Nearly all of the door knobs in our apartment are mismatched. Some are lovely and look quite original to the home, if very painted over. Others are clear modern replacements. Three of them are brass doorknobs of the exceedingly generic style that many of us might associate with the 1980s or 90s, but which, like the acrylic faucet knobs of my last small improvements post, are still ubiquitous in the world of basic hardware store finishes. When we moved in, those polished brass doorknobs were bright and brassy because a plasticine lacquer was keeping them that way.
I prefer things to have a little patina. I like to see the way that time and the weather and use changes things. I don’t really want my brass to shine. Lucky for me, and maybe for you, delacquering brass doorknobs to reveal the natural brass beneath is easy and costs exactly nothing.
Inspiration for this particular project came from beautiful old knobs that can be found in other places in our building. These brass knobs are unlacquered and they’ve developed the kind of warm luster that develops with metal that’s been in use for awhile and exposed to the elements. In the weeks after we moved in, I considered scouting for vintage replacements that would more closely resemble the old knobs, but a bit of research led me to a take a different approach that has kept our perfectly functional knobs in place and just made them lovelier to look at. I don’t have perfect before and after imagery. This was one of those dive-in-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace situations. I tackled the project on an afternoon in November when peeling cracked plastic off hot metal felt like the best use of my spare nervous energy, and finished it after nightfall.
The process is relatively simple if a bit surprising: Simmer your doorknobs until the lacquer heats up and can be peeled off. (A similar process also works for removing paint from doorknobs or hinges or other metal objects that may have been painted over once upon a time. More on that soon though; today we’re just talking lacquer.)
If you’d like to try this for yourself, you’ll need your lacquered doorknobs, an old pot that you don’t use for food prep, and some water. Place your doorknobs into the bottom of a pan and cover them with water. I used the bottom pan of the double boiler that we use for melting beeswax. For good measure, I opened the kitchen window all the way and simmered the doorknobs on an afternoon when the rest of my family was out of the apartment. (Some folks use an old crockpot, which has the added advantage of being able to be used without much supervision and, with an extension cord, outdoors.)
I “cooked” the doorknobs for 15 minutes and removed them from the pot with metal tongs once they’d taken on a kind of milky cast. Then I scored the lacquer with a sharp knife and peeled the brittle plastic away, piece by piece with my fingernails. On one doorknob that had a few tenacious pieces (where I believe the doorknob had been accidentally painted over with wood stain), I used a bit of non-acetone nail polish remover to coax off the stuck-on bits. When I first removed the lacquer, the brass underneath was gleaming, But without its protective layer, it began to morph, however subtly, nearly immediately. Remember: The natural evolution of the unlacquered brass as it’s exposed to the elements is the allure of this project. If you’re someone who doesn’t like uncertainty, or who prefers things to be shiny, this is probably not the project for you.
I also think patience is key here. It’s possible to speed up the brass aging process with various products, but for me, this was a project defined by stripping things down, not adding anything else. I wanted to see how the natural brass changed on its own and for the past two months I’ve been very pleased to watch the evolution in progress. Pardon the dramatics, but it’s taken this generic rental apartment hardware from being mostly unremarkable and a little bit ugly, to living, breathing spots of beauty.
The ornate crystal chandelier that hangs over our dining table is also brass, also unlacquered, and it’s taken on a such a rich patina over the years that depending on the light, it looks practically black. I imagine that if left untouched the door knobs might eventually darken to a similar hue, but because they’re used daily by every member of our household, they’ll probably soften more than they’ll darken. In seasons when our windows are open, they might still change still more. I’m looking forward to following along.
Like all of these small improvements, the doorknobs have not drastically changed the apartment as far as it appears in its photographed form. But this isn’t so much about how the apartment looks, as it’s about how it feels. And unlacquered brass? It just feels good.
Made any small improvements lately? I’m all ears.