How to Restore Old Hardware

Nothing lasts forever, including the hardware on your doors, windows and cabinets. Hardware will become corroded and worn with time, driving people to either replace it or just paint over it. Many older homes have beautiful brass door and cabinet hardware, which isn’t visible because it is buried under several layers of paint.

Of course, if you have a newer home which you’re working on, you may want to just replace the hardware when it becomes worn and rusted. But you’re not losing anything in replacing that hardware. The new hardware you install can look much like the old hardware or even better, if you so choose.

Old hardware is another thing entirely. It is often engraved or stamped with intricate designs, not something you’re going to want to lose. Nor is it something easily replaced. You’re not going to be able to run down to your local home improvement center and find new hinges or doorknobs which have the level of design detail that you can find in these older homes. So if you want it, you’re going to have to restore the existing hardware, rather than replacing it.

Prepping to Restore the Hardware

Before doing anything, you need to figure out what you’ve got and what you want to end up with. A lot of old homes have solid brass hardware; but it may fool you. It’s not always solid, but could be plated. There’s also a possibility that your home has steel hardware, rather than brass. Knowing this, before you start, will help you determine your possible end results.

What’s it Made Of?

An easy way to test hardware that looks like it’s brass is with a magnet. Solid brass is not magnetic, so the magnet won’t stick to it. Plated brass of that era is most likely to be plated over steel, so the magnet will stick, even though the hardware looks like brass. Steel hardware will also allow the magnet to stick.

Of these three possibilities, the one which is most problematic is brass plated hardware. There’s really no practical way of knowing how thick the plating is, so you have to assume that it’s not very thick at all. That means taking care when using a wire wheel or any polishing method on the hardware, so that you don’t strip off the plating.

What Finish do You Want?

Brass hardware can either be finished with a high gloss polish or left with the patina of antiquing on it. that’s up to you. Likewise, steel can be polished or left antiqued, although it is more common to paint rustic steel hardware with a flat-black enamel paint.

Remove the Hardware

Regardless of the type of hardware you have or the results you want to end up with, you’re going to have to remove the hardware from the door or window to work on it. If you are working on hardware from multiple sources, it’s a good idea to mark it in some way, on the back side, so that you know where to return it to.

The screws holding the hardware in place may be a problem. These will be slotted screws and they might already be somewhat stripped out. Even if they aren’t, they’ll probably be painted over. You’ll want to use a flat-bladed screwdriver or knife to remove the paint from the screw slot, before trying to remove it. You might also want to try and remove paint from around the edges of the screw head, so that it can’t act as an adhesive, holding the hardware in.

Removing Old Paint

There are commercial paint strippers you can buy to remove paint from wood and hardware, but you don’t need them. You can do just as good a job of stripping off the paint with hot water and a little bit of dish washing liquid.

You’ll want to use an old pan or Crockpot for this; one that you’re never going to use for cooking again. Some small amount of metal from the hardware may come off into the water, contaminating the container. Even worse than that, there is a high probability that the paint you will be removing is lead-based paint. If that’s the case, the white lead in the paint will definitely contaminate the pot.

Use clean tap water, unless your local water has a high mineral or high salt content. In that case, you’re better off using purified water. Add a little dish soap, stirring it in. heat the water over a low heat. You’re not looking to make it hot, just good and warm. It should be just a bit too hot to put your hand into, say 140°F to 160°F. The hotter the water, the better it works; but you don’t want it to boil.

Place the hardware to be restored in the pan, not filling it all the way. Allow them to soak in the hot water for a while. This is to soften the paint, so if the paint isn’t soft yet, you haven’t left the hardware in the water long enough.

Time for Some Elbow Grease

Remove the part from the hot water, with a pair of pliers or tongs, placing it on a work surface where the water can either drain or be soaked up. A good stiff plastic paint tray works well for this.

Scrape as much of the paint off the hinge as you can, using a plastic putty knife as your scraper. You don’t want to use a metal putty knife as the metal in the putty knife is harder than the metal in the hardware you’re working on and will scratch it.

