Restoring Authentic Hardware

Police Chief Wiggum: Well, well, well, look who’s here. Master Detective Eliza Simpson and her easily amazed sidekick, Dr. Bartley.

Bart: What’s this? A doorknob! Good show!

– The Simpsons

Some people shouldn’t be allowed to paint, including many of the former owners of our home. Between the windows painted shut and the general slapdash fashion in which much of the paint was applied, the Painters of Yore are not my favorite folks. But I’d particularly like to go back and ask them not to paint Every Damn Thing — especially hardware. Now I’ve done this myself, so I see how it can easily happen. You’re painting a door, and there are all these awkward plates and hinges to get around. Just paint those too! And when the door needs repainting, so does the hardware. Eventually:



Most vintage hardware can be replacement with reproductions, but reproductions often come at a premium. Plus, there’s nothing like the real thing (baby). If you have nice hardware that’s just gunked up with paint, it’s completely salvageable. Bonus? It is usually in nice shape under all that goo! Plus, it matches perfectly with what’s already there (including screw holes).

How to restore it to its former practical glory? First, you have to release it from the surrounding paint. This can be tricky because if you just unscrew a piece from something that you want to stay painted, it may lift off more paint than you want (sometimes in big, jagged scales), making the touch-up a big hassle.

Tap lightly on the screw heads with a hammer to break paint away (be careful to clean this up thoroughly in case of lead in the paint). You can also use a utility knife to free up the heads a bit more and to scrape paint from the slots. Then, using that knife (or similar), score carefully around the edges of the piece. This step will help ensure it lifts off cleanly. But be careful not to go too deeply and scar up the wood. A lighter touch and several passes will get you where you need to be.

Proceed carefully so the knife doesn't get away from you. Muttering about bad painting helps.

Proceed carefully so the knife doesn’t get away from you. Muttering about bad painting helps.

After scoring, unscrew the piece. I generally loosen a little bit on each corner until I’m sure it’s lifting off well. Save your screws (unless totally stripped). At this point, you can do a little paint archaeology: I counted eight layers of paint, minimum.

Ok, now? The Big Fun! For a plate like this, you can use a chemical paint remover or you can use a slow cooker. (DO NOT SAND!  There’s likely to be lead paint in there.) Paint removers are great for open flat pieces without a lot of detail — knob plates, brass switch plates, stuff like that. Just follow the directions, making sure that the product is ok for the underlying metal. For latches, moving parts, or detailed pieces, try the slow cooker method. I really like the Crock Pot method, especially now that I have a slow cooker that I have ruined for any other use.

Can you smell what the Crock is cookin'?

Can you smell what the Crock is cookin’?

Submerge the painted piece in water and throw in about a tablespoon of liquid laundry detergent. Most people recommend putting the cooker on medium, but mine has no medium! I put the slow cooker on high, cover, and leave it for 4-6 hours (you may need to check water level). Depending on progress, I may turn it down to low and run for another 4 hours or so. It’s an art, not a science.

Let it cool, and then?

Hardware, reveal thyself!

Slow cooking: paint so tender it almost falls off the bone

Much of the paint may just slide off. What’s left is softened, and can be removed with a plastic scraper and a soft brush (I use worn-out toothbrushes). Don’t use anything too hard or scratchy, lest you injure the original finish. Sometimes, not everything comes off. In that case, repeat the process, or use remover. It will go much quicker for whatever is left. (Dispose of any lead-based gunk appropriately — and obviously, don’t use the crockpot for food again!) When the paint is gone, wash the piece with plain dishsoap and water and dry thoroughly. Then, save the hardware for later or reattach:



Enjoy the momentary feeling of living in a Restoration Hardware catalog!

UPDATE: Don’t want to unscrew it? I’m experimenting with stripping hardware in place.


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