My Victorian front door still had its original cast-iron letter plate. True, it was caked in layers of paint and the spring that kept the flap shut was broken but, after some careful cleaning and a visit to a wonderful old-fashioned hardware shop, it was as good as new. This set me thinking about all that had been posted through its narrow slot: bills for gas which lit gas mantels, newspapers reporting world wars, cards and letters recording the ephemera of a bygone age.
Door and window furniture – such as hinges, knobs, locks and latches – can say a lot about the status and period of a house. Originally such items were fashioned by a craftsman in the local blacksmith’s forge. Early hinges were fixed to the face of the door by handmade nails. More sophisticated fitting gradually developed and the cast-iron butt hinge was patented in 1775 and the first sash window fastener the following year.
Up until the 17th century, doors were generally secured internally with strong bolts or bars. The mechanism of early locks was encased in iron or wood and then screwed to the face of the door. During the 18th century, the doors of wealthier houses were being fitted with brass-cased rim locks.
Although brass knockers began appearing in the late-18th century, Georgian door furniture was generally cast-iron painted black. There was usually just a central doorknob and knocker; bell pulls came in to use from the 1830s. House numbers did not become mandatory in London until 1805 and letter plates were only introduced following the birth of the Penny Post in 1840.
In Totnes, South Devon, Clayton Munroe is one company keeping alive the tradition of making door and window furniture. Christine Watts, the company’s factory manager, explained to me that the process of making its Kingston ‘pintle type’ hinge starts with a strip of 5mm thick raw steel. This is cut to length and then, at one end, an arrow head is drawn with chalk and, following these lines, the steel is cut and shaped using an angle grinder.
At the other end of the hinge a ‘knuckle’ is formed which will go over the pin or ‘pintle’ that will eventually be fixed to the door frame. This is a skilled job and the steel has to be malleable to be hammered into shape so the blacksmith heats it in the forge. According to Christine, the temperature reaches around 750°C to 850°C and the metal must glow cherry red. The process is repeated to put an offset shape into the end of the hinge so it will stand clear of the door and meet the pintle.
Further heating allows the sharp edges to be taken off and, using the anvil, the blacksmith beats rhythmically, metal on metal, the tune ringing in the air, to create a hammered surface. It is then quenched in water to cool and harden the metal. Holes are drilled along the hinge to take the coach bolts that will fix it to the door and then, finally, it is married with the pintle to check for free movement and alignment.
Interestingly, Christine told me that the heating of the metal produces the notable dark colour that exists in the final product. At Clayton Munroe a number of finishes are offered. For the traditional look, the hinge is laid in a wax bath – rather like a bain-marie – overnight. When it is taken out, the surplus wax is removed and it is allowed to cool before being buffed on a polishing wheel.
Caring for originals
Window and door furniture, together with the screws or nails used to fix it, can prove incredibly useful in dating joinery so keep all the components. Indeed, it is worth remembering the antique value and potential fragility of ironmongery so never force a stuck latch or hinge; a little oil or WD-40 should ease it.
As with my letter plate, a build up of paint is a common problem as it clogs detail and binds moving parts. Chemical paint removers may be used to reveal the metal but read the instructions and beware of using sharp tools that may scratch the surface. I find an old toothbrush is useful especially if there is intricate detail. Be careful not to over clean gilded or lacquered metal and use a card or metal template, cut to fit around the fitting, to stop cleaning materials damaging woodwork.
Where ironmongery needs to be repaired a blacksmith may be able to help. When it comes to searching for replacement door and window furniture, there are a number of specialist manufacturers offering traditional ranges. Salvage companies are another good source. Avoid over cluttering doors and do a little research to ensure the items you buy are in keeping with the period and status of your home. Always use traditional slotted screws rather than modern cross-heads for fixing.
Safe and sound
It’s important to be aware of the requirements of insurance companies when it comes to fitting locks and bolts in your home. Modern British Standard mortise locks may be fitted into the edge of the door so that they are virtually hidden or, alternatively, it is sometimes possible to adapt a modern lock by putting it in a wooden casing.
Where an existing lock is being replaced, it’s worth taking it with you when you buy the new one or measure or trace its exact position and dimensions to avoid cutting unnecessary holes.
Original keys are historically important but if a key is missing a locksmith can make another. Never dip locks to remove paint and dirt as this may damage the mechanism. To lubricate a lock, use good quality lock oil or graphite based oil or grease but do ensure that you apply this sparingly as too much will make the inside of the lock sticky and attract dirt.
Small mortise security bolts can provide an inconspicuous way of protecting casement windows while special bolts are available on the market which can be fitted into holes drilled in sashes. Alternatively, a locking bolt allows sashes to be secure even while ajar.
ABOVE (clockwise from top left): Rat-tail window stay; door pull on a London front door; Georgian door knob and escutcheon.
BELOW (clockwise from left): A hook on a bathroom door; sash window fasteners; Georgian brass rim lock on an internal door.
Word for word: A glossary of door furniture terms
BUTT HINGE Provides a discreet way of hanging a door since it is fitted to the door’s edge and only the knuckle shows.
ESCUTCHEON A plate round a keyhole that sometimes has a cover.
‘H’ OR ‘HL’ HINGES Found on Georgian panel doors, their name reflects their shape. The ‘H’ hinge has two identical leaves while the ‘HL’ has one leaf resembling an ‘L’ to provide additional support.
MORTISE LOCK A lock fitted within the thickness of a door.
PINTLE HINGE A strap hinge ending in a loop which fits over an ‘L’ shaped fitting known as a pintle which has a spike or thread driven or screwed into the frame.
RIM LOCK A lock in the inner face of a door.
Making a pintle type hinge
ABOVE: 1 At Clayton Munroe the process of making its Kingston pintle type hinge starts with a strip of 5mm thick raw steel. At one end, an arrow head is first drawn with chalk and the steel is shaped using an angle grinder. 2 A Clayton Munroe Kingston pintle type hinge. When the steel is malleable a knuckle and an offset are formed. 3 and 4 (below) Clayton Munroe’s weighty Scotch pattern ‘T’ hinge glows as the blacksmith takes off the sharp edges and creates a hammered surface.
BELOW: 5 The ‘T’ hinge is buffed on a polishing wheel. 6 A finished Kingston pintle type hinge on a doorway. 7 (bottom) Clayton Munroe’s ‘T’ hinge in use.
Visit Roger Hunt’s website at huntwriter.com