in a deep, narrow slot (mortise) in the edge of the door.

The size of the mortise varies depending on the lockset, but it can be as deep as four inches and five inches long. Cutting the slot is precision work that requires special tools. It is not a job for the typical do-it-yourselfer. The door retailer may be able to have it cut for you.

A cylindrical lockset is designed like its name: round. The locking mechanism is inside a cylinder. These are easy to install in about 30 minutes. Typical doors with a large, round hole through them, seen at most home center stores, are precut for cylindrical locksets.

Since you are purchasing a high-quality wood door and already spending a lot of money, I would recommend a solid brass mortise lockset. The difference in quality and functionality between it and a $10 cylindrical lockset is like night and day. It is not uncommon for one to last a lifetime.

Mortise locksets include both the standard door latch and a superstrong deadbolt all in one unit. Many designs connect the operation of the latch and the deadbolt for security and quick emergency exits in case of fire. Don’t get curious and take it apart; it’s full of springs, levers, etc.

Generally, you just need one key to operate both the latch and the deadbolt. On some designs, turning the key partway operates the latch. Additional turning operates the deadbolt. In others, you just turn the key in different directions to operate the latch or the deadbolt.

If you have pushed your budget to the limit on the door, there are some very nice quality, and attractive, cylindrical locksets available. Make your decision initially so that you can order your door with the holes for the cylindrical lockset already cut.

In my own front door, although it’s made of insulated steel, I installed an attractive polished brass combination cylindrical latch/deadbolt lockset. This requires two sets of holes, but they are hidden under the large decorative faceplate.

To control your costs, you may want to do the entire cylindrical lockset installation yourself. There are a few points to keep in mind. Choose a lockset with a 2⅜-inch backset, especially if your new front door has windows and narrow stiles. The lockset package will clearly indicate this.

Most packages include a template for locating the big hole for the mechanism. Keep in mind that the edges of doors are beveled slightly so they close without hitting the frame. Take this into account when measuring.

James Dulley is a mechanical engineer, an avid Do-It-Yourselfer and a nationally syndicated columnist with Email your questions to him at Here’s How. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

James Dulley

James Dulley

James Dulley is a mechanical engineer, an avid Do-It-Yourselfer and a nationally syndicated columnist with Email your questions to him at Here’s How. The opinions expressed are his own.