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How To Buy Reproduction Hardware

What makes one brand of door hardware better than another—especially if they’re all but identical in style? By Mary Ellen Polson

    A custom replication of an 1890 design by Al Bar-Wilmette Platers.

    If you’re shopping for entry or interior passage hardware, there are many fine choices suitable for older homes, and for newly constructed homes with an old-house look. In fact, so many restoration hardware dealers are producing new stock based on old designs that it’s possible to find the same door set offered by more than one company. How can you evaluate which company’s offerings are right for you?

    Consider the source.

    If you’re shopping at a home store like Lowe’s or Home Depot, you’re likely to encounter hardware at four different price points, says David Underhill, the general manager of Nostalgic Warehouse, a maker of affordably priced reproduction hardware. The cheapest is inexpensive hardware without a brand name, followed by Kwikset, Schlage, and Baldwin, in that order. Together, these hardware companies make more than 90% of the entry and passage hardware sold in the U.S.

    A Victorian passage set from Nostalgic Warehouse.

    If you’re comparing a budget-priced door set from a home store to a modestly priced $100 set made by a company that specializes in reproductions, the reproduction is likely to win hands-down, even if you pay a few dollars more. At the home center, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a set that even looks remotely like the builder’s hardware from a century ago or more; mass-market brands follow prevailing fashions. Less-expensive reproductions, while closer to old styles, will have been modified in size and scale to cover the pre-bored holes now standard in new doors.

    How is it made?

    Even a budget reproduction is machine pressed from a thick rod of solid brass, not stamped from thinner metal. “You can literally feel the difference because of the weight of the product,” Underhill says. Another difference is detailing: a hardware set from a company like Baldwin will look and feel substantial, but it may not have the period detail of a comparably priced reproduction.

    In another league altogether are high-end period reproductions made using the lost-wax process. The Victorian door set from Al Bar-Wilmette may look identical to the less ex pensive version, but it costs almost ten times as much. Based on a Yale & Towne set from about 1890, it’s a custom reproduction designed to use the labor-intensive lost-wax casting process. A custom piece like this “is not something you want to put in a house in a planned development,” says Greg Bettenhausen, president of Al Bar.

    Crown City Hardware's Egg & Dart entry set.

    Where is it made?

    Even if you buy in a local hardware store, you should know whether the maker hand-forges that entry set in rural Pennsylvania, or machine-stamps it in China. Most builder’s hardware sold in the U.S. is made overseas, although many American companies, like Baldwin, import parts finished to their specifications for assembly here. Much of the good quality machine-forged and -cast hardware from makers like Stone River Bronze, Sun Valley Bronze, and Rocky Mountain Hardware is made in the U.S. And products from Kayne & Son, Woodbury Blacksmith and Forge, and Williamsburg Blacksmiths are handforged much as they were 300 years ago. The most expensive hardware is generally made either in Europe or North America.

    E.R. Butler painstakingly hand-crafts its early American reproductions.

    How much choice?

    No reproduction maker—nor all of them together—begins to offer even a handful of the designs that were available between 1870 and 1920. But even modestly priced suppliers will give you a chance to pair a backplate or rosette of your choice with the knob or lever of your choice. You’ll also get a choice of four to six finishes; several companies, such as Crown City Hardware, will allow you to specify custom finishes on some pieces. Beyond that, high-end manufacturers like E.R. Butler offer far more diversity in style and size. In brass doorknobs alone, for example, the Enoch Robinson Collection offers knobs in more than a dozen profiles and five diameters. Of course, fully custom hardware like the Al Bar set allows you to specify not just the design of the hardware, but the size, weight, and finish you desire.

    How does it look?

    Don’t select an entry set based on an image on a website—you must see it, and hold it in your hand. A piece of hardware should have good heft. The finish should be uniform (even if it’s a variable or graduated finish like antiqued brass). Hardware with relief shouldn’t look “dirty,” as though the extraneous grit hasn’t been filed off. And most of all, the hardware should appeal to you as the perfect complement to your house, to the full extent your pocketbook will allow.

    Published in: Old-House Interiors January/February 2005

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