Ranging from locks and latches, to hinges, handles, knockers and letter plates, ironmongery is an important part of any old house and gives clues to the status and period of a building through the quality and design of the fittings.

Such items were originally fashioned in the local blacksmith’s forge, and handmade nails held them in place. Later, specialist companies began producing door and window furniture that was sometimes highly detailed and mechanically intricate. An ever-wider choice was displayed
in pattern books and catalogues with the advent of mass production in Victorian times.

It is worth remembering the value of ironmongery, and that items should be repaired and maintained with the same care as other antiques. Where necessary, blacksmiths and locksmiths may be able to help with repairs. If replacing missing screws, use slotted ones, as modern cross-headed alternatives will stand out as being inappropriate.

How to spot if your ironmongery needs repair

Problems are not always immediately apparent, especially with locks and hinges, but should be addressed promptly once detected. Although generally made of metal, window and door furniture is potentially fragile so may be easily broken if forced and can be scratched through over zealous cleaning or attempts to unscrew fixings.

What to look for

  • Doors and windows that bind
  • Stiff locks
  • Ill-fitting keys
  • Loose bolts and latches
  • Loose or missing screws
  • Decoration obscured by layers of paint
  • Discolouration, tarnishing and rusting

Decorative door knocker on red door

Polishing your ironmongery

Regular polishing will keep brass looking attractive, although chemicals used for cleaning may cause harm if allowed to come into contact with surrounding stone, wood or paintwork.

  • Make a cardboard or plastic template to fit around the fitting so adjoining surfaces are protected and cleaning is easier.
  • Gently wipe off dirt with a soft, damp cloth.
  • Use a good quality polish and a soft cloth, while following the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Be careful when cleaning gilded or lacquered metal.

The best solutions for removing paint

Paint layers built up over many years frequently obscure the original details and finishes of fittings and clog moving parts.

  • Use chemical paint removers, following the instructions carefully.
  • Beware of using sharp tools or wire wool, which may scratch the surface.
  • Use an old toothbrush where there is intricate detail.
  • Never dip locks to remove paint or dirt as this may damage the mechanism.

Spot a problem hinge

Binding, worn or loose hinges can lead to doors and windows sticking, squeaking or dropping, which may result in damage if left unchecked.

  • Identify the source of the problem.
  • Adjust the alignment of the hinge if necessary.
  • Ensure screws are secure.
  • Ease with a little oil or WD-40.
  • Replace the hinge if necessary. In some cases itmay be possible to replace only the pin that holds the two halves of the hinge together.
  • Never cut or shave sections off a door or window to compensate for a defective hinge.

Repairing a loose letter plate

Ornate letterbox on black front door

Established following the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840, letter plates may rattle and let in draughts if they are not working properly.

  • Check the spring and, if broken, buy a replacement from a good hardware shop and fit it with care.
  • Remove any accumulated layers of paint.
  • Ensure the flap is not catching on the timber of the door.
  • Clean and finish as appropriate.
  • To minimise any draughts, fit a wooden flap or a weighted piece of fabric over the opening of the letter plate on the inside of the door.

Fixing a stiff or broken lock

With wear, locks can become difficult to use so the problem should be addressed immediately to avoid total failure. Locks can be complicated, so be wary of taking them apart yourself.

  • Lubricate the lock using good quality lock oil but apply sparingly, as too much will make the inside of the lock sticky and attract dirt, which will eventually wear the mechanism.
  • Ensure the key is not worn or damaged.
  • Seek advice from a locksmith familiar with old locks.
  • If buying a replacement lock, take the original so a match can be found that will avoid the cutting of new and unnecessary holes. Alternatively, measure or trace the old lock’s dimensions and exact position.

How to improve security

Old locks, bolts and other fittings don’t always meet the standards required by insurance companies. Wherever possible, keep the original historic item but supplement it with a suitable, though discreet, modern alternative that provides the necessary level of security.

Small mortise security bolts can protect casement windows. With sashes, special bolts are available that are drilled into the meeting rails so they are locked together. Alternatively, locking bolts allow the sashes to be secured even when ajar.

Before installing any new items be sure that the process will not significantly weaken the timber of the old door or window.

Choosing the right ironmongery materials

The most ornate items made from the best materials were fitted
where visitors would see them; so particular attention was paid to the front door and the internal doors of important rooms. Poorer quality fittings were used in bedrooms and service areas.

  • Brass: Cast, sheet or spun brass was widely used to make door and window furniture but requires regular polishing. Some pieces
    may be lacquered or brass plated.
  • Wrought iron: Forged by blacksmiths to make hinges and other items.
  • Cast iron: Often painted black, was used for knockers and knobs.
  • Steel: Strong and relatively inexpensive, steel was employed extensively for hinges, bolts, catches and other fittings.