A History of E.R. Butler & Co.

By Dan Lane

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Today, most people understand the functional necessity of hardware, but an appreciation of its larger purpose and potential has, for the most part, been lost. We believe hardware plays a leading role in the architectural design process and it is our mission to elevate its stature within the decorative arts.

To achieve this end we have dedicated ourselves to providing fine decorative hardware to architects and designers who value its potential as a design element and who wish to use it to take their buildings one step further, into the realm of art.

For a company to achieve such a goal, it must have the ability to affect every step in the process. E.R. Butler & Co. is a firm structured to handle all the elements necessary to fulfill the needs of the most exacting clients, from initial design and consultation, to the manufacture and finishing of a perfect final product.

Our early American hardware collection in brass and crystal is the company’s cornerstone. These classic pieces are the original designs of our New England predecessors. The innovative work of these early manufacturers is not only our firm’s foundation, but also a constant source of knowledge and inspiration. We have supplemented this rich base with a belief in traditional craft and solid design principles to insure hardware of beauty and quality. By embracing state-of-the-art manufacturing technology we have cultivated the ability to create any type of custom hardware imaginable. These attributes, together with our associations with like-minded producers around the world, create a range of products available in almost any style or period.

E.R. Butler & Co. combines this manufacturing and supply capability with a commitment to service and consultation that is unparalleled in our industry. Initial consultation, scheduling, design and drafting capability, estimating and custom specification, a large library of design and metalworking books, and the world’s largest library of hardware trade catalogs round out the list of services available under our name.

This multifaceted approach yields a company uniquely positioned to give voice to buildings that might otherwise be nothing more than a mute assemblage of spaces.

History

In name, E.R. Butler & Co. came into existence in 1990 but its foundation was built long before, during a period when the business of manufacturing and supplying builders’ hardware had a distinctly different character. During the 19th Century the American hardware industry came of age. Like so many other industries, its nature began to change as a direct result of technical advancements made possible by the industrial revolution. What was once an industry characterized by painstaking custom production using old world hand methods became one characterized by a restless search for new techniques of mass production and machine manufacture.

This shift opened the field to a new breed of individual: one whose sense of aesthetics was coupled with a talent for invention and innovation. Enoch Robinson was one of these men. He entered the field in the 1820s and over the next six decades became one of the most well-known and respected hardware manufacturers in the country. In 1895, Charles Stanhope Damrell’s A Half Century of Boston’s Building described Robinson’s line as being “in demand all over the country, the business having been so long established and the reputation which it enjoys among the trade giving it a name, which is known all over the world, wherever the goods it handles are used.”

In addition to carrying a first-class decorative hardware line, Robinson invented several processes that advanced not only the quality of hardware, but the nature of its manufacture. He got his start at the New England Glass Company and immediately demonstrated a penchant for groundbreaking experimentation and invention that would come to characterize his life’s work. There, with Henry Whitney, he developed and patented what may have been the world’s first glass pressing machine.

By 1840, Robinson was an established dealer in hardware with a shop in Dock Square, Boston. His inventions and patents continued to accrue. Most dealt with the technical exigencies of hardware manufacturing, such as more reliable methods for securing a crystal knob to its base, along with other novel designs for window and door latches. Other designs came about seemingly for the sake of invention itself, like one for a windlass and attempts at perfecting a perpetual motion machine. Even Robinson’s home, the famous Round House in Somerville, Massachusetts, is, like his hardware, a study in architectural innovation. Its hardware and French-American décor are, of course, Robinson’s design, but even its unique rounded, stacked-plank construction may have been achieved using machines that he himself designed.

Over the course of his career Enoch Robinson collaborated with many other men to produce new and better products for the hardware industry. His first associations were with his brothers and cousins, many of whom were also involved in the early American metal and glass trades. His cousin Obed was a blacksmith. Cousins Richard and William manufactured glass and gilt buttons. His brothers George and Ezra maintained their own hardware shop in Boston and Enoch worked along side them before going out on his own.

In 1837, with his brother George, Enoch took out a patent on a method for attaching crystal knobs to their metal bases. The process, which involved connecting the knob to its base with molten metal, was an improvement on an earlier one that attached the knob with a ferrule screw. Both of these designs proved flawed, so Robinson refined them until he came up with the method still in use today and showcased in E.R. Butler’s crystal knob collection.

