Imagine you’ve spent umpteen hours restoring a piece of vintage furniture or building a perfect reproduction right down to the period appropriate finish, and are now standing before a wall of woefully inappropriate modern hardware choices at the local big box store. Frustrating? You bet, but you don’t have to settle for the wrong fittings, not as long as Vintage Hardware has your back.
Wander back through time via their web pages and you’ll find butterfly-shaped hinges, glass doorknobs, period handles, vintage lighting and reproduction switch plates and escutcheons. Can’t find an exact match for missing hardware? They’ll even make a custom reproduction for you. How did this wonderful resource come about? I spoke with Ken Kelly, the founder and CEO of the company, to get the backstory.
“I was an antique dealer living in Scotland shortly after my stint in the Air Force,” recounted Ken. “I had a good friend there whose father owned a foundry. They used to make hardware for my antiques when I needed it. They also let me come and play with metal, and that was one of the joys of my life.
“In 1975, I returned to California, my original home, where I ran three antique shops. When my friend’s father died, we did a business swap. I traded my antique export business to him for his father’s foundry. I packed up the foundry in 1978 and moved it from Scotland to Taiwan.
“About a year earlier, I had been to Taiwan on a fact-finding mission for the foundry and met Jane, the woman who would become my wife. She and her family lived in Kaohsiung, a port city near the bottom of the island. Her mother allowed us to use one of her business licenses, and we set up a factory for the foundry making antique reproduction furniture hardware. In 1995, we moved the factory to China.
“Then, in 2002, we visited Port Townsend, Washington, a quaint Victorian seaport and tourist destination. We loved it, and two years later we moved there and opened a store called Vintage Hardware. Almost immediately, I became involved in local historical activity. Port Townsend holds a Victorian Festival every year, and that year we hosted it. I became a trustee of the Historical Society, a member of the building committee of the Historical Research Center, and a prominent member of the Victorian Festival committee. About two years ago, we opened the world’s only Art Deco light museum right in our building.
“Today, Vintage Hardware is housed in a 35,000 square foot factory whose purpose is primarily to sell and promote the antique reproduction hardware we make. In addition to carrying over two thousand different pieces of vintage furniture and household hardware, we also do an almost unlimited range of custom pieces for homes, museums and government buildings. We cover a huge range of periods and styles, including Victorian, Edwardian, Arts and Crafts, Deco, Nouveau and others, and even make reproduction Bakelite handles and knobs in five colors.
“We sell all over the world from our catalog and web site, and have an outstanding reputation after three decades in the business. Over the years, we’ve done hardware and lighting for jobs ranging from the San Jose trolleys to the White House.
“Some of our pieces,” Kelly explained, “are surprisingly complex to manufacture. For example, some chandeliers require as many as 90 different silicone rubber molds, used for pouring wax. The metal parts are then made by lost wax casting, a jewelry making method that results in strikingly precise details. Typically they are cast by hand. Often genuine mica sheets are cut and set by hand for the shade panels.
“At the moment we are in a ‘green’ growth period,” Ken told me rather proudly. “We are currently the only manufacturers of Victorian fixtures with electronic compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. We offer reproduction fin de siecle fixtures made with Energy Star rated bulbs, and are working on the first ballast-free LED replacements for fluorescent tube fixtures. The four-foot tube we are currently working on will have 300 LEDs and put out nearly 800 lumens, but will draw a mere 11 watts.”
I’ll be the first to admit that the Vintage Hardware web site is truly a delight to wander through, but no matter how fascinating a web site is, it’s not quite the same as seeing the real thing. Ken feels the same way.
“I just wish everyone could come to the shop and kick the tires,” Kelly says somewhat ruefully. “Of course, if you can make it to Port Townsend, Washington, by all means come and visit. I’m certain you will walk away amazed.”