Old Hardware, Fine Details.



They say it's the little things that count. I get the list, a bunch of things to take care of around the house. Sticking doors, paint the inside of a closet, adjust a doorknob or window, maybe the gutter downspout fell, or replace a hard-to-reach light bulb. I'm not interested in being a perfectionist. It's fleeting at best and almost impossible. I shoot for preservation and land somewhere near with excellent results. And details? I'm kooky for those.


Antique hardware is a favorite for me. I'm a preservationist at heart, so tearing out old stuff and throwing it away bugs me. I'll take a 90-year-old door and hardware with eight coats of paint on it over a new one any day. If it was built into the house when it was new, I want to keep it there. Antique lock sets seem to last forever. They can usually be repaired and look great. The hinges are rock solid and don't' wear out. New 3 1/2" hinges with ball finials run around $15 or more. The old ones are heavier and fit the door they came off of perfectly. The biggest complaint with old hardware is paint. If the woodwork has been painted, sometimes the hardware, especially the hinges, has been painted. Some dad with nine kids and 50 hours of work a week painted these rooms. No time to mask or cut in, just paint the thing. Get to bed and work the next day.


Cleaning this hardware is not so bad. I take everything apart, sorting it into separate containers to keep reassembly easy. I soak the parts in lacquer thinner during the day or a crockpot overnight, or I brush on a coat of 15-minute paint stripper (citrus stripper works ok, but it's slow). I carefully scrape or brass wire brush the peeling paint off the hardware, keeping a shop vac going to collect the debris while I work. Then comes the fun. Steel hinges get the wire wheel treatment. I use a fine wire wheel on my grinder motor to whisk the remaining paint away, then lay into the steel a little to clean the hinge up nicely. The wire wheel gets into the seams between the joints and cleans the inside curves of the ball finials. After the hinge is cleaned up, I spray a clear coat of lacquer or use wax to protect it. I poke all the screws into a cardboard box and spray the heads. Polyurethane works too. Window handles and some other hardware come in steel too, they get the same treatment. Locksets are usually brass and sometimes nickel silver. These get compound and a buffing wheel. I use a motor with a cone adapter. I start with a hard wheel and rouge to knock the dark patina off. At this point, it will become evident if the brass is solid or plating. Plated brass will come off, revealing a silver color below. I ease into these pieces to preserve the brass coating. Nickel silver and brass can be disfigured if a hard wheel is used too aggressively. I keep the parts moving. After the patina has been knocked off, I switch to a soft fluffy wheel with the same rouge and give everything but the screws a final buff. I don't lacquer brass or nickel. Instead, I encourage the homeowner to use a brass cleaner a couple of times a year. It looks better. Plus, patina comes on slower than one thinks it might.


After all the clean-up and polishing is done, I re-install the hardware onto the door or window. Everything goes back together, original shape and size, same screw holes, and most of all original equipment in a beautiful house, ready for another 90 years of service. This gives me great satisfaction—one less door and hardware in the landfill. An old house with its character, strength, and beauty preserved. And best of all, a homeowner who is amazed at the lovely home revealed from under years of paint. Hidden beauty is unexpectedly brought back to life and preserved to generations to come and appreciate. It's the best.


Sometimes I think I'm crazy for this work. It seems old-fashioned in a world of speedy installers. These guys can throw a hollow-core, prehung door, with stamped metal knobs, into a hole faster than I can set up a work table. Now that I think of it, that's what makes preservation so special. I'll stick with crazy.

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