Later, working with William Hall, Robinson patented a new lock latch and a novel window fastener. Upon Robinson’s death in 1888, his patents, machinery, and design templates became the property of L.S. Hall, a former Robinson clerk and draftsmen. In the early 20th Century, L.S. Hall’s assets were bought by W.C. Vaughan Company, already the owner of the decorative patterns for several other reputable 19th Century hardware designers, namely the aforementioned William Hall Co. (est. 1843) and John Tein Co. (est. 1883).

Since its acquisition of the W.C. Vaughan Company in 2000, E.R. Butler & Co. embodies a vast array of America’s early traditional hardware designs and manufacturing processes. We continue to manufacture and supply the designs of Robinson, Hall, and Tein and are continually inspired by the tradition of quality and innovation that made these men the most respected manufacturers of hardware in their day.

Technology and Innovation

Although E.R. Butler & Co. looks to the past for inspiration and direction, it is a company that also recognizes the importance of utilizing today’s technologies. Design has never been a static form of expression reliant on only a few secretive means and methods. Designers have always sought out novel means of manufacture, if not to improve upon the existing, then to seize upon those that allow whole new avenues of expression and lead to the creation of original styles and forms.

During the 19th Century, new manufacturing techniques aimed at mass production were widely blamed for corrupting design by eschewing quality and expressiveness in favor of manufacturing ease. There were, however, those who saw a way to mediate between those two seemingly opposite paths. This insight is, in part, what set Enoch Robinson apart from his competition. While he was a man who appreciated the value of craftmanship, he also knew that quality did not have to be compromised or sacrificed to accommodate technology. On the contrary, his products and inventions demonstrate a belief that technology and tradition can be combined to form something new that is more than the sum of those two parts.

This belief underlies E.R. Butler & Co.’s use of technology in the manufacture of decorative hardware. Two pieces from our collection serve to illustrate this belief.

The Center Pivot Hinge is a new type of hinge designed and carried exclusively by E.R. Butler & Co. Its invention was inspired by architects’ need for a hinge that did not project beyond the plane of a wall. Since the Center Pivot Hinge is mortised into the top and bottom surface of a door’s hinge stile, it allows an architect to create sleek minimal spaces whose walls contain functioning doors but whose vertical planes are visually uninterrupted by the projecting knuckles of a traditional hinge. Another possible application is the creation of a hidden doorway in a library or any other space where access to an adjoining room is meant to be secret and exclusive.

In designing this particular hinge, E.R. Butler & Co. was striving to meet the demands of architects for hardware that widened design possibilities. The effort did not stop there, however. The center pivot hinge makes use of state-of-the-art bearing cartridge technology, producing a hinge that not only meets design needs but also functions on the highest levels. The two bearing cartridges allow the hinge to operate more smoothly and precisely while also reducing wear on the brass body. The pivot shaft and housing, the two parts of the hinge that bear the weight of the door, are completely independent and free from the stresses commonly applied to such devices. The body of the hinge contains only rounded edges, eliminating the extra work of squaring off mortice holes, thus making installation easier.

If the Center Pivot Hinge is a piece that employs today’s technology to widen design possibilities, then the Butler Olive Knuckle hinge is one that uses technology to improve upon an established classic. The basic American olive knuckle design has been in use in this country for over 200 years. It is a simple, elegant, hinge that employs a single pivot shaft received by a bore in the upper and lower leaves. The leaves contact a bearing ring that encircles the shaft. In contrast to a typical five-knuckle butt hinge, which has two bearing surfaces to take the weight of a door, the olive knuckle has only one. This disproportionate strain produces extreme wear on the bores and the bearing ring when used in conjunction with heavy doors. As a result, olive knuckle hinges were appropriate for only the lightest of doors. If used otherwise, they could not be expected to last for long.

The Butler Olive Knuckle Hinge maintains the design of the traditional olive knuckle, but modifies its interior assembly to accommodate a triple bearing system. The walls of the bore holes in each leaf are fitted with a bearing cartridge and the end of the bore contains an integral nib on which the end of the pivot shaft can rest. With a pivot shaft of exactly the right length, the hinge now operates independent of the bearing ring, allowing the ring to become a decorative rather than mechanical element. The result of this fusion of technology and tradition is a hinge with increased decorative potential that is also applicable to a wider range of uses. This novel design was awarded U.S. Patent Number 5,930,868.

Service

No architectural project is set in stone from the outset. The process of transforming an initial design into a concrete reality involves compromise and almost constant change. In fact, the most striking designs are those that are allowed to evolve naturally as architect and client work toward an expressive finished product.

