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Vintage post office box door restoration for wooden banks

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Project by trasner posted 02-24-2015 03:26 AM 5730 views 8 times favorited 7 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I like to collect these vintage p.o. box doors to make little banks and give them as gifts. The most enjoyable part of the process for me is the restoration of the door. Most of the ones I will buy are from the 1930’s or earlier. A few are from the 1880’s. Although not terribly sophisticated, they were built rock solid. Other than the thick 1/4 inch glass window, they are either solid bronze or brass all the way down to the knobs, dials, gears, screws, washers, name plate, springs, etc. Because of this, they can be restored to almost near new condition. They usually are in good working condition when I get them but are in somewhat horrendous shape from an aesthetic point (unless you like black corrosion and green patina which is better suited for an ancient coin). I like taking them completely apart and then polish everything all the way down to the little brass screws. I have the process down to about 45 min per door including a lacquer finish. They are definitely a product of a bygone era when craftsmanship meant more than it does today. It must have been a site to see to walk into the post office in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and see walls and walls of shiny bronze. Going to the post office back then was probably an event as most people did not have home delivery of mail.

Picture 1 & 2 are of one of the banks I made using Brazilian Cherry with Ebony splines (I used a home-made spline jig which I am also going to post on LJ). Picture 3 is an assortment of the doors I have. Going from top left clockwise: The 1st is a dual dial from the Keyless Lock Co (circa 1886). The 2nd is a large radial dial from the Eagle Lock Co (circa 1898). The 3rd is a star dial from The American Post Office Equip Co (Circa 1901), and the 4th is the flying eagle which is also from the Keyless Lock Co (Circa 1906). Picture 4 is a Corbin double dial bronze unit (1920’s) before and after polishing. Picture 5 are a pair of U.S. single dial brass doors I purchased from Ebay. I have restored the one on the left to compare before and after. There is no paint on any of these whatsoever, it is the natural bronze and brass after buffing and polishing.

As you can see, they are very ornate, and as other woodworkers have found, they make really neat banks, keepsake boxes, etc. Next time you are at your local post office look the P.O. boxes of today and notice the difference. Vintage P.O. boxes can be found on Ebay, Etsy, and antique stores.

Thanks for looking.

-- Todd





7 comments so far

View dustyal's profile

dustyal

1279 posts in 2941 days


#1 posted 02-24-2015 03:15 PM

Well done. This is not the time to leave a patina… Shine them as they were meant to be.

Do the locks work and can you change combination? Alas, I assume there are reproductions out there, how to tell the difference?

-- Al H. - small shop, small projects...

View trasner's profile

trasner

87 posts in 2373 days


#2 posted 02-24-2015 03:35 PM

Al, the locks all work perfectly and the combinations can easily be changed. Each door style is slightly different, but in general, they all use 2 or 3 stacked gear wheels with a slot. You just line the slot up to the pin and open. You can rearrange the slots to change the combinations. There are some reproductions out there. These can usually be differentiated from the originals by certain stampings on the inside such as patent dates and the manufacturer’s name. For example the real Corbin door has “Corbin” with a circle around it engraved above the window on the inside of the door. Reproductions can also be identified by the screws. The originals use slotted brass screws whereas most reproductions use zinc Philips head screws. There is a nice guide available on Ebay which has almost every U.S. postal door ever made: It is called “Post office lockbox doors: An illustrated guide” by Jane Ingram.

-- Todd

View Ken90712's profile

Ken90712

16957 posts in 2655 days


#3 posted 02-24-2015 03:45 PM

I have always loved these and been on the look out for some face plates. Great work, I really like them.

-- Ken, "Everyday above ground is a good day!"

View Tim_CPWD 's profile

Tim_CPWD

306 posts in 711 days


#4 posted 02-24-2015 04:42 PM

Nice work. Thanks for sharing all the details. I really like this as a gift idea. What do you use to clean and polish all the parts?

-- Tim Haenisch, San Diego Ca. http://www.facebook.com/commandperformancewooddesigns

View trasner's profile

trasner

87 posts in 2373 days


#5 posted 02-24-2015 04:58 PM

Tim,
There are commercial brass cleaners as well as do-it-yourself mixtures (ketchup, cola, vinegar mixed with salt and flour, etc) but I find these to be too laborious. By far the best way to go is a 6” fine wire wheel attached to a slow speed grinder followed by a stitched buffing wheel using white compound. Just be careful of openings and corners and watch your progress so you remove only a minimal amount of material. You don’t want to lose any detail. You will need to wear gloves as the metal will get hot. Clean with acetone or mineral spirits after buffing/polishing and put a brass lacquer on to preserve the finish.

-- Todd

View Mean_Dean's profile

Mean_Dean

5059 posts in 2613 days


#6 posted 02-25-2015 12:57 AM

Well, these certainly restored very nicely! I like the idea of turning these into little banks, or just to keep special items in. And it’s nice that these historical items are being preserved!

-- Dean

View asmang's profile

asmang

22 posts in 2981 days


#7 posted 03-02-2015 09:51 PM

These are cool, Todd!

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