Handle Choices

If any question is guaranteed to stump us at Whitechapel Ltd it is "What kind of handle do you think I ought to use on my …..". While we are perhaps sometimes over willing to tell a customer our own likes and dislikes I hope it is apparent that our choices are less valid than your own, you can look at your furniture, we can't.

In an effort to make the choosing easier all photos in our catalog are scaled 100% so at least you won't have to imagine size as well as style.

If you are working to a specific period then your choices should probably be limited to designs of that time. If you are working in a generic traditional style then your life is more complicated. The same piece of furniture can be dressed up or down substantially depending perhaps on a choice between wooden knobs and Hepplewhite oval plate handles. Both might be appropriate and attractive, both will work fine but one signals "Country" and the other "Formal".

If you do not like what you have chosen you can always change it later. Most pieces of antique furniture that have survived for us to enjoy today have had their handles replaced at one time or another. The tell tail marks of filled holes and outlines of previous backplates tell an interesting story of the changes in fashion over the last two centuries.

When I started making furniture in the US, the Shaker revival had just begun. During that time exposed polished brass hardware was taboo. Today 25 years later brass hardware is slowly beginning to rehabilitate itself. Tastes are not quite as austere as they were and the young buyers of that era are now beginning to inherit the characteristics (and furniture) of their parents. We find the most popular compromise between what was and what will be is the simple bail handle, usually in an antique finish. Even though these handles do have a specific period (end of 18th century) they have a timeless simplicity that works well along side plain knobs for doors. If you are tortured by indecision these handles may be the answer!

Bail Handles

The bail handle is characterized by an open loop that hangs freely between two fixed mounts, it is a short evolutionary step from a loop of rope tied between two holes. The first metal handles to take this form were attached by two cotter (or split) pins (shown on left) and where iron. While this simple attachment was adequate and is still used in many parts of the world it was superseded in England and America around the mid 17th century by the threaded post consisting of a cross-drilled ball on a threaded stud (below right).

By this time brass had become the metal of choice for furniture fittings, brass could be easily cast and hand finished and when polished is particularly complementary to the colors found in furniture woods.

Bail handles are invariably mounted on a single decorative backplate or a pair of smaller plates (rosettes), one behind each post. Backplates of one kind or the other are necessary to reinforce the mounting holes. The single decorative backplate also serves to protect the wood behind the handle from damage from both fingernails and the bail itself. A pair of rosettes, while doing nothing to protect the wood behind the handle does reinforce the mounting holes and has the added advantage of allowing a degree of adjustment in width by opening or closing the bail. This adaptability to odd centers makes the rosette pull a natural choice for old furniture where handles are either ugly or missing and a plate handle cannot be found that matches the existing holes.

In typical application the bail will be wide enough to accommodate four fingers of a hand. This ergonomic need has established a 2 3/4" - 3 1/2" center to center ("Bore") for the mounting posts as the norm. Bails will usually take either the swan neck form shown on the right or the "D" shape shown on the left.

For a given boring a swan neck handle will be more accommodating to the hand.

Relevant Products

  • Rosette Handles
  • Iron Bail Handles
  • Plate Handles

    • Lifting Handles

      Lifting handles commonly follow the same basic form as bail handles, either mounted to a pair of smaller rosettes or on a larger single plate. Beyond outward similarities there are significant structural differences. While bail handles are usually mounted through the wood with a threaded post and nut, lifting handles are generally face mounted with woodscrews, and in most cases multiples of woodscrews per handle. The clearest difference between lifting handles and others is the stop that prevents the handle rising past 90°. Without this stop the handle would swing up and pinch the hand as lifting force is applied.

      Traditional lifting handles emphasize strength but do not ignore beauty. The shape of the handle should not only be comfortable but graceful. As in many things, a well engineered solution will please the eye. Lifting handles are sometimes mounted on decorative backplates (see "A" below). These handles were often features on the sides of 18th century desks, reflecting the needs of a time when people of sufficient wealth to afford these desks might move from country home to city and back according to the demands of the social calendar.

      A third and probably the strongest variety of lifting handles (see "B" in photo) is formed of an unbroken D shaped ring whose upper half is captive under a heavy plate. Only breakage could cause these handles to fail which in all probability would require inhuman strength.

      Another exceptionally strong style of lifting handle is shown as "C" in the photo. These are French and are mounted through the wood with a pair of heavy cotter (split) pins. Unless the wood to which they are attached breaks these handles will not fail.

      All the handles shown above will serve their expressed purpose. The choice between these styles should be based of visual and period imperatives.

      Relevant Products

      Lifting Handles

Hepplewhite Plate & Ring Handles

Oval plate & ring handles became popular towards the end of the 18th century in styles of furniture promoted by Hepplewhite in his design guide. With their classical flavor, the ring handles particularly, remained popular through the Sheraton and Empire period of the early 19th century.

Most of these handles were set on an oval medallion like backplate though round, octagonal and other shapes were also produced. The backplate took advantage of the fine detail possible when thin brass sheet is pressed between dies.

The typical oval plate handle has a slender "D" shaped cast bail draped between posts at each side of the plate. The posts were sometimes plain and round but more commonly were urn shaped and featured a turned detail cut into their face.

Ring handles use a cast handle that follows the outline of the backplate, it lays in a channel so as to appear as one with the backplate. This feature sacrifices some convenience to visual effect. The handle is suspended by a clasp at the 12 O'clock position. The clasp passes through the backplate and on through the wood where it's threaded end is fixed with a nut. The backplate is held tight at the top by the clasp and also fixed with one or more escutcheon pins. Cheaper modern replacement handles are often supplied as one piece items attached with a single center bolt. This is certainly more convenient but prevents their use on antiques without the unacceptable drilling of new mounting holes.

In use this type of handle does not offer the feeling of security one finds in a bail handle. They certainly function well enough but the slim handle and thin backplate foster a sense of lightness that might be mistaken for cheapness in a modern product. It is almost impossible to get the ring of a ring handle to hang predictably and the sound they make as the drop could be thought tinny. These slight objections and the need for fingernails in order to lift the ring might put some off using this kind of handle unless demanded by historic prerequisite.

Relevant Products

  • Hepplewhite Plate Handles
  • Hepplewhite Ring Handles
  • Hepplewhite Oval Handles

    • Positioning Handles

      Positioning handles on drawer fronts demands some of the same considerations as apply to knobs (see Knob Positioning), the same sense of relationship must be observed.

      To position a handle successfully you will first need to determine it's visual center of mass. Unlike a knob, the visual center of mass of a handle is not usually the mounting screw. Rosette handles with their clearly defined backplates derive more of their visual mass from the rosettes than do plate handles where the bail is superimposed on field of brass. In application this means a rosette handle will be placed more nearly as one would a knob, probably a little lower than a plate handle whose mass is mostly a function of the backplate. The goal in all cases being to place the center of mass slightly above the center line of the drawer front. The deeper the drawer front the higher the handle should be placed above the center line.

      In some cases it is impossible to place a handle at the optimum height because of such things as cross-banding or overcrowding on a narrow upper drawer. In these instances the eye is generally willing to forgive.