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The right hardware is as important as the selection and finish of the wood.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Popular Woodworking
noor too long ago, I was contacted by Megan Fitzpatrick to write an occasional article about hardware in the magazine. After three solid minutes of reflection, I jumped at the idea. Hardware is something that many carpenters have questions about and I can help with that.
Why is hardware important? Well, you spend countless hours getting the joinery and finishing as perfect as possible. Whatever you’re building, whether it’s a keepsake trunk for a small child, a jewelry box for a family member, or a toolbox for yourself, your pieces are your masterpieces. Yet, for some reason, when many carpenters get to the end of the project and have to make a choice on hardware, they end up in a large box dealer.
Just like you wouldn’t go to Sears for Ferrari tires, I propose not to put substandard hardware on your masterpiece. Choose the quality for your hardware as you do for other materials.
There are three components to the hardware: design, materials and finish. I’m not sure if one of these attributes is more important than the other … but I’m pretty sure each has to be done right or the others don’t matter. (I’ll dedicate future columns to these topics so you can make sense of what’s what.)
Quality hardware is available from a number of places, but is likely not available at your local large retailer. A little digging will uncover a variety of small businesses making exceptional hardware, both decorative and functional, to suit just about any woodwork. Each company will likely have their own niche and expertise, so you need to find companies that make hardware for your design style and personal aesthetic.
What is meant by “design”
The word “design” has many different connotations. But I think most people automatically visualize an ultra-contemporary house with lots of straight lines and steel where you don’t think there should be such things. (Well, that’s what I see anyway.)
But not all of the design is new. As a carpenter, it helps to know a little about the different time periods and what went where, when. This is why a specific piece of hardware is built a certain way and how it was originally used.
Some people may say there are rules on vintage design, and that may be true. But the rules are meant to be broken, and with a better understanding of what happened why and when, you, as a carpenter, can have so much more fun.
Material and finish
Quality hardware can come from a variety of sources, of course. But choosing the hardware as you choose your wood makes a lot of sense. In the same way that starting with a mediocre wood limits the quality of your furniture, starting with poor raw materials limits the quality of the hardware.
I’ll take an in-depth look at the materials in a future column, but the short answer is: look for solid brass (just say no to the metal pot) and use forged iron where appropriate.
But beware of that. “Wrought iron” literally means iron that has been bent. It’s best to look for something that a real blacksmith has made with his or her two hands – or at least something that has been heated with fire at some point along the way.
The finish is where the rubber really meets the road. There is a clear parallel between metal finish and wood finish. Just like perfect dovetails don’t matter if the wood doesn’t have the right glow, good hardware isn’t great unless the finish is in place.
There are many ways to finish metal and more than one good one. Depending on what look you are looking for, a piece could be polished, dipped, plated, or even smoked with ammonia. Each has its place.
But one thing counts above all else – the hardware should have “depth” (ie, feel substantial and three-dimensional) and should feel good – which matters as much as looks (maybe more!).
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably thinking of two things. First, “I speak regularly with Orion, I’m surprised he’s educated.” Or, more likely, “Who is this guy and what does he know anyway?”
My full name is Orion Horton Henderson and I am the fourth generation owner of Horton Brasses. My family has been producing furniture and cabinet hardware since around 1936. I have been involved in the family business since 2001 and have heard about hardware all my life.
My parents ‘and grandparents’ homes have been filled with antiques from the start, and I grew up looking at and touching the furniture and metal that surrounds us.
But as I said earlier, this column is not about my company’s products, but about how to select and install hardware in general. The metal you put on your work is really the finishing touch – my goal is to help you do it right.
Related article: Find out how to install knife hinges.
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