Antiques: Repairs: Furniture hardware

 

With antique furniture, the most frequent and most readily rectified cause of depressed value is incorrect hardware. Both dealers and collectors have long recognized that an important secretary or chest of drawers, complete with its original brasses, is easily worth a quarter to a third more than if it lacks them.

But fine pieces of this sort, with drawer pulls and keyhole escutcheons all present or accounted for, are not found every day. The majority, when discovered in the rough, either lack original hardware entirely or, at best, have but a part of it. The condition may range all the way from a bail or two being missing to all escutcheons gone except perhaps one.

Some thirty years ago, replacing missing hardware of this sort was a serious problem. It was a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul-that is, having found a fine old piece with brasses missing wholly or in part, one then had to look for another of the same period with brasses intact, but sufficiently inferior in line, craftsmanship or condition to warrant removing its hardware for use on the better piece.

Even then one's troubles were not over. Often, in brasses of the same type, the handles might vary enough to make the transfer impossible without plugging the old holes and boring new ones. Granted that this was the best that could be done, it was far from ideal, for the plugged holes as well as the new ones left traces that plainly showed what had been done, and to a degree lessened value.

Happily this trial-and-error system is no longer necessary. A number of brass founders now make a specialty of providing missing parts and have also developed adequate assortments of typical period brasses. These are faithful copies of old ones and are as fine reproductions as it is humanly possible to accomplish. So there is no excuse today for either collector or dealer having a piece of furniture with brasses at variance with its period. Yet all too common are some ill-mated combinations as a William and Mary secretary with Sheraton rosette knobs; a Chippendale chest of drawers with pulls of the Hepplewhite period in every detail of their shape and ornamentation.

Sometimes the error is not so obvious. The brasses may be of the period, but not enough care has been taken in securing the right size; so new holes have been bored and, from the inside, the drawer fronts are distinctly marred. For the discriminating, at least, the piece has been lessened in value. Yet a little care in selecting reproduction or replacement brasses of the exact size to fit the original holes was all that was needed.

Assuming that a piece of furniture has its old brasses, but the carcass needs repairing or refinishing, the first step, obviously, is to remove the hardware and carefully put it away in a safe place. In a perfect world, no escutcheon would break while being removed nor would any bail wander away from its fellows and be lost while waiting its return to the secretary or chest under repair. Things being as they are, however, either or both sometimes happen but the damage is not irrepairable. With a perfect one as a pattern, it is easy and comparatively inexpensive to have a new part specially made. Then when the piece of furniture is ready for its brasses, the presence of one or two elements in the set which are replacements goes unnoticed, and, in the end, such steps classify as justifiable repairs.

Even with pieces that lack their original brasses, through carelessness of former owners or through time and use, it is by no means difficult to determine what they were and select reproductions that fit, in both period and dimensions. The old cabinet brasses mirrored the various periods as distinctly as the furniture they adorned.

To cover this briefly-the seventeenth-century oak chests and cupboards had simple wooden knobs, usually about twice as long as their diameter. Such drawer pulls were also used on early eighteenth-century tables, cupboards and like pieces of Pennsylvania Dutch provenance. These handles should never be confused with the much larger turned wooden knobs of the mushroom sort that came in the late Sheraton and American Empire years.

In the William and Mary period, the drawer pulls were of the tear-drop pattern, and plates and keyhole escutcheons were either circular or square and set on the diagonal. These were sometimes used in the Queen Anne period, but more frequently the handles were small bails with plates behind them like those used for the keyholes, in outline something akin to a conventionalized bird with outspread wings. This pattern was much elaborated in the Chippendale period, and such brasses are well known under the general name of willow brasses. Sometimes they were plain and sometimes of an intricate cut-out design.

During this period bail handles were also used, with small rosettes immediately behind the posts that held the bails in position. In this design the keyhole as well was usually a rosette. The Hepplewhite period brought a distinct break in the design of brasses. These were square, oval or octagon, with bail handles and plates decorated with a wide range of stamped designs. When the Sheraton style succeeded this, the rosette knob, with either geometric or floral motif, became the fashion. This continued through the American Empire years, with wooden and glass knobs becoming a characteristic of the period.

With these types of brasses in mind, it will be possible in practically all instances where a piece of furniture has lost its original hardware to discover traces that indicate the kind and sort it had when new. A single surviving escutcheon, or a handle plate, hidden beneath succeeding layers of varnish and paint, should be sought for and eagerly salvaged. Such a survivor provides unquestionable evidence, and new handles should be as nearly like it as possible. If even this is missing, inspect the drawer fronts carefully in strong sunlight. The old hardware usually left scars and scratches that can be seen on the old varnished surface, and they provide a valuable key to the outline and size of reproduction brasses proper to use.

But if succeeding generations have tried to bring the old piece up to date, so that all evidence of its original fittings has been destroyed, there is but one thing to be done. Knowing the type and period of the particular piece, secure reproduction hardware for it that has been made to conform. If in doubt, consult museum collections and illustrations in books and magazines until a corresponding piece has been located. Make careful observations of its brasses and secure reproductions of the same design- In doing this, one last caution should be observed. Be sure that the new brasses are of the same size, so that boring new holes in the drawer fronts may be obviated.

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