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Getting a handle on a new doorknob

The Baltimore Sun

Today we launch Rob Kasper's "Saturday's Hero" column, a monthly feature on projects you can do in a weekend.

Installing antique doorknobs on older doors is a surefire way to become a homefront hero. That is what the doorknob savants told me.

"You can easily do it in a day," said Mark Foster, president of Second Chance Inc., a Baltimore salvage operation that sells recycled hardware and fixtures.

"It is a lot easier to put a doorknob in than it is to hang a door in a crooked doorway," said Calvin P. Buikema, a retired city parks superintendent who scavenges knobs and other hardware from doors he finds in Baltimore's alleys. "It is amazing what people throw out," he told me.

Moreover, surrounding myself with artifacts from the city's history can, they said, be good for my soul.

"It is a link to the past," Foster said, gesturing toward the array of doorknobs stacked in a corner of his Warner Street warehouse in

the shadow of M&T; Bank Stadium. Admiring a well-made glass doorknob or decorative doorplate gives you an "appreciation of the engineering and craftsmanship" of bygone eras, Foster said.

It is age-appropriate activity, he said, explaining that, as best you can, you want to match the age of the doorknob with the house. Most doors built before the 1960s look classy when they are matched with antique doorknobs.

I bought most of this doorknob sales pitch. Learning how to replace old doorknobs seemed like a good way to begin this column. Called "Saturday's Hero," a name resurrected from my prior writing, this column will describe homefront ventures that normal people, not just the types standing in the "contractors only" checkout line at the home-improvement store, can undertake in a weekend.

Before I picked up a screwdriver, I did a little research on the doorknob-collecting crowd. Their numbers are legion, they often congregate in old cities and they can be eccentric.

The Antique Doorknob Collectors of America, for example, proclaims on its Web site that its members are "squirrelly when it comes to knobs." Some of the collectors attach doorknobs to a wall and use them as coat hooks, the Web site said. Others simply admire their beauty.

Doorknob customers can be a bit "precious" said Stuart Grannen, proprietor of Architectural Artifacts Inc., a 20-year-old business that sells "objects of a lost world" from its Chicago warehouse and Web site operation. "They want to talk about doorknobs for hours," Grannen said.

Frankly, he added, because doorknobs are "not very high up on the antiques food chain," he usually points doorknob hunters in the direction of their quarry, and spends more time with customers seeking more interesting acquisitions.

That being said, Grannen confessed that he had a collection of doorknobs designed by noted Chicago architect Louis H. Sullivan. The Sullivan knobs will probably end up being displayed in a museum Grannen is putting together in Chicago. He also told me he has some "massive doorknobs, as big as the palm of your hand" that he imported from Argentina. Antiques from Argentina have classic style, he said, and friendlier prices than their European cousins.

For my venture into the realm of antique-doorknob replacement, I went to the home of Mark Moreland, a manager at Second Chance. A graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, Moreland is a sculptor and has done of much of the renovation work on the 1925 bungalow in Hamilton that he shares with his wife, Lisa. He knows his knobs.

The rough hierarchy of old doorknobs, he said, starts with plain metal knobs on the bottom, moves up to ceramic knobs, then on to cut- and pressed-glass knobs, and tops off with finely decorated cast-bronze or brass knobs.

Doorknobs removed from a local building, such the metal knobs from Baltimore's renovated Munsey Building at Calvert and Fayette streets, have increased value for local collectors, he said.

When working on the doorknob, do not be tempted, he said, to venture into working on the door lock. Replacing the lock on a door is a different, more complicated undertaking, often best left to a locksmith.

With Moreland at the controls, the doorknob installation went smoothly. He worked, I watched. It helped that he knew the thickness of the door. Most exterior doors are 1 3/4 inches, while interior doors are 1 1/4 inches, he said, but there are plenty of variations. The metal spindles that go through the door and hold the knobs come in different lengths. If your spindle is too long, you can either replace it at an antique-hardware shop or, if you are feeling brave, you can saw the spindle down, he said.

I was heartened to see that even Moreland, a skilled, organized worker, temporarily lost track of one of the tiny setscrews that held the knob on its metal spindle. When I work, I am always chasing loose screws. Moreover, because of years of wear, one of the doorknobs setscrews did not sit snuggly on the spindle. It was not a perfect fit, but it was very close. That, Moreland said, is life. I agreed.

He replaced the $16 brass doorknob on his oak living room door with a $50 hollow-glass silvered doorknob and a $175 cast bronze doorplate made in 1905. It added a tasteful sparkle to the room.

When I got home, I took a tour of my house, examining its many doorknobs. One ceramic knob was loose. Emboldened by Moreland's tutorial, I fixed it. It needed a new setscrew and a $3 rosette, the circular piece of metal that, in lieu of a fancy doorplate, sits under the knob. Over the next few days, I often visited that door, admiring my work, opening and closing the door, feeling the smooth knob in my hand.

I was reminded of a bit of advice I heard sometime ago: "Spend money on things you touch everyday."

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

ONLINE

To hear Rob Kasper talk about installing a door knob and to see a slide show of the project, visit baltimoresun.com / kasper

GETTING STARTED

Tools: Screwdriver, portable power drill if new holes are needed for the doorplate

Cost: From $5 for simple steel knobs to $500 for elaborate cast-brass knobs

Time: 30 minutes to an hour

THE PARTS

Both the doorknobs and doorplate came from Second Chance, a Baltimore salvage company. The glass doorknobs cost $50 and the doorplate, manufactured by Reading Hardware, circa 1905, costs $175. Mark Moreland, manager of Second Chance, demonstrates how to install the doorknobs in the photos below.

WHAT NOT TO DO

Don't lose the tiny setscrews that hold the doorknob to the spindle. Replacements are hard to find, but you may be able to get them at shops that sell old doorknobs.

Don't buy a doorknob without first measuring the thickness of your door. Most exterior doors are 1 3 / 4 inches thick, while interior doors often measure 1 1 / 4 inches. Spindles that accommodate these widths are available at stores selling antique doorknobs.

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