Find a close match when there's no template or touchstone

Exact copies are great, but in situations where details are gone forever, period-appropriate substitutions, like the chair rail and other moldings, are more common. The house's mantel is a perfect example.

Everyone who worked on the renovation before TOH became involved—from Elin Zurbrigg, the project director, to contractor Mahyar Mahvi—remembered the carved beauty that stood in the living room. No one, unfortunately, had taken a picture of it before thieves spirited it away—probably to sell to a salvage yard, where handcrafted treasures are in demand. So there was no consensus on what it looked like, and even if there were, there would be no guarantee that a match could be found. But when a detail is unique, sometimes a close approximation is a fair compromise.

A salvage yard is a great place to go looking for such substitutes, so TOH headed to The Back Door Warehouse, a D.C. yard overflowing with rescued house parts. There they found a carved-wood mantel that was the right size and period-appropriate. A dunk in the stripping tank and a few coats of wax, and the piece fit in nicely.

But salvage isn't just for the solo detail. Master ironworker Fred Mashack, who restored the steel and cast-iron front stoop, collects metal parts in his riverfront shop in case he ever needs one for a restoration project. Good thing, because he had an acorn finial just like the one missing from one of the stoop's newels.

Craftsmen like Mashack know how to take a tired piece like the staircase and make it look new again without compromising the design. He had to have the rickety newels stripped, repair the wobbly railing, and replace modern diamond-plate steps with new treads and risers.

Homeowners looking to replace iron elements—fences, gates, rails—can find a lot of old patterns still being cast by manufacturers. Mashack ordered the treads from a Pennsylvania-based fabricator that specializes in period ironwork. But he shaped the risers himself, using a modern plasma cutter to create an intricate design that wouldn't look out of place among the neighborhood's cast-iron originals. After making five risers from slabs of black steel, he assembled the stair in his shop, then dismantled it to install it on the front of the house, creating a perfect welcome mat for visitors to the refurbished home.

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