Whether you’re looking for an Eastlake-style entry knob in a rare pattern or you need to outfit all but one of your interior passage doors with pyramid knobs, finding vintage or reproduction replacements often becomes a maddening challenge.
If there’s enough original hardware in the house to identify specific patterns (multiples of doorknobs with rosettes, for example), start there. Then decide what expectations you have: Is it more important that replacements look and feel old—with a few imperfections along with some patina—or that the hardware look like and function as new? A purist may be satisfied only with vintage hardware that exactly matches the old in pattern and finish. A more pragmatic restorer may be happy with near matches or even new hardware “in the style of” the old.
Be aware that not every piece of hardware found in the house may be original, even if it looks old and is recognizable as a period style. Previous residents may have changed or updated hardware according to prevailing or personal tastes. If you like it, keep it, and if you don’t, replace it.
Before starting your search, consider the type and number of replacements needed. Finding a match for one ca. 1910 cabinet latch is easier than locating a dozen identical 1880s window locks. (Nevertheless, you may still end up doing a lot of searching to find that one specific latch!) The most desirable and necessary hardware—intact passage (i.e., interior) sets or door hinges, for instance—are next to impossible to locate in sets of six or eight, at least without a months-long search. That’s why the reproductions market evolved in the first place.
Be willing to compromise, especially if budget is a concern. When the replacement hardware is not in the same room as existing pieces, minor difference in size or detail probably won’t be noticeable. If the item is in close proximity to an original—the missing rose on one side of a passage set, say, or a set of hinges on the same door—any difference in size or pattern may be jarring.
As you search, be on the lookout for subtle similarities (and differences) in size, thickness, pattern, and especially in the finish. It helps if you can identify the makers: is it Corbin, Yale, Mallory Wheeler & Co., or another long-lost company? You can research these online. Even seemingly exact-match vintage pieces may vary in noticeable ways from the intact hardware in your house. The same goes triple when it comes to reproductions.
Size Think you’ve found an exact match for that egg-and dart back plate from a salvage dealer? Check the measurements—both on your piece and the one you’ve found. Back plates can vary ½" or more in height, even when the pattern appears to match exactly.
Considering a reproduction that’s a near match? The piece may actually be thicker, slightly larger, and arguably of higher quality than your original. Early 20th-century “builders’ hardware” was usually stamped, not cast, and often made of a blend of various “pot metals,” resulting in hardware that was lighter and thinner than modern reproductions, which tend to be made of solid brass.
Not all the hardware in your house may be original, even if it looks old. Previous residents often changed out hardware that was dysfunctional or out of style. A mix of styles and periods is credible and may look just fine.
Hardware Pattern Quality Most modern reproductions are based on period originals or patterns found in old builders’ supply catalogs. Beyond checking to make sure the pattern actually matches in size and all details (many stylistically related ones “read” alike), look at the crispness of the pattern, especially in ornate hardware like Victorian-era doorknobs and plates. Small details tend to disappear in reproduction, and even an exact copy may have a sloppy appearance when examined close up. This can be true even when the manufacturer claims to be making reproductions using lost-wax casting, a very old method of producing fine hardware.
Finish Hardware finishes from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries vary widely. Some, like polished brass, have always been considered desirable while others may appear unusual to our eyes (tiger stripes, anyone?). Even when the reproduction is based on a historic pattern, modern finishes don’t necessarily equate (“antique brass” and “oil-rubbed bronze” come to mind). Luckily, unlacquered polished brass is making a sustained comeback, which gives your hardware a fighting chance to develop patina over time—provided you can find a match in that timeless finish.
Shop locally, and then spread your net wide. Don’t assume that the items an architectural salvage dealer posts online are all that’s in stock. Call, email, or visit in person. Send detailed pictures with exact measurements of the pieces you’re looking for, or take pictures on your smart phone to carry with you. If the staff seems knowledgeable, show them what you’re looking for and ask for help in your search. It’s easier for them than you to sift through what may be a vast and confusing inventory.
Can’t find a historically appropriate entry set for your 18th-century house? Need repairs to an irreplaceable sextant latch? Turn to a restoration metalwork specialist. The best have completed commissions for a long list of historic sites and house museums. They can fix broken parts and even customize replication, all with a patina that looks a century old or more. Even when there’s little or nothing to go by, don’t despair. The craftspeople at Ball & Ball created period hardware for Montpelier, the home of James Madison, even though there was no original hardware left in the house. “We went through our collection and found some locks that were of the same period,” says Bill Ball. “Then we reproduced them exactly as they would have been at the time.”
Vintage Hardware Sources
• Al Bar Wilmette Specialists in restoring historic hardware & metal fixtures
• Architectural Antiques Vintage hardware, etc.
• Ball & Ball Hardware Meticulous, custom period hardware
• Heritage Metalworks Historically accurate, custom hardware
• Historic Albany Non-profit architectural salvage
• Historic Houseparts Salvage & reproduction
• Materials Unlimited Salvaged hardware & other antiques
• Liz’s Antique Hardware Antique & vintage hardware, lighting
• Ohmega Salvage Architectural salvage
• Olde Good Things More than 3,000 vintage hardware items online
• Old House Parts Co. Architectural salvage, 1730–1930
• Old Portland Hardware Vintage, refurbished hardware, lighting, plumbing, glass & more
• Pasadena Architectural Salvage Architectural salvage
• Vintage Hardware & Lighting Vintage & reproduction hardware
• West End Architectural Salvage Architectural salvage & decorative reuse