Brassed Off!

In days gone by, when confronted with a missing bail on, say, a Georgian chest of drawers, an antiques dealer would have a rummage through his box of orphaned brasses. With a bit of luck he’d find something that resembled the surviving handles, affix it to the chest and announce to the next interested customer “I can deliver it tomorrow morning madam”.

Restorers (of which I was one once upon a time), were expected to miraculously pull something better out of the hat. Short of coming up with a perfect match from one’s own stock of waifs and strays, the only means of replacing a missing drawer handle with a perfectly accurate one was to cast it. Simple one-offs can be cast in cuttlefish bones, but more complex pieces and longer runs of items such as small knobs, axe & Dutch drops, pommels & nuts and back-plates which are in regular demand, should initially be moulded from extant originals (the moulds can be retained for future use) and cast by the lost wax process.

 

I would painstakingly hand finish my castings and individually patinate them to conform to the brasses with which they would be cohabiting. On a small scale, this was costly, and often prohibitively so for all but the finest pieces of furniture. I took pride in my finished castings and got a kick from challenging customers and dealers to spot the copies.

I enjoyed the whole moulding and casting process to such a degree that, when time permitted, I made copies of everything from replacement cabinet hardware to sconces and taper sticks in brass, paktong and silver as required.

In the early eighties a firm in Devon, in the South West of England, run by husband and wife, Robert and Rachel Byles began producing replacement brasses from genuine period brassware using the lost-wax process and sympathetic-to-the-period brass alloy. Their offerings of castors, catches, drops, handles, hinges and knobs, etc. revolutionised the antiques and reproduction furniture industries. I still have my boxed set of catalogues which I don’t think are available any longer.

The mass production of these replica brasses meant they were relatively affordable and with their patina, although of a pale chrysochlorous colour, they appealed to restorers and dealers alike. Large scale production however can have its drawbacks; the casting and finishing is carried out by a number of employees and exacting care cannot be lavished on each individual piece with the result that the brass isn’t always poured perfectly, ugly casting flashes are often overlooked and heavy-handed buffing can leave components misshapen or lacking in detail.

Disappointingly, the vast majority of these brasses have been affixed to pieces of antique furniture with no further finishing or patinating by the restorers. The outcome is the countless antiques now circulating with incongruous identical olive green brassware.

I recently required some handles and hinges for my reading table, and due to the advantageous exchange rate with the American dollar, I ordered two pairs of hinges from one of the olive green brassware distributors in the US. The hinges duly arrived, but the quality was absolutely appalling! I’m not sure about the handles, but I’m certain I’ve bought the same style and size of hinges in the distant past and they would have been at least acceptable back then or I wouldn’t have used them. The knuckles of these recent hinges had not been correctly aligned prior to drilling with the result the flaps opened and closed on different axes. There were immense gaps between the individual knuckles resulting in intolerable sideways movement. Combined with the difference in axes and the potentially loose and rattling reading slope, this would have meant, had I attached the smaller pair of hinges to the legs of the horse, the bottom ends of the legs may or may not have engaged with the ratchet teeth in a hit-and-miss fashion. The screw holes in the originals (which the hinges were moulded from) must have been very sloppy as I had no difficulty in dropping a No. 8 screw clear through each of the holes – a very poor choice of original from which to make a mould. Good original hinges aren’t difficult to come by! To top it all off, the countersinks had been buffed to the extent that they had lost all definition, the edges were inconsistent and there were numerous spatter beads.

For a reason that I find totally unfathomable, the handles I received had been copied from a damaged original, so of course, being cast by the lost-wax process, the deformity presented itself in perfect detail in all four examples! Again, it wasn’t an uncommon type of handle by any means.

I emailed the company in the US about my dissatisfaction and received a sincere apology from the owner. She kindly offered to refund the purchase price plus the cost of returning the items which was appreciated, but she admitted there was sadly, nothing she could offer as alternatives.

The biggest selling point of this olive green brassware is that it is copied from original seventeenth- and eighteenth-century examples. While authenticity in period style of brassware (and the composition of its alloy) is paramount when restoring valuable antique furniture, incorporating inherently flawed replicas is itself, erroneous.

There are a few other small cabinet brass-foundries in the UK (and, I’m sure, in the US too) who cater to the antiques trade, but their products are not cheap and quality, unfortunately, is usually biased towards profitability rather than total authenticity. Foundries that specialise in investment casting for the jewellery trade can produce spectacular copies of brasses, but at a high cost.

If you watched the V & A video above, you’d have seen it’s not difficult to make a convincing replica (cabinet hardware is nowhere near as complex); it just requires a little care, forethought and a sound original.

There are numerous writings on the subject of lost wax casting should you feel the urge to have a go at producing your own brasses. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results.

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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