The Living Finish
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
What is a living finish? Many products are now coming out with the term 'living finish' but what does that mean and how does it affect what I chose for my door hardware? I did some research.
What I found was a true living finish is a non-lacquered, unprotected finish that "changes" color over time, almost like seasonal. The finish changes are caused by oxidation from the air, as well as soaps, even natural oils that could be on your hands when you touch door levers or door knobs. It is getting back to the natural material.
A living finish is a natural patina on a metal or other material. Examples include unsealed copper, nickel and bronze, teak and bamboo. These items are subject to the effects of weather, water and air, and their appearance can be expected to change over time.
A living finish is often a much sought after look when buying a brass, bronze or copper door handle. Without an added protective coating, these materials are allowed to age gracefully in their natural state in what is referred to as the living finish. Over time, the finish will oxidize with use adding more character and uniqueness to your custom piece.
Any metal other than stainless steel that is uncoated or with no sealant will oxidize acquiring a unique “patina” over time. This means the finish will change and transform through exposure to the environment. It is sometimes referred to as “oxidation” (exposure to oxygen) but the patination process is also caused by other environmental factors that the metal surface might come into contact with as well as wear resulting from regular use.
The most common form of living finish we would be familiar with is old rusting iron or base grade steel. We can see it on old tin roofs, old fences, cars and other metal objects with iron as their base. The problem with rusting metals is that they deteriorate very fast. That is why we are constantly trying to preserve iron based structures.
If you are a follower of archaeological history many objects found are made from copper or bronze and brass, like coins and jewelry. Whereas many of the iron based objects like ships and cars of the modern era have deteriorated to almost a shell of what they once were.
When brass is left natural (no lacquer) brass-ware darkens due to atmospheric and environmental influences. Hardware made in brass will change over time and acquires added charm over the years. The patina that develops will lend to it a very special visual appeal.
Many brass and other metal items have a patina applied to them in the factory. These patinas are pigments and chemicals that react with the base metal to speed up the aging process. These patinas allow the base metals to look like they're already aged upon arrival. However, the finish will generally not change.
The trend is for antique finishes on door hardware. Today much of that finish is plated which in effect is permanent. It is not a natural living finish. But if you want the antique finish to last then this type of finish is for you.
On a living finish, the brass or copper is left unsealed. That is, without a clear top coat to prevent corrosion. Without that clear topcoat, these items will also continue to age and their colours will continue to evolve as the base metal reacts with the environment. No two items will age at the same rate or go through the same colour phases. Their continued evolution is completely dependent on the environment where they're placed. Hence the term living finish.
Oil Rubbed Bronze
Some finishes, such as Oil Rubbed Bronze, are "living" finishes. A Living finish is a non-lacquered, unprotected finish that "changes" over time. The finish changes are caused by oxidation from the air, as well as soaps, even natural oils that could be on your hands when you touch the item. These changes can range from subtle lightening at the beginning to a more drastic change to lighter browns, golds, and even pink tones.
The patina is beautiful - if you like something "aging" before your eyes. The items are made to have a vintage look over time. If you like your door handles to have that brand new look for its lifetime, a living finish is not for you. If your home looks very natural, rustic, or vintage, a living finish will fit seamlessly into your decor.
Unlacquered brass is bold, it's gutsy, and it complements a number of colour schemes perfectly - whether you're looking for light and airy or dark and sensual this finish is highly versatile, and can be coordinated with a variety of textures and patterns to create a distinct look. Allow to naturally tarnish over time or polish to restore its brilliance, unlacquered brass is a durable, living finish that complements a variety of designs.
Stainless steel products are often referred to as “non-living”. However the surfaces of these products can also dull over time depending on the environmental factors involved and how well they are cared for. Nickel is also occasionally referred to as “non-living finish” though Nickel will patina or “tarnish” as well.
With uncoated brass, nickel silver, bronze, and copper the patina or oxidation process occurs more rapidly. So, what happens to the metal finish over time? The answer depends your finish choice and how the patina is applied when the door handle is made, the environmental factors involved in your home, how much it is used and the type of care and maintenance you have decided to go with.
If you choose a brass door handle that has a medium, dark or oil rubbed finish; heat and/or chemicals have been applied to speed up and mimic the aging process. In creating these finishes, the metal has likely been exposed to a chemical bath and or heat causing a reaction with the metal and changing its color. In choosing a medium, dark, or oil rubbed finish you still have a living finish that will evolve. However, the darker the patina is to start with, generally the slower the changes are over time.
Environmental factors specific to your home and chemicals that may be exposed to the surface of your door handles are the great unknown. Every finish application and environment is different. Some factors include but are certainly not limited to;
Cleaning products and various chemicals
All the elements and conditions listed above and more will work together with time to coat the metal surface with a unique patina. If you have a brass door handles and expose the metal surface to certain acids such as those found in lemon juice, you will actually dissolve some of the patina. The constant changes due to limitless factors are admired by some and not so admired by others. You can anticipate your product to have its own “character” and appreciate the uniqueness in color and tone between two identical products in different environments.
Care and Maintenance
If you admire a living finish, the care and maintenance will be fairly simple. If you wish to prevent it, this is often possible to a certain extent. There are several different ways you can slow down the patina process.
Applying a special wax that does not contain polish or cleaners (such as beeswax) can slow the change in patina similar to how an automotive wax protects the finish of your car. A natural patina on a door handle can be removed with a metal polish or mild acid such as lemon juice or vinegar.
Waxing the surface can preserve the shine, or you can leave the newly untreated metal to develop a new patina.
Fear of change
Some customers are fearful that the living finish will be more maintenance or it will turn out undesirable.
Any copper or brass cleaner will revert the patina back to a bare surface if you so desire. Left unprotected, the aging process starts over again and within a few weeks the metal surface will begin to darken.
On the other side, you could choose a door handle with a darker finish and wax the surface regularly ensuring the least amount of change over time. While these methods will help mitigate or retard the evolution of your door handles patina, the living finish phenomenon will still continue.
An occasional cleaning with soap and water is the recommended maintenance. If you choose to wax your sink to extend the life of the desired finish, it is generally something you will need to do approximately every 3 – 6 months depending on the frequency of use.
Today you can purchase a variety of finishes to suit most desires. We offer door hardware from several suppliers who create unique and natural finishes. We invite you to visit their selections, here are just a few:
Tradco offer various finishes
Chant offer natural copper brass finishes
Designer Doorware offer a variety of finishes
Read our post on Why Clean Your Door Handles for more info.
The beauty and joy of a living finish is... what you see today, you will not see tomorrow.
Visit our door handle supplier range here
We hope you find what you are looking for, and you can always consult with one of our experienced team at Architectural Design Hardware.