How not to ruin and expensive window.
It’s easy to focus on the more prominent historic details such as fenestration, roofing and siding during the renovation or recreation of a property. These factors seldom receive short shrift with today’s more knowledgeable architects and contractors. Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said when seemingly minor finishing details are concerned.
Window hardware, with the latch in particular, is a prime example of this oversight: it is an apparently innocuous detail, yet consider that latches are situated at eye-level in almost every building. Many a costly, authentic sash has been defaced by mundane hardware that was simply grabbed by a worker on their way out of the lumberyard without the necessary design forethought. The temptation to “cheap out” is great – economics and availability are strong inducements to complete the job – yet there are many alternatives, that while costing more, produce a better-looking, more authentic result. Yes, Time, the other nemesis of the building professional, also rears its ugly head all too often when one is facing a completion deadline and the punch-list is the sole barrier to the final payment and deliverance from a potentially irate client.
In order to meet the immediate delivery and large quantity demands of commercial customers, Phelps manufactures a comprehensive line of solid brass window hardware based on simple and elegant traditional designs. Walter Phelps notes “We also maintain a huge inventory of all our hardware in five different finishes so we can ship most of our orders the same day they are received. We supply our hardware to most of the high-end custom wood window companies in North America as well as hundreds of contractors.” The firm also produces lines of casement window and storm window hardware, as well as bronze screen for historic applications. You can download a catalog of Phelps Hardware at www.phelpscompany.com
A conversation with Walter Phelps, president of the Phelps company, revealed sound advice to the professional who might be hesitant about the additional cost of superior caliber hardware. When Mr. Phelps was asked how contractors could be encouraged to use high quality window hardware as opposed to cheaper goods he responded “Most contractors who are responsible for their finished work want high quality hardware. They know better than anyone the frustration and expense of installing and then replacing poorly designed and manufactured window hardware. Nothing erodes a client’s confidence more quickly than a sash lock that doesn’t work or a casement handle that becomes loose. The real problem comes when a contractor has to choose between using quality hardware and meeting a time commitment.”
On the other end of the historic window hardware spectrum, one may find themselves challenged to find examples of the ultra-ornate brass or bronze pieces found in the second half of the 19th century. Immediately recognizable by their profusion of intricate carving, they are oft-highlighted with black enamel in their recesses. These pieces are not only fancifully decorated; they may also be designed with unusual mechanisms that vary from the norm. Peter Morenstein, president of the Californian company Cirecast, has made a career out of recreating hardware that no one else would dare attempt.
“When we’re asked to create a piece of period hardware,” says Morenstein, “we know that we’ll have to reengineer each of the parts to ensure that the new piece will work properly. You can’t just take an old piece of hardware, disassemble it and sand-cast it and then expect it to function properly in the rigors of a commercial application. We specialize in the lost wax method of casting, which is the most accurate method of reproduction. We recreated an 1870s Ives window latch and spent over 250 hours in its design. We measured each piece, redrew it and recarved it before casting. The result was a wonderful latch that grabbed the strike firmly, pulled the two window sashes together tightly and dead-locked into a jimmy-proof latch.”
Morenstein is adamant about preserving not only built history but craftsmanship as well: “People complain about cost, but you always get what you pay for…if you buy inexpensive offshore stuff, it will often fail, and fail quickly. As with any facet of the restoration trade, you need true craftsmen to provide the true quality that is comparable to the work found in the past.”
While best known for their highly decorative window latches and door locksets, Cirecast also manufactures a selection of other unusual window hardware including sash lifts, pulleys and even the unique pinscher-type latches found on vintage railroad cars. The company maintains a stock line of products in addition to its custom replication facilities. Contact information can be found at www.cirecast.com.
Somewhere in between these two firms lies Crown City Hardware of Pasadena. The company features a wide array of hardware for most types of historic windows, including sash, casement, transom, and screens. Crown City’s full catalog offers a seemingly infinite variety of styles as well as harder to find items. Kip Beatty, president and CEO of Crown City notes that “These include screen hangars, roll down screen fasteners, Victorian Iron sash locks, and our latest item, a brass “Boston” spring loaded sash lock. This addition to our collection is an item we’re very excited about.” Custom finishes are available, but many of the goods are stocked for immediate shipment. Crown City also sells a large selection of sash weights, chains, and pulleys. The firm, which carries better-to-best quality items, does offer several grades of window latches, which permits the curves of economics and quality to intersect at several points, something not ordinarily found. You can view an online catalog at www.crowncityhardware.com.
When selecting appropriate window hardware for a project, it’s best to keep in mind the variations that have occurred over the decades. The basic concept of window latch hasn’t changed much in 200 years; however, its form, materials and ornamentation have evolved with technological advances.
In the years before the industrial revolution, most pieces of hardware were individually created from hand-wrought iron. The 1840s marked the arrival of the technology for casting metal and thus mass-production arrived at our collective doorsteps. While not only making hardware affordable for the newly forming middle-class, it also allowed everyone to enjoy a level of higher ornamentation achieved without huge amounts of hand-work, a trend that continued throughout the 19th century.
While the availability of highly-ornamented reproduction window hardware currently exists, one should avoid the temptation to select pieces that are inappropriate to the period of interpretation. Just as using a “Colonial” piece in a Victorian window would be incorrect; the use of a fanciful 1880s latch in a pre-1870s parlor would look inconsistent with the more restrained aesthetics of the period. And while the fanciful 1880s pervaded well towards the turn of the century, there was an immediate change to a more simplistic style thereafter.
This is true of other window hardware as well; purists and those who find themselves charged with creating a higher degree of authenticity would do well not to overlook sash pulleys. While many modern replacement windows negate the need for the traditional sash-weight pulley array, the historic market often finds their use dictated for a believably accurate installation. Fortunately, this need has been addressed by several manufacturers who not only produce a wide range of pulleys in various degrees of ornamentation, but also replacement sash weights in stackable increments that preempt yet another trip to the salvage yard in search of finding matched sets of rusty vintage sash-weights that are usually piled willy-nilly in some dark corner. This is especially useful when working with commercial-sized sash such as those found in old schools and lofts where the Damocleasean potential of an open sash must be addressed with exceptional care.
Likewise would be the professional’s approach to the more esoteric pieces of hardware such as transom and casement hardware; although their existence may be easy to overlook, their inclusion in a project lends authenticity as well as function.
An aside on shutter placement: one would think that with almost 30 years’ worth of attention being focused on historic preservation, professionals would know how to properly install exterior wooden shutters: the hinges, and thus the inner vertical edge of the shutter should be on the inside of the window casing, as if they could actually close and seal the window. To be truly accurate, when shutters are left affixed to the exterior walls, the louvers should be slanted up and towards the outside. If they are not, should the shutters be theoretically closed, they would then drain water into the house during a rainstorm. This advice may seem nitpicky, but rest assured every scholarly type will be quietly smirking at your expense if you do not heed it, regardless of how much you spent on fancy shutter hangers and latches.
And finally, for those rolling their collective eyes at this point, another even more seemingly insignificant touch that purists demand: please use slotted screws. The Phillips head screw was not in use until the late 1930s at the very earliest.
Our staff features writer, Dan Cooper has been working on old houses for over 20 years, and also writes for Old House Interiors, Period Homes, Cottages and Bungalows amongst other magazines on the subject of architecure, antiques and design.