Once you’ve scraped off as much softened paint as you can, replace the hardware piece in the water and allow the warm water to soften more. Depending on how many layers of paint the hardware has on it, you may need to repeat this cycle several times to get down to the metal.

Once you’ve down to the last layer of paint and the metal is visible, it’s time to trade in your plastic putty knife for a stiff nylon brush. This will allow you to get into the engraved pattern and into corners which you couldn’t reach with the putty knife. Once again, you might have to return the hardware to the hot water, in order to soften the paint.

A Quicker Way

Using elbow grease to remove the paint can be an exhausting, time consuming process. An alternative method for removal of the paint is with a wire wheel, mounted into a bench grinder or an electric drill.

The problem with using a wire wheel is that it may be too aggressive for what you are trying to do, especially if you want to leave your brass or brass plated hardware with a patina of antiquing on it. The wire wheel can remove the corrosion just about as fast as it can remove the paint. Care must be taken and a less aggressive wheel selected.

Wire wheels can be made of different materials:

  • Steel wire – an aggressive wheel, ideal for removing paint from steel parts
  • Knotted steel wire – an even more aggressive wheel, good for removing heavy rust from gate hardware
  • Brass wire wheel – a less aggressive wheel, which is less likely to damage brass and can’t damage steel
  • Nylon wheel – ideal for getting into corners and crevices, without damaging the surface of the part
  • Scotchbrite wheel – while not an actual wire wheel, this is used the same as one. The softer material used is much less likely to damage the finish on the hardware, especially brass hardware. However, it will remove paint slower. Scotchbrite comes in various types, with various degrees of aggressiveness

When removing old paint with a wire wheel, you need to use a dust mask that reads N100 or P100 to prevent inhaling any of the white lead from the paint. This lead can be extremely harmful.

Rust Removal

If you are dealing with steel hardware, you might need to remove rust from the part. It is essential to remove all the rust, as any rust that remains behind is likely to spread. This is best done with a steel wire or knotted steel wire wheel, depending on the size of the piece of hardware and how bad the rusting is.

You can also use chemical rust removal products. Caution must be taken in these cases, as to not leave the part in the solution for too much time, as it is basically an acid. While the acid will attack the rust faster than the good metal, it won’t stop there; if given enough time, it will eat away at the good metal, destroying the part.

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Removing rust from hand saw, Josh Larios

What Finish do You Want?

If you want an antiqued look, you’ll want to be especially careful with any wire wheels you are using, so as to avoid removing the patina of oxidation, along with the paint. If you do remove it accidentally, there are products available, which are specifically designed to add the patina of age or antiquing to metal parts. You can find them by searching for “add patina to metal.” Be sure to use the right product for the type of metal that you have.

If you are looking to return the hardware to its original luster, with a polished finish, you’ll want to move on from the paint removal phase to a polishing phase. The first part of this is to remove the patina from the metal. There are a number of ways to do this, but the easiest is to place the part in a plastic food storage container and pour vinegar on it. Then add baking soda and allow the two to react with each other, that reaction will serve to strip the patina off of the metal. As with the pan used above, this container should never be used for food afterwards.

Rather than using liquid brass polish and a cloth, you will get a better finish, faster, by chucking up a cloth buffing wheel in your drill and using a “brass polishing compound” on it. This is much like how a jeweler would polish his work.

Finish and Lubricate

Once you have your piece finished to the luster or antiquing you desire, you want to seal that finish in, so that the hardware doesn’t continue to corrode. The best way to do this is with a clear, spray-on lacquer. Some people suggest urethane or polyurethane instead, but lacquer is better for metal parts. This spray usually comes in a high gloss finish, although it is also available in a satin finish.

Moving parts of the hardware should be oiled or lubricated with graphite, once the lacquer is fully dried. You are better off finishing, before oiling, as the lubricants may prevent the lacquer from sticking to the metal. Any excess lubricant should wipe off the lacquer finish easily.

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