Last year, clients approached me to install a door at the rear of their walkout basement. They’d attached a workshop to their home, but access to the shop required walking outside in the elements. The only protected route involved climbing through a window, which they had been doing in the worst weather. The plan was to expand the window opening and install a door.

The location of the new door was ideal for access, except for one detail: The rear of the house faced a wooded area, and the new door would be completely hidden from the street and from neighboring houses. A recent break-in at a nearby home made the clients concerned that the secluded location of the door might be attractive to thieves. For maximum security, they wanted a heavy-duty steel door hinged to a steel frame.

At a local supply house, we found a commercial-grade steel door that would fit perfectly in the width of the brick window opening (40 1/8 inches). But at 80 inches high, the door was too tall for the opening. To make the door fit, I’d have to expand the opening up a few inches and remove the masonry below the window.

The author enlarges a window opening for the new door.
The author enlarges a window opening for the new door.
Then he forms a new sill.
Then he forms a new sill.

Prepping the opening. Like many foundation walls in North Carolina, these basement walls consisted of a wythe of 4-inch-thick block on the inside and a wythe of 4-inch brick on the outside for a total wall thickness of 8 inches. After removing the window, I took out the brick and block below the opening down to a few inches below the basement floor level. Above the window, I removed the steel lintels and then took out a couple of courses of brick on both the inside and the outside. (The original masons used brick instead of block to fill in the space above the inside lintel). As I took out the brick above and below the opening, I toothed out the brickwork to maintain a running-bond pattern.

After removing the masonry, I formed and poured a concrete sill precisely level and one inch above the floor to work properly with the anticipated basement floor covering. On the inside, I set a 1-by board on edge and shimmed it level for the form. On the outside, the door stepped down a few inches to a patio, so I ran the outside form board past the bricks on each side, holding the top even with the interior form. Concrete blocks held the form tight against the bricks during the pour.

Anchoring the door frame. The biggest challenge was anchoring the metal door frame solidly to the sill and the wall. The owner wanted a door that would be a formidable barrier with the frame bonded tenaciously to the opening. I needed to position the door frame precisely. Once a steel frame is set in masonry, it can’t be adjusted, and unlike a wood door, a steel door cannot be shaved to fit.

Bolts threaded onto the jambs form masonry anchors for the side jambs.
Bolts threaded onto the jambs form masonry anchors for the side jambs.
To anchor jambs to the sill, he first drills holes.
To anchor jambs to the sill, he first drills holes.

After letting the concrete sill cure for three days, I was ready to install the welded-steel frame. Each side jamb of the frame had four predrilled holes with a dimple around each one to serve as a countersink. I inserted 3-inch-long, 5/16-inch-diameter flat-head machine screws into the holes and secured them with nuts on the other side of the frame. Then, at each location, I threaded on a second nut about 2 inches from the first, followed by a fender washer and a third nut. Then I tightened everything together with wrenches. Later, when I filled the jamb channels with concrete, these assemblies would embed in the concrete to mechanically anchor the frame in the opening.

Then he drives Tapcon concrete anchors into the holes with a flexible drill.
Then he drives Tapcon concrete anchors into the holes with a flexible drill.

With the anchors attached to the jambs, I was ready to bolt the frame to the sill. After setting the frame in place on the concrete sill and making sure it was straight and plumb, I marked the locations of the holes in the attachment plates welded to the bottoms of the jambs. I took the frame out, drilled the holes, and then set the frame back in place. I screwed the jambs to the sill with Tapcon bolts made from steel that was hard enough to cut threads in the green concrete. Toothing the brick next to the jambs gave me plenty of room to fit my hand and the flexible shaft of a nut driver inside the channel, so I was able to use a cordless impact driver to drive the Tapcons.

Braces clamped to the frame and attached to the joists hold the door frame in place.
Braces clamped to the frame and attached to the joists hold the door frame in place.
Spreaders keep the jambs from bulging inward while the brickwork and grouting is completed.
Spreaders keep the jambs from bulging inward while the brickwork and grouting is completed.
Bricks fill the toothed-out sections near the bottom of the opening.
Bricks fill the toothed-out sections near the bottom of the opening.

