The fussy clients who hired you to remodel their Federal-style town house ask if they should replace the door hardware with reproductions or authentic antiques. What do you say? It's perfectly fine if you're not sure, because there's no easy answer. Choosing period hardware can be tricky business.
"It depends on the client's renovation objective," says architect Peter Newlin, FAIA, principal of Chesapeake Architects in Chestertown, Md. "Is it for historical authenticity or atmosphere?"
If it's merely for the look, most architects spec new hardware with period ornamentation. Generally stocked by suppliers, these reproductions are readily available at home centers or specialty showrooms. However, when authenticity is the aim, salvaged originals are the products of choice and finding those can be an Indiana Jones-like odyssey. "Locating the real stuff is hard," says Allen Charles Hill, AIA, principal of Historic Preservation and Architecture in Woburn, Mass. "It's a labor-intensive process that requires visiting and talking to a lot of dealers."
That kind of effort is one reason Hill encourages clients to go with high-quality reproductions. Hill also believes antique products offer only margin-al aesthetic benefits. "It's hard to tell the difference between replicated products and authentic pieces that have been reconditioned," he says. "A skilled blacksmith would be able to tell the difference, but to most people, they are indistinguishable." One manufacturer architects turn to for painstaking reproductions is Exton, Pa.?based Ball and Ball, which offers a complete line of interior and exterior door hardware in brass, cast iron, hand-forged iron, and bronze. The company stocks its own line but also does custom reproductions of authentic 18th-century American and other traditional hardware.
"There is a lot of value in something that's already made," says co-owner Bob Ball, "so we only do reproductions from existing pieces." The service is handy for matching missing or malfunctioning hardware on older houses and for extending it to new additions.
Another trade favorite is Garland, Texas?based Nostalgic Warehouse, which offers a vast stock of reproduction hardware in an array of styles, including Colonial, Victorian, Prairie, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco. "We use exact antique patterns and produce our pieces faithfully like the old products," says president Andrea Ridout. The company's pieces are lacquer-coated to resist tarnish, and come in polished and antique brass, and antique copper and antique pewter.
But some architects decry the mendacious spirit of reproductions, asserting that the execution of details is often inaccurate and the quality not up to snuff. Sticklers for pedigree, they demand hardware that passes historical muster, and for that only antiques will do. J.L. Sibley Jennings Jr., AIA, says authentic products should be an architect's first consideration on a historic restoration project. When Jennings has such a project, he hits the salvage companies. "It's about the only place you are going to find the good stuff," says the Macon, Ga.?based architect.
House of Antique Hardware in Portland, Ore., sells both antique and reproduction hardware, but owner Roy Prange says traffic is heaviest for the antiques department, which carries products from the 1860s to the 1930s. "If customers can't find enough or the exact pattern of an item, then they move into the reproduction department," he says.
In times past, hardware hunters had to make a special trip to salvage yards specializing inauthentic hardware, but today many products are a cyberstop away. Dave Ackerman, owner of Architectural Salvage Warehouse in Burlington, Vt., sells originals dating from the early 1800s to 1950, most of it over his Web site.
"People can buy over the Web without problems," Ackerman says. "The stuff is easy to ship and can be returned. The only thing about antiques is that every single doorknob is going to have its own characteristics. People should remember that."
So, should you spec real or repro for your next restoration job? If it's a standard remodeling project, then period-looking hardware is fine, Newlin says. "But if you're doing an academic restoration, you really want to use authentic products to the extent that you can." Antique pieces will give your project a sense of authenticity, but they come with their own problems. For one thing, they can get pricey; some lock sets run as high as $3,500, depending on the rarity. Finding products in good condition and in complete sets is also a challenge because some people collect antique hardware, draining product from the marketplace.
One way to save time, effort, and money is to the spec real stuff sparingly, says Cal Rosenwald, a former dealer in decorative hardware and antiques in Washington, D.C. "You can use it in the public rooms, instead of the whole house," he says.
Sometimes you've got to play games, says Jennings. For example, you may have to scavenge your own project to put the good hardware in high-profile areas and replace it with lesser quality pieces. If you can't find certain pieces, try locating the original dies from the manufacturer, Jennings says. "Sometimes the companies are still in business and the original dies are available." Or you may have to make do with what you have, until you find the piece you want, he adds.
Finally, antique hardware requires good preparation, says Ackerman. "You have to plan ahead," he says. "Doors are always predrilled with large holes for modern hardware. They aren't designed to accept antique mechanisms." With that in mind, order doors with a different type of hole, he explains, or with no holes at all.
Whether you choose antique hardware or reproductions, remember that quality is most important. Even though it may be beautiful, hardware is first and foremost a hardworking, utilitarian product. Says Jennings, "You don't want anything of lesser quality."
[This article is a reprint from residential architect Magazine, November 2001.]
High-quality reproduction hardware suppliers are fairly easy to come by, but reputable salvage companies are harder to find. Here are a few of the top companies in both categories. Acorn Manufacturing
Architectural Salvage Warehouse
Ball and Ball
Craftsmen Hardware Co.
Crown City Hardware
Ed Donaldson Hardware Restorations
Eugenia's Authentic Antique Hardware
House of Antique Hardware
Kayne & Son Custom Hardware
Liz's Antique Hardware
Rocky Mountain Hardware