Cabinet pull cleanup

Hi all,

I have just finished stripping layers of caked gunmetal blue-gray paint off a 20-case Hamilton type cabinet, and sanding and staining it. It is now gorgeous (why would anyone ever cover such beautiful wood with paint?!?!?). This was my first-ever refinishing project, so I am probably inordinately proud of the results.

But now the pulls look so scuzzy by comparison that I don’t want to put them back on until they, too, get a beauty treatment. How to clean them?

They are parallelogram-shaped pulls with a repeated diamond pattern across the front and sides, and the company name on the top. They’re dusty and also have a flaky black crust in some places. I am not sure what they looked like new, nor what metal they are made of. I’m afraid of over-scrubbing.

I can’t find anything in the archives about this, to my surprise.

Thanks for your expertise.


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I used a little WD40 and a toothbrush to loosen things up and then just wiped everything off with a rag. Came out fine and didn’t hurt the patina.


Hello Barbara:

What I found works best (so far) is soaking the pulls in WD-40 in a thick ziplock bag overnight, then brushing them vigorously with a 1/2” copper fitting brush found in the plumbing supply aisle in any hardware store. The wire bristles are very stiff and do not bend, and you have a lot of ability to clear out the gunk from small details on the case pulls. Keep applying WD-40 as you work if the metal dries out, and wipe off the gunk every so often as you work until you are done. It took me about 20 minutes apiece for each pull. See the photo for before (the two on the bottom) and after. I refinished the cases as well.

—Armchair Detective.

image: Case Pulls.JPG

Case Pulls.JPG


Thanks! I think the cases and pulls now look positively smashing. I did douse the pulls with WD-40, and then scrubbed with a wire brush; I also just chipped away some of the spots where the ugly bluish paint had dripped onto the pulls.

(Look at that pretty wood grain. Again—what kind of a deranged, maniacal, cackling turkeybrain would PAINT over that?)

image: Cases-After.jpg


image: Cases-Before.jpg



I like that product called Rust reformer. I think that’s the name. It bonds with the residual rust. It goes on sort of milky looking and then turns black. You’re supposed to put paint over it but I like the look and sometimes leave it as is.

? Devils Tail? There isn’t a speck of rust on them anywhere. My photo isn’t spectacular. They look great. So there.



There IS a reason that an awful lot of type cabinets (and cases) are painted. If you pay attention, you will probably notice that the hands-down most common color is the grey that you show in your photo. The second most common color is an olive green (for lack of a better term)

The grand old wooden cabinets were eventually superceded by metal cabinets with cases that had a metal front on them. These were available in grey, and to a lesser extent the green. Shops that wanted to stay “modern” and look up-to-date simply painted their wooden cabinets to match their metal ones. A lot of that was done in the 1940’s and 50’s.

This might come as a shock to most of you out there, but the old wooden type cabinets that practically everyone refers to as “oak” are most likely made of ash, not oak. The same with the cases! The woods have similar characteristics, but ash was used more often than oak.

Can’t remember exactly where I picked up that tidbit. It might have come from the Thompson Cabinet Company many years ago.



Well, OK—maybe they WILL rust, but they aren’t rusty now, dammit.

Still: Semper vigilans! The moment rust begins creeping in, I’ll crank up the Glenn Miller, invest in some beautiful bile-colored spray paint and give both the cabinet and the pulls a gleaming, thick coat you won’t be able to chip off with a jackhammer.


One more comment on typecases. All is not lost for those of you that have the metal-front cases. If you unscrew and take off the handle, the metal front can be detached to expose the beautiful wood underneath that can then be easily stained and laquered.

The metal is indeed crimped tightly into the wooden front, but it can be carefully pried up in one corner with a flat screwdriver and then pulled away (some force/strength and a good pair of vice-grip pliers may be required). This is not the easiest thing to do, but it will yield typecase fronts that are much more pleasing than the industrial metal. You can then attach an older case handle to make it look even better, but in most instances the handles on the metal front were wider than the older ones and you will have the wider holes from the original handles to contend with.

If you like the metal look as I do, once everything is clean and looking great you can use a clear spray called “Perma Seal”, it will seal the original look and patina and will prevent it from rusting.

I got the cans from my dad who worked for the phone company.