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Historical Guide to Knobs

The history of the knob is woven through the history of furniture. Every age found a suitable application for this simple fitting. Despite their apparent utility, knobs are somewhat less common in earlier periods than later. This may be explained by their fundamental vulnerability. Rugged durability is the mark of medieval and Jacobean furniture. The need for furniture to survive rough treatment and travel would discourage the use of fixed projections. Many handles seen on early furniture took the form of drops or rings that project very little, or were simply keys. Later we find the knob gain more general application.

The knob played a restricted role during the 18th century periods of formal furniture making. If they are to be found at all it will be on small doors and drawers inside desks, these little brass knobs were usually cast, hand finished and attached with a simple hand cut integral woodscrew. Only at the beginning of the 19th century does the knob become an acceptable exposed fitting on fine furniture. Hepplewhite and Sheraton introduced large decorated face brass knobs in their late 18th and early 19th century designs. The technology of the time allowed fine detail to be pressed into thin brass sheet, these faces were then spun onto a heavier body of solid brass. Time has taken its toll on these knobs, they damage easily and as fashions changed most were replaced with more popular bail type handles. Turned wood knobs were popular with the Shakers and others of minimalist persuasion and throughout the 19th century the bulk of country furniture styles employed wooden knobs.

Use

Though knobs constitute the simplest of hardware items the subject can become as thorny as any other.

We stock knobs in a range of sizes from 5/16" diameter all the way up to 4" diameter. Most are fixed and some operate latches. We stock knobs that attach by integral woodscrew, woodscrew from behind, glued tenon, machine screw, bolt and nut. Some knobs come with round backplates to protect the cabinetwork from fingernail attack, others come with decorative escutcheons and many stand alone without any kind of backplate.

Most questions relating to knobs fall into the related topics of size, quantity and positioning. Knobs, more than any other fitting, bear physical resemblance to body parts, notably eyes and noses and their size and placing on a piece of furniture can have some rather unfortunate effects if not well considered.

Size

I don't want to get over specific in a discussion of different furniture styles as I think anyone building furniture in a period idiom probably knows enough to select the appropriate knob. No rules seem to govern these choices, the Shakers seemed to be drawn to a minimal approach and rarely used knobs bigger than 1 1/4" diameter even on the largest casework. Other less severe furniture of the same period was commonly outfitted with comfortable larger mushroom or bun shaped knobs. The Sheraton styles of the early 19th century popularized large decorative brass knobs, few of which survived the ravages of use and the changes of taste.

By far the most common application for knobs in our day is on built-in cabinetwork, for every knob we sell to a furniture maker we probably sell fifty that will go in a kitchen. Kitchens have become such an important part of modern domestic life that a great deal of effort and expense goes into their creation. Even a moderate kitchen can consume fifty or more knobs. If the knob is wrong it will have ample opportunity to repeat its mistake!

Unless your cabinetwork is truly massive you will need to select a knob between 1" and 1 1/2" diameter for your cabinet doors. If you are using knobs on the drawers make sure these are the same size or bigger than the door knobs. The typical cabinet knob we sell is 1 1/4" diameter. If you are using wood knobs you will generally want one size larger than the equivalent metal knob. Wood appears lighter than brass or iron and signals a robust "Country" flavor.

Quantity

Quantity only becomes an issue on drawers. Smaller drawers need one knob and larger drawers need two but quite where the dividing line is drawn is a matter for careful consideration. My experience tells me that an 18" drawer can accommodate either a single larger knob or two smaller knobs. Any wider a drawer will feel more comfortable with two knobs and any smaller drawer will need only one. A wide drawer with a single knob is prone to rack when opened particularly if loaded unevenly and small drawers with two knobs will appear to need both hands to open.

