The American builders’ hardware industry has produced an endless array of architectural hardware over the years. These are the light fixtures, door hinges, and door escutcheons, and of course the doorknobs that allow us to enter and leave our homes as we please.
Over the past century and a half, companies ranging from small regional lock makers to family companies that grew into well-known national corporations changed lighting and hardware technology forever and designed some of the most incredible building hardware in the world. Some of these large companies became quite famous and are still making hardware today, and much of what they made decades ago is still in daily service. A few of these names are Russwin Co., Sargent and Co., Norwalk and of course the great P F Corbin Company. This is just a small sampling. These are among the great companies that produced the best-known hardware we have in our vintage homes today. What really differentiated one brand from another, however, were the styles and the finishes.
Scientific breakthroughs in electroplating that happened in Europe in the late 1830s and 1840s, and metal stamping and casting made hardware more efficient and affordable during the American industrial revolution. This allowed hardware designers across the country to explode with a dizzying assortment of plated gas-light fixtures, relief-pattern door knobs, matching escutcheons, and of course, finishes, finishes, and more finishes.
A favorite finish of mine became popular in the late Victorian era. It’s the Japan-finish or japanning, as it has become known. This is not to be confused with the many enameling processes that have also picked up the name japanning. This is the builder’s hardware plated finish that looks like varying patterns of copper and black. Japanning hardware started in the late 19th century but definitely peaked in popularity in the first few years of the 20th century.
The “Japan-finish” was done with a process of electroplating and fuming, and the patterns and styles that different hardware companies came out with varied immensely. The process was also improved upon as the technology itself improved. The simplest patterns in this finish came from the 19th century.
On a doorknob escutcheon for this era you may see black with just a bit of copper on the top and bottom; others had random highlights of black and copper on relief pattern pieces. Light fixtures can be all copper with just a couple black stripes here and there but as technology improved, more brazen patterns became in vogue. The early 20th century brought zigzag patterns, circles, dots and even animal pattern motifs. This was Japan finish at its best. Large “X” patterns on hinges, random dots on door escutcheons, and alternating copper and black rings on door knobs were all seen during this era. The gaslights and gas electric lights from 1902-1910 had some of the most incredible Japan finish ever produced.
Japanning on steel hardware had mostly lost its popularity by 1920, but made some rare appearances on art deco hardware in the 1930s. I have seen just a couple of theses pieces, and they are very uncommon.
Japan plating was just that; it was a plated finish, so over the years, the finish has rubbed off, exterior pieces have rusted, and of course much has been covered with paint. I look at hardware that has been painted like I look at hardwood floors that have been carpeted. The earlier this was done, the better. Oak floors that were covered with carpet in the ’50s were probably never refinished and still have their full thickness and are ready for refinishing. Painted electroplated hardware is the same. Japan-finish hardware that was painted over early on in its life probably retained most of the original finish.
If you suspect that your home may have japanned hardware but everything is covered in layers of old paint, there’s a simple way to know for sure. Find what your know is an original door to the home, and remove the door knobs. Afterwards, unscrew the escutcheon or “door plate” and remove it. The reverse side of all Japanned door escutcheons are black. Not brass, or bronze, but black.
To remove old paint from plated hardware, one must simply “cook” it. You need an old thrift-store sauce pan, a bamboo chopstick or other piece of soft wood and a pair of needle-nose pliers. Unlike solid brass hardware that can be boiled for an hour without damage, plated hardware needs to be simmered on low to medium heat and checked much more frequently. Pull the pieces you are cleaning out of the pan every 20 minutes or so and scrape off any loose paint with the chopstick or piece of wood (soft woods will not harm plating) then simply rinse and repeat. Literally. When your cleaning is done, pour out water through a strainer into the toilet, dispose of the solid paint product into the trash and label that saucepan “FOR HARDWARE ONLY” and never eat out of it! A little soap and water follow-up is usually fine for some detail work. Just use some care and enjoy your work.
Bob Sloan has more than 10 years of experience in old-home restoration and carpentry, and now manages the Architectural Department at Hippo Hardware. Sloan can be contacted at 503-231-1444.