With the frame attached to the sill, I clamped on braces to hold it plumb. The basement ceiling joists provided good anchor points for the upper ends of the braces. I also notched three temporary 2x6 spreaders into the door opening to keep the sides straight while I filled in the toothed-out sections with brick and grouted the jamb channels.

Filling in around the frame At the bottom of the jambs, I laid five courses of bricks, filling in the toothed-out area over to the steel door frame. Following the recommendations of the Steel Door Institute, I filled in the steel frame channel with mortar as I laid in the courses.

Bricks at the top corners of the frame bring the masonry to a height 1/2 inch above the header jamb.
Bricks at the top corners of the frame bring the masonry to a height 1/2 inch above the header jamb.

At the top of the frame, I laid single bricks at each corner, which brought the masonry to a point about 1/2 inch above the top of the head jamb. These bricks would support the two steel lintels (one for the inside wythe and the other for the outside wythe) that would span across the opening. After laying these bricks, I stopped for the day to allow the mortar to set up.

The next step was grouting, or filling in, the rest of the channel with concrete. I kept the three 2x6 spreaders in place to keep the frame from bulging inward as the channel filled. I’d made the spreaders 1/16 inch longer than the width of the opening. The tight fit ensured that the door would not hit the jamb after it was installed.

The author grouts the jamb channels from the top, scraping the mix into the header channel and pushing it into the sides.
The author grouts the jamb channels from the top, scraping the mix into the header channel and pushing it into the sides.

I’d grouted the bottom foot or so of the channel with mortar as I filled in the brick, and now I had to grout the rest of the jamb channels from the top. Before mixing the grout, I put screws into the threaded holes for the hinges and strikes to keep them from being filled up with grout mix. I also put pieces of rigid foam insulation in the slots that would receive the door bolt and the deadbolt.

I made the grout mix out of bagged concrete enriched with Portland cement. The grout needed to be somewhat loose because it had to go more than 5 feet down the channels, flowing around and completely embedding the anchors in the frame. I added plenty of water to make sure the mix flowed readily. A rich, wet mix would also suck deep into the pores of the brickwork, ensuring a tenacious bond. To get the grout into the channels, I loaded up my hawk and used a margin trowel to push the mud onto the header section of the frame and then down into the side channels.

After filling the head channel about two-thirds of the way, he embeds rebar in the mix.
After filling the head channel about two-thirds of the way, he embeds rebar in the mix.
The grouting is finished.
The grouting is finished.

When both side channels were full, I stopped and let the grout cure for two days before removing the spreaders and the braces at the top of the frame. With the braces out of the way, I mixed another batch of grout and filled the (horizontal) head channel. When the channel was about two-thirds full, I placed a length of 1/2-inch rebar in the concrete, letting the ends of the rebar extend a few inches on both sides into the groove between the inside and outside wythes of brick. The rebar provided an additional mechanical connection between the frame and the masonry at the top corners.

Finishing the brickwork. I finished grouting to the top of the header channel and again gave the grout two days to set up. The final steps were setting the lintels and finishing the brickwork on the inside and outside. The steel lintels I’d taken out earlier were in excellent shape, so I was able to re-use them.

Steel lintels (seen above the door) sit on top of the corner bricks and support the brickwork on both sides of the door.
Steel lintels (seen above the door) sit on top of the corner bricks and support the brickwork on both sides of the door.

When I set the lintels on the top corner bricks, they had about 4 inches of bearing on each side of the door frame and sat about 1/2 inch above the header jamb. I spread a layer of mortar over the grouted header channel to fill in below the steel lintels. After setting the lintels in place, I laid a single course of bricks over the inside lintel, and two courses over the outside lintel. I used tuck pointers to completely fill the joint between the new bricks and the existing masonry with mortar. Although painstaking, it was necessary to fill these joints solidly because the area above the lintels was load-bearing.

After tooling the joints in the brickwork, I installed the hinges on the frame and the door. Then I hung the door and everyone took a deep breath. To everyone’s relief, the door fit perfectly.

Photos by Werner Lehenbauer