RESTORING VICTORIAN HARDWARE
By Alex Cerul
Unless you are extraordinarily lucky the hinges, door plates, window latches and cabinet locks in your house have been painted over several times. They might not work anymore and are certainly not attractive. DO NOT THROW THEM OUT. It is not difficult to remove the paint and restore them. You will be amazed at how beautiful they are once you do this.
To remove them, first use a razor blade utility knife to score and cut through the paint where the item contacts the wood. If you do not, then when you remove the piece the paint will chip all around it and you will have to touch it up. If you carefully cut the outline of the item then you will be able to replace it after cleaning without any further work.
After scoring its contours you have to determine where the screws are. You can usually spot them by either an indentation or a raised bump but you may have to look at other items that are not so heavily painted or make your best guess. The old screws are always slotted (Standard) as opposed to Phillips and this is the good news because they are easier to clean out. Using the tip of your razor blade, clean out the entire slot of the screw. Do a thorough job here because if you leave some paint then your screwdriver cannot make contact with enough of the screw to undo it. If there is paint still in the groove then you risk stripping the screw and then the only way to get it out is to pry it and damage the wood. Take your time here – it is worth it.
When you have a good fit and grip for your screwdriver unscrew it counterclockwise. Push down firmly when you do this. It is a little counterintuitive to push down when you are trying to twist the screw up but this is necessary to keep the screwdriver firmly in the slot. Once all the screws are out, the piece should pop off if you wedge the razor blade behind it.
Stripping the piece is done by letting it soak in a strong solution of TSP and water and scraping, or brushing, the paint off in several sittings each a day apart. I use an old pot (with a lid so there is no evaporation) and roughly 1 part TSP (Tri Sodium Phosphate) to 5 parts water. Stir in the TSP until it dissolves. The pieces should be completely submerged and let them sit for at least a full day. You can shake or stir the pot when you pass by if you remember. Sometimes the paint will float right off but usually you have to scrape it. Do not use a razor here, or anything steel for that matter, because you do not want to scratch the piece. Scrapers made of plastic exist and they are best. It may take two or three soakings but soon you will have most of the paint off except for the nooks and crannies. At this point you use an old toothbrush, or at most a brass wire brush, to get the last of the paint off. Do not use a steel wire brush, or a wire wheel attached to a drill or grinder, because they will take the patina off of the piece and leave an unnatural shiny iron color. Thoroughly dry it when you are done. You may spray it with a clear lacquer (comes in spray paint cans) if you want to.
To accelerate this process you can use a crock-pot on its low setting. The heat speeds things up such that you can do it all in three sittings over 24 hours. On a Friday night you start it. Saturday morning take your first shot at getting as much off as possible. Put it all back to soak and then midafternoon give it another go. In the evening you should be able to finish it. Do not forget to wear disposable gloves when doing the actual stripping.
Also, please note, this process is only recommended for solid steel, iron, or brass. It is not recommended for plated items (for example Stanley ball hinges). The TSP tends to get under the plating and discolor portions of the item. I have learned this the hard way. For plated items you will have to use the goopy and more noxious paint strippers.
To reinstall it helps to put a toothpick or two in the old hole so the screws get a firm bite. If you are dealing with door hinges (which really need to be secure) I advise drilling the old hole with a ¼ inch bit and then gluing a piece of ¼ inch hardwood dowel where the hole was so that you have, essentially, restored the wood to new. You will then drill a small pilot hole when replacing the hinge.
Do not throw the old screws away. You might think it is easy to get new ones but you will find out the hard way that this is not so. They don’t make, or sell, a variety of slotted screws like they used to. It is only a little extra effort to clean the screws in the TSP like the parts. And why not? You know they fit perfectly, you would waste more time and money looking for replacements, and purists detest new screws (especially Phillips) in vintage applications. If some of the screws did get a little stripped you can regroove them by clamping them at their threads, between two pieces of wood, and running a hacksaw blade down the slot.
Cleaning up the old hardware makes a huge difference, especially in high visibility areas, and once you do it you will wonder what took you so long.