Positioning

The placing of knobs is crucial to the overall integration of your cabinetwork. When placed with care a knob should blend into its context. Poorly placed knobs act as visual stumbling blocks to the balance of otherwise well proportioned cabinetwork. If most cabinetwork was on the cutting edge of modern design I would make no attempt to lecture on knob placing but the truth is that the vast bulk of new cabinetwork is very traditional in design and seek to evoke times past. The cult of "convenience at all costs" can lead designers and homeowners to sacrifice all the time and effort they have expended on solid hardwoods, raised panels and custom finishes and scatter knobs in the most non-traditional places. Here are a few thoughts that might help.

Never place a knob in the corner of a door, imagine the door length divided into four quarters and try to keep the knob in the middle two quarters. It does nobody any harm to stretch up or down a little.

Avoid placing knobs on raised panels. This cannot always be avoided, particularly when the cabinetmaker has seen fit to produce raised panel drawer fronts.

A knob should always be positioned a little above center on a drawer front, a centered knob will appear below center seen from above.

If a drawer is wide enough to need two knobs as a rule of thumb they should be set about 1/6th of the drawer length from each end. Take this as a starting point not a strict rule.

Too Wide Too Narrow Correct

Mounting

Wooden knobs are attached either by a woodscrew from behind or, if provided with a tenon, they are glued in place. Woodscrew attachment is the more popular method though not as secure as the glued tenon. Because of wood shrinkage a woodscrew will eventually loosen and given the human capacity for procrastination the knob will loosen further over the course of years until one day it will come off in the hands of an unsuspecting visitor. The glued tenon will survive longer but, unless they are sawn or broken off, commits the user to his choice of knob.

Metal knobs can be attached either with machine screws from behind or with integral woodscrews. Most cabinet knobs come with a machine screw usually suitable for 3/4" thick material. If your wood is thicker it is usually up to you to find suitable longer screws. American made knobs are commonly threaded for 8/32 screws which can easily be found in your local hardware store. Manufacturers of European knobs seem to take pleasure in frustrating consumers wherever possible with a wide range of threads from 2mm metric to 1/4" Whitworth. We try our best to supply a suitable screw for your needs. Often the best solution to an installation problem will be to use "Hanger screws". These screws look like a woodscrew on one end and a machine screw on the other. They screw into the back of the knob and then the knob is simply screwed into a pilot hole in the wood. They are certainly as secure as any other mounting in hardwoods but might not hold against abuse on pine or other soft woods. We can supply hanger screws upon request with most of our knobs.

Some of our European knobs come with a long steel bolt and a nut. To install these requires cutting the thread to the appropriate length. I don't envy anyone installing a kitchens worth of these and would refer back to the last paragraph. If these are to be used as supplied the process is as follows. Locate knob position then create a counterbore with a suitable sized Forstener bit on the backside to accommodate the nut. Drill the bolt hole and with the bolt not quite fully threaded into the knob insert the knob in place. Mark the bolt flush with the back surface of the wood. Remove the knob and thread the nut onto the bolt past this point, now cut the bolt to length. File the bolt end to remove damage and unscrew the nut to repair the threads. Install the knob.

You could possibly avoid the counterbore on a kitchen but on furniture it should not be ignored.

Finishing Wooden Knobs

Most wood knobs are lathe turned from lengths of wood, the grain running through the knobs depth (end grain). A few knobs are machined from boards with the grain running across the knob (face grain). Care must be taken when finishing end grain wood knobs to avoid an uneven blotchy effect. End grain absorbs much more wood finish than face grain and if that finish happens to be a stain the end grain on the front of the knob will appear much darker than the surrounding woodwork. This problem can easily be avoided with a little preparation. Wood knobs will come to you with a fairly smooth machined finish. Before any finish is applied the knobs will require finish sanding with abrasive paper, 220 grit or finer will do. The face of the knob should receive the bulk of your attention, this area is nothing but end grain and will be most visible upon completion. Make sure all sign of concentric machine marks and the little spot in the middle are gone. The knob is now ready for clear finishes but if stains are to be used it will be necessary to seal the knob with a dilute shellac or lacquer coat, I use a topcoat finish mixed 50/50 with thinner. Let this sealer dry completely and sand lightly before the stain is applied.