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The Historic Charm of Hand-Turn Doorbells

This ornate, solid brass doorbell is reproduced from a popular 1870s design, originally made of bronze. The domed bell is always mounted on the inside of the door, and the turnpiece on the outside. 

The hand-turn mechanical doorbell is one of the most fanciful and engaging pieces of hardware ever created for the home. As a visitor turns the handle on the outside of the door, the bell on the inside resonates with a charming “ring-a-ling” sound. Dating from the later Victorian era, these beautifully decorative bells add authentic period character and a touch of whimsy to your front door.  

This 1870s bronze doorbell featured a pull handle in the form of dog holding the cross-bar. 

The interior side of this 1870s mechanical doorbell shows the fine quality of the bronze casting. 

The Innovation of the Mechanical Doorbell

Developed in the second half of the nineteenth century, the hand-operated doorbell was a true technological advancement over previous methods of announcing visitors.

For centuries before that, most doors were equipped with a “knocker”. This simple device featured a hinged ring or pendant that was lifted, then struck against a metal plate on the door. The resulting knock could be quite resounding if the moving part was large and heavy enough. But accessories of this size were out of place on ordinary house doors. The knocker was relatively small in most cases and the sound could not be heard throughout the home.

The mechanical doorbell was invented to help homeowners (or their servants) better hear when guests were at their door. When the visitor twists the small handle on the outside of the door (like the motion of turning a key) a clapper strikes the inside of the bell mounted on the interior side of the door. The rythmic ringing noise is generally loud enough to alert anyone within the home that someone has arrived.  

Although electronic doorbells supplanted mechanical doorbells in the early twentieth century, you'll still find them mounted to doors of many older homes, often with a buzzer button nearby. It’s not unheard of to find a knocker, a twist doorbell, a buzzer button, and a video doorbell all on the same doorway, showing the progression of technology over the past century!

Materials & Finishes

In the nineteenth century, hand-turn doorbells may have been made of bronze, iron, steel, or brass. Today's bells are primarily made of brass due to its ability to capture fine detail, its corrosion resistance, and ease of applying stylish finishes. You’ll find options ranging from gleaming polished brass to dark oil-rubbed bronze - something to coordinate with virtually any entry door set and front door accessories. 

Polished Brass Doorbells 

Solid brass that is polished to a bright shine, then lacquered to preserve the finish. 

Antique Brass Doorbells 

Solid brass that has been chemically darkened to simulate aged brass, typically with a high / low coloration. 

Satin Nickel Doorbells 

Brass with a nickel plating that has been dulled and lacquer coated. Often referred to as brushed nickel. It gives a more modern look to these vintage style pieces. 

Oil-Rubbed Bronze Doorbells 

Brass that is copper plated then chemically darkened to simulate aged bronze, often with copper undertones revealed.

Installing a Hand-Turn Mechanical Doorbell

Installing a mechanical doorbell is an easy DIY project that can be accomplished in less than an hour and only requires a few basic tools:

  • Drill and drill bits (2)
  • Screwdriver
  • Tape Measure
  • Pencil
  • Tape
  • Level
  • Hacksaw (for trimming the spindle if needed).

The doorbell should be mounted on solid wood – generally a horizontal cross rail or vertical stile near the middle of the door. Before drilling any holes carefully examine the reverse of the doorbell to determine where the spindle enters the bell (it may or may not be at the center). Keep this in mind when positioning the turnpiece and bell on your door. 

Step 1: Mount the Turnpiece on the Outside of the Door

• Using a tape measure mark the center of the door with a vertical line where the turnpiece will be located. Position the turnpiece along this line and mark the location of the spindle.

• On the opposite side of the door place masking or duct tape where the spindle will come through to prevent the wood from splintering.  

• Using a drill bit large enough to accommodate the spindle drill straight through the door from outside to inside. It is imperative to keep the drill straight and level!

• Insert the turnpiece into the spindle hole and mark the center of the screw holes.

• Remove the turnpiece and predrill for the screws. Reinsert the turnpiece in the spindle hole, but do not attach the screws until the bell is fitted. 

Reverse side of turnpiece showing square spindle.

Reverse side of bell showing square opening for spindle.

Step 2: Mount the Bell on the Inside of the Door

• Fit the bell over the spindle protruding through the door. If the spindle is too long it will prevent the bell plate from sitting flush with the door. If this is the case, measure the gap between the door and the doorbell plate – this is the amount you will need to remove from the spindle.

• Remove the bell and turnpiece. Mark the amount to be removed on the spindle. Holding the spindle firmly with a vice or pliers and cut off the extra length with a hacksaw.

• Reinsert the spindle in the door and test fit the bell. If everything fits as it should, attach the turnpiece to the door with the provided screws.

• Place the bell on the spindle and mark the position of the screw holes (larger bells may be mounted vertically or horizontally). Then, remove the bell and predrill the holes.

• Attach the bell with the provided screws and give it a test run – your project is complete!

Hand-turn doorbells are only one way to give your door a period look. At House of Antique Hardware you’ll find door knockers, doorbell buzzer buttons, antique entry sets, decorative door hinges, mail slots, kick-plates, and more. For questions about our twist doorbells or other vintage entry accessories, contact our hardware specialists at 888-223-2545.

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