Expert Advice: Mystery Hardware

A mysterious piece of hardware is identified as a center stop for a pocket door.

This piece of hardware fell from the top of some pocket doors I was removing. It shows no signs of having ever been attached to anything, and out of the two sets of doors I was refurbishing, I only found this object in one of the doors. The sliding hardware has a stamp on it: Wilcox MFG in Aurora IL, pat. 1881. Can you help me identify it? I would love to know what it does so that I can return it to its proper place when I’m done refurbishing the doors.

Bill Rigby: Early pocket doors were held in place by a bottom track with fixed axle sheaves mortised into the door bottom, and top guides (hardwood tongues installed in the door tops) running in a slot along a wooden overhead track. Upper tracks were never painted, but occasionally they could be waxed for smoother operation.

Richards-Wilcox ads showed how easily even a child could close the doors.

An improvement over this fixed axle design came with Robert Hatfield’s invention of a “frictionless” sheave in 1864. His idea to run the axle in horizontal slots in the sheave casing proved to be a great innovation. The axle would easily roll along the top of the slot, so installations had to be perfectly level to avoid the possibility of doors running away. The Richards-Wilcox company patented a top track assembly that used this same idea to create a smoothly operating top hanger, thus eliminating the floor track that some people found to be an annoyance.

What you’ve found is an early center stop for a set of Richards-Wilcox “Improved Sliding Door Hangers” for double doors, which would have fit into the track pocket to keep the doors from overextending. While your stop may be a crude cast iron form, Richards-Wilcox made rollers that were beautifully manufactured, even though they were never seen after installation. My collection of catalogs from the 19th century shows the rollers, but not any of the stops—I guess they weren’t thought to be a selling point. These Richards-Wilcox hangers needed reliable brakes; according to advertisements, they rolled so easily that even a child could handily manipulate them.

Your type of stop had its advantages. First, it wouldn’t be seen because it was mounted up in the track pocket, and back from the edge of the door. Second, it was easily removed to allow either door to be centered inside the opening. (As you’ve probably already discovered, you need to center the door in order to adjust the roller assemblies, or to take the door out of the pocket.) 

Most pocket door systems need some periodic maintenance, and yours is no exception. Keeping the area around the track clean will help keep your doors running smoothly, as falling debris can become embedded in the track when the wheels roll by, creating a bumpy motion. If squeaks develop, you can apply a small amount of household oil to the top of the slots with a rag.

Later pocket door assemblies need attention from time to time, too, but sometimes the most important thing to learn about them is what not to do. Systems with fiber or hard rubber wheels should only be lubricated on their axle bearings, as oil and grease will degrade these rollers to the point of complete failure. Even the box tracks that house fiber or hard rubber rollers need to be kept clean and free of oil.

Another complaint I sometimes hear about pocket doors is that breezes can blow through the wall pockets into living spaces. Many times, pocket door cavities weren’t sealed off when they abutted exterior walls or the floors above, which can result in drafts. While breezes and dirt filtering into the house through interior pocket doors can be annoying, most people learn to live with them because it’s nearly impossible to effectively seal off the cavities unless you are opening up walls in a major renovation.

Bill Rigby has been a restorer for 40 years, and supplies original stock builders’ hardware through the Wm. J. Rigby Co. He’s currently working on an 1880’s railway car for a museum.

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Tags: Ask OHJ Bill Rigby Expert Advice Hardware OHJ January/February 2009 Old-House Journal pocket doors

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