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A concise chronicle of furniture hardware styles to help you build it better.
OhThe question I am often asked is “What hardware should I use?” And the answer is usually: “It depends”.
What have you built? Are you refinishing or restoring? Is your work an original or a reproduction?
Whether you’re trying to stick to tradition or break with it, I think it’s helpful to understand the story behind the hardware – where it was and where it started – when selecting knobs and throws for your pieces.
To provide a further idea, I would like to retrace the main historical periods of American furniture brass. To be brief, I won’t go into hardware from other parts of the world (French and German hardware can be pretty nice, though). I guess I could explore the Shaker hardware, but I don’t find the wooden knobs that exciting.
William & Mary
In 1660, the King of England Charles II had just come out of exile to reclaim his throne. (I should note that American furniture brass, with the exception of the Craftsman style, originated in England.)
This period is known as “The Restoration” and we know furniture and hardware from this era as the William & Mary style (they took over the kingdom in 1689). The style, at least in terms of hardware, was produced from about 1660 to the early 1700s and was largely made of brass, with occasional pieces of cast silver.
William & Mary’s hardware and furniture was generally quite ornate, with features like Dutch drops or tears paired with rosettes in a variety of patterns, from melted flowers to hand-chased diamonds to more subdued round rosettes. The drops were most commonly secured with cotter pins, although some pieces were secured with poles and fingers to create closet turns.
In the years that followed, the world of hardware saw manufacturing techniques advance, giving rise to more detailed shapes, a style known as Queen Anne. The era of Queen Anne spanned from the late 1600s to around 1750s. This was also the first time the now iconic cabriole leg was used on furniture.
The hardware of the era was delicately fused with decorative designs such as piercings or face chases. The chisel motifs were small decorative stampings, almost always floral, and applied with a hammer. Drawer pulls were generally secured with a post and a nut or cotter pin. A short, stubby threaded screw was inserted into the back of a knob – we call it a breadboard screw, even though it’s technically a bolt.
As we enter the Chippendale period, some of you may argue for a number of specific dates. It is understandable (there is certainly some discrepancy), but here I define the era from about 1754 to 1790 and notice that the time periods overlap.
Thomas Chippendale was a man of many talents, especially design, furniture making and writing. His book “The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Directory” defined the era of furniture and its metalworking, providing the definition we still use today.
Chippendale brasses are highly decorative brass plates, often called bat wing brass, with delicate rods and poles. It is important to realize that during this time period the metal itself was extremely expensive, a much higher cost of production than labor. The larger throws were typically formal and were most commonly found on expensive furniture. Brass was always hand polished, as it reflected light better that way. In the days before electricity, evening lighting was poor, so brass of all types served both form and function.
George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton followed in Chippendale’s footsteps. Hepplewhite’s book “The Cabinet Maker and Upholster’s Guide” (published posthumously in 1788) popularized a new, lighter design style with delicate inlays and curvilinear shapes.
A few years later, Sheraton published a four-volume book entitled “The Cabinet Maker’s and Upholster’s Drawing Book”. The publications were widely influential and we came to know furniture and associated hardware as the Hepplewhite, or Federal style.
The late 1700s and early 1800s saw the development of new metalworking technologies. Tool and die makers of the time were in love with the finer details they could now insert into metal, with the arrival of stamping as a metalworking technique. Tool makers began producing beautiful molded plates and knobs to match Sheraton and Hepplewhite-inspired furniture.
American tool and die makers tended to themes that celebrated patriotism (eagles and flags were popular) or images like flowers and wheat that represented the generosity of the New World.
It is my opinion that this type of hardware was the best ever produced.
Throughout the 1800s, both Chippendale and Federal styles experienced revivals, and when the West took office, much of the furniture and hardware produced was utilitarian in nature. The next new period, however, was the Victorian era.
The motto for the Victorian period might have been “whatever is worth doing is worth doing in excess”. The Victorian hardware was highly decorative, with elaborate and eye-catching patterns printed on very subtle metals. This was the first era of mass-produced hardware, as thousands of these pieces were printed, mounted on the furniture on the production line, and shipped everywhere. A downside to mass production, of course, is the all-too-common drop in quality – a lot of junk has been done right now – but some pieces were pretty spectacular. The Eastlake style in particular held up very well.
Craftsman, arts and crafts and mission
The styles we know today as Craftsman, Arts & Crafts and Mission began as a rejection of Victorian excess.
The pretty floral motifs and mass-produced pieces are out. Designers such as Gustav Stickley, Charles and Henry Greene and William Morris have created new original designs that have shared little (other than woodworking) with the past.
Patterns were typically made from heavy brass, copper, and bronze, then hammered and patinated to a very dark finish. At the time, the idea was to show the work but, ironically, this may be the first time brass was patinated to artificially create a new look.
So how does this relate to you, the furniture maker? Knowing what happened first can help guide your choices. This applies to the joinery, the finish and, of course, the hardware. You can join or break tradition – both paths can lead to success, but your work will always be better if you learn your story first.
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