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Some of the oldest boxes extant are held together with only wood, or perhaps with a few nails. By the 19th century, however, few of them were produced without decorative brass hardware. By the early 1900s—when our box was made—the Arts & Crafts movement put an emphasis on plain, simple parts made of copper, brass, and sometimes wrought iron.
The condition of the hardware is important for two reasons. First, it plays an important role in the actual infrastructure of a box, supporting the lid, securing the contents, or even sometimes holding the whole works together. Second, it is decorative. And in a plain, simple box like this one, that decoration must match the style of the box perfectly, or it will ruin the entire effect.
The hardware on our box is in great condition. All of the major parts are present, and there are no obvious blemishes or damage. Pieces are solidly in place. And the years of oxidation have not been polished away, which will match the well-handled feel of the wood.
2. Hinges & Lid-stay
The hinges are quite small, and are of middling quality. They are made of sheet brass, folded in half around the pin, drilled through for, and held in place by, the wood screws which hold them in place. While not as strong as cast brass, they have held up quite well over the years. One screw is missing, and it is obvious why: someone over-tightened the screw, and this has resulted in the wooden hole being stripped out. When the brass threads on the screw have no corresponding wooden threads to hold on to, it stays loose, and can easily fall out. We can replace the screw, but the threads need to be repaired.
We find a replacement screw of similar size. Then , we find a piece of bamboo skewer of slightly smaller diameter than the hole, and trim it so that it’s length is the same as the hole itself. We squish a bit of fish glue down the hole, fit in the plug, and gently drive the screw in place. The plug will be split by the screw, and it will glue in place, conforming perfectly to the threads in the screw. The next day, once the glue has cured, the hole is solid, and nearly indistinguishable from the others. No 21st century products needed for this repair!
The lid-stay is an excellent piece of engineering. Simply made of a piece of shaped brass held in place by two brass plates, it holds the lid open at about a 115º angle—wide enough for gravity to keep it open, but never enough to stress the hinges. This little extra is why the hinges are solid, and the sockets are not broken out, as so often happens. As with most simple (one moving part), solidly engineered mechanisms, this one is in perfect condition.
3. Why It’s Called Locksmithing
The lock is simple and elegant, and is held in place by two screws underneath the tray supports. We have lots of experience in small box locks—nearly every box lock needs attention, a key, or both.
The key for this lock is missing. But the lock is designed specifically for boxes such as this, and so the works are easily accessible once you pull it out of it’s socket. A good look at the workings tell us that it is a simple mechanism: the key’s tongue lifts up a spring, which allows a slide to move, freeing the pin attached to the lid. However, something is obviously wrong. There should be a pin which acts as a pivot point for the key. Without it, the key will be sloppy enough that it will be difficult to use the lock.
We can see where it once was, and we have a replacement key, so it is relatively simple to turn a small brass post of the right length and diameter to marry both together. A hot method of connection, such as brazing or soldering, will be solid, but will soften the surrounding metal. Like the original, we simply hammer, or pein the pin in place—in fact, you will be hard-pressed to find an old lock that is not held together entirely with cold connection methods. And any time you assemble something with metal parts by banging on them with a hammer, you are—you guessed it—smithing.
(As an aside, blacksmithing is work done with iron and steel. When working with other metals, the trade was historically known as whitesmithing. And, of course, it didn’t take long for uppity gold- and silversmiths to think that they wanted their own trade names, and the tinsmiths ran along behind like everyone’s kid brother, not wanting to be left behind. Funny, you never hear of coppersmiths or brassmiths…)
We fine-tune the shape of the key so that it fits and operates smoothly. Just before re-installing the lock, we will lubricate it with graphite. Graphite is perfect for mechanisms like this because it is dry, and won’t collect dirt and metal dust, like oil does.
4. Appearance Is Everything
Because we have some newly-made replacement brass pieces, there is one last thing we need to do. We need to match the patina of the older pieces.
Patina is a funny thing; everyone knows that old patina shouldn’t be disturbed, but no one seems to know why not, or even exactly what it is. This is a subject which deserves a full-blog-post-rant, so we will address it that way, and soon. Suffice it to say that, in this application, we want to dull the brass and have it’s colour roughly match the other pieces around it.
Modern manufacturers assume that people want a bright, shiny finish on their brass, so they put a lacquer finish on all of their products. We soak the screw and key in lacquer thinner for awhile, then use a rotary tool to buff off the coating. This gives us pure brass with which we can work.
When it comes to the patina of age on copper and it’s alloys (brass & bronze), it is the result of oxidation: oxygen reacting with the outer layer of atoms to form cupric oxide. While it normally takes years for this to develop, we can do it almost instantly. Heat greatly accelerates the development of oxides, and the presence of simple table salt will add some additional colour.
We spray some salt water on the pieces, and then take the blow torch to them. Within seconds they are darker, and we repeat the process until we get the colour we want. If we heat them too much (to glowing red, about 1500º F) we will soften them—a process called annealing. So we are careful to heat them just until they darken, and then quench them in water.
We carefully put all of the hardware bits-and-pieces in a ziplock bag, and label it. (Trust me on this: you only want to lose an important piece of a project once. For the sake of learning, we claim…)
While it would be fun to put the hardware back in place right away, it would be premature. Because we still have to re-line the interior, which will be the subject of our next post.