This evolution is inevitably attended by a flood of details enumerating dimensions, locations, shapes, finishes, profiles, and materials: details that show how the myriad pieces fit together to form a whole. No element exists in isolation. A change in one can have profound consequences on the others, making flexibility – the ability of all involved to accommodate change – paramount.

The design and specification of hardware is no exception. A well constructed and finished door may look perfect, but it will not function properly if hung with hinges of an incorrect size. The most beautiful doorknob is useless unless it is attached to the correct spindle, which in turn must operate the correct lock, which must engage a strike plate of the appropriate width. These minutiae are a necessary part of building a well-functioning structure, and the challenge of working them out rests on the shoulders of the hardware consultant. Their ability to remain flexible and accommodate the challenges that change presents translates into service.

E.R. Butler & Co. is a company structured to handle not only the manufacture of its product, but also service its detailed design, specification, finishing and delivery. Our account managers work closely with architects and interior designers from a project’s beginning to its end, collaborating first on initial design and selection. They then prepare detailed cost estimates and schedules enumerating each piece’s location and finish while also detailing any custom work. If a custom finish or patina is called for, they create samples and mock-ups for client’s and architect’s scrutiny. Our staff of patineurs and crafts people then finish each piece as specified. All product, from the simplest plain polished brass to the most complex patina, is vetted before delivery to the site. Each account manager remains a presence on every project until the final piece has been installed, advising on installation and care if necessary.

This comprehensive approach places almost every variable within our control; the result is a level of service rarely found in our industry.

Knowledge and Education

Attention to detail alone does not guarantee excellent service; only someone with a thorough knowledge of their field can provide it. In the realm of decorative hardware, a given project may involve any number of different disciplines or crafts in the decorative arts, from locksmithing and metalsmithing, casting, and glass pressing, to patination, etching and engraving. Coordinating these disparate fields towards a perfect final package is our responsibility. As we see it, the more we know, the better that coordination becomes, so our efforts to educate ourselves as well as our clients and customers form a principle part of the company’s mission.

E.R. Butler & Co. has assembled the largest collection of American builder’s hardware trade catalogues and publications in the world, with volumes dating back to the early 17th century. This library also contains a comprehensive collection of volumes on design and the decorative arts, as well as an archive of the early American designs of our predecessors Robinson, Hall, Tein, and Vaughan. Together these resources provide our company with a deep well of inspiration and factual information for use in the execution of our work. They also put us in the unique position to provide educational information to designers, architects, and builders.

In concert with organizations such as the The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, E.R. Butler & Co. sponsors educational workshops for industry professionals who share both our enthusiasm for the decorative arts and our respect for the knowledge needed to produce truly expressive architectural space.

Decorative hardware can be extremely complicated. Locks and bolts, door closers and hinges are essentially small machines with many moving parts. Unlike some other machines, most hardware doesn’t come with directions on use and installation and the number of forms that a door closer or lock can take approaches the infinite. Installation of certain complex pieces presents a mind-numbing challenge to even the best locksmiths and carpenters.

Like any other specialized industry, hardware possesses a vocabulary all its own - a standard lexicon that facilitates communication between manufacturers, designers, suppliers and installers. When two parties know the names of each piece and the various parts that go along with it, the process of designing, specifying and installing becomes that much easier.

With the proliferation of new technology, much of the standard vocabulary that was shared in the industry has been superceded, lost, or become obsolete.

Using our library of historic catalogs and our knowledge of today’s industry, we are developing a glossary of hardware terminology and a handbook on installation for carpenters and locksmiths. Our hope is that these two volumes will become standard references within the industry, leading to the redevelopment of a shared language among industry professionals and the further advancement of the field.

Disseminating information is by no means an obligation, but we feel the more we, our clients, and our colleagues know, the closer we are to achieving a larger vision: advancing the art of hardware to its highest possible level.

Craft

Despite the technical advances of the last two centuries, E.R. Butler & Co. feels that some steps in the manufacture of decorative hardware should remain the exclusive domain of the human hand. Almost the entire process could be performed by machine, each piece an exact replica of the last, but the final product would lack the character that only a human can impart, that indescribable but potent quality that separates a machined piece from one that has fallen under the eye of a skilled artisan. It is a quality that makes each piece of E.R. Butler & Co.’s hardware truly unique, not only from that of other companies, but from every other piece in its collection.

Hand work is particularly crucial during manufacturing’s final stages. Rough shapes can be formed with traditional casting and machining methods, but the final details that distinguish one style from the next are hand tooled and chased by men and women who give each individual piece their undivided attention.

The next step is one of the hallmarks of E.R. Butler & Co.’s line of decorative hardware and one of the trade’s most artistic aspects: the finishing and patination of metal. Aside from the shape and design of any given piece, the other quality that will make it distinctive is its surface texture and color. All metals oxidize, or acquire their own natural patina or coloring upon exposure to air. Brass and bronze, both alloys of copper, are said to tarnish, as is silver. In the case of brass and bronze, this patina can be visually appealing and increase its value, whereas with silver it is usually frowned upon since it obscures the luster and glow that makes that metal desirable in the first place.

Depending on the chemicals they come in contact with, metals will acquire patinas of widely varying colors. Patina can be produced deliberately in this way by treating the metal with specific combinations of chemical compounds. This idea of patination, or introducing color deliberately, is most familiar in sculpture, where it has been practiced for thousands of years to impart a chosen color to a piece as part of its overall design. Some sculptors, such as Auguste Rodin, allowed only one trusted atelier of patineurs to patinate their works. Others, like Rodin’s American student Paul Wayland Bartlett, were as celebrated for the patinas they invented as they were for their sculpture, and they guarded their formulas and processes, most of which were developed only through their own experimentation and desire to produce a specific effect on a piece.

The patineurs of E.R. Butler & Co. have carried this art over to the realm of decorative hardware and applied it to our nine standard base metals: brass, bronze, copper, nickel, silver, iron, steel, aluminum and zinc. These metals can be polished and left to acquire their own natural patina over time, or their appearance can be embellished with additional coatings of copper, nickel, silver or gold to blend with an overall design scheme. Gold, silver and bronze can be antiqued, nickel can be satined to appear grainy and matte, naturally yellow brass can be brought to a deep black or mottled brown. A host of hand hammering and chasing techniques are also available to add faceting and texture to any of our twenty-four standard patinas. Of course, we maintain the ability to replicate any existing patina or to develop custom finishes at a client’s request.

Red Hook Works

In 1997 E.R. Butler & Co. began a new phase in its evolution with the purchase of a 100,000 square foot manufacturing and warehousing facility in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The principal building sits on the waterfront and was built from 1887 to 1893 as a bottling plant. Over the years it had been altered and added to many times to accommodate different uses. Like most of the large sites in this once-thriving manufacturing neighborhood, the hulking complex had fallen into disuse.

In concept, the plan for the site was simple: to restore the buildings and grounds and outfit them to house the company’s growing infrastructure as well as its plans for the future.

E.R. Butler & Co. started as a small, full-service architectural hardware firm catering to industry professionals. Its primary vision then, as it is today, was to provide industry clients with custom hardware packages of the highest quality, both aesthetic and functional. Like most small but forward-looking enterprises, we formed relationships with manufacturers and suppliers who shared our high standards while at the same time developed our own manufacturing capabilities and product line in partnership with W.C. Vaughan Company of Boston, Massachusetts. Our office in Manhattan contained many facets of the business under one roof: sales office, showroom, and shop.

As our business grew, one thing became clear: the only way to meet the needs of an increasingly large clientele was to build a centralized manufacturing, warehousing and production facility. The opening of a flagship retail store on Charles Street, Boston, in 2002 added a new layer of retail demand and made the need for additional manufacturing and supply capability even more manifest.

The Red Hook Works will support all of these needs by consolidating manufacturing, production and warehousing in one location. The manufacturing facility will be capable of everything from traditional sand casting to modern CNC machining and turning as well as compression casting methods, producing stock items as well as custom orders. Other space will be devoted to housing stock from our standard lines, enabling both our retail and trade customers to receive their orders faster. Patination, finishing, and custom modification will also be handled out of Red Hook, allowing us to develop our Prince Street location into an expanded sales office and showroom that will continue to service our core clientele of industry professionals.

Aside from these practical needs, the facility at Red Hook serves a final one, one that is more abstract but no less vital, one that has been with us since our founding: the need to constantly innovate, change, and grow. If our mission is to revive and elevate the status of hardware within the decorative arts, then our dream is to develop the Red Hook location into a pre-eminent, multi-disciplinary production facility where that mission is fulfilled to the utmost. If this dream is realized, the Red Hook Works will one day be home to a community of craftspeople whose creative and technical skills will be rivaled only by our clients’ imaginations.

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