We tend to take the humble door handle for granted, but it’s hard to think of a piece of household hardware that gets more daily use. Which is why commercial door levers and knobs are mechanically tested up to 1.5 million times to simulate several years of wear and tear.
“The door handle is likely the first and last thing you touch when you enter and leave a room, so it has to look and feel good with a solid, precise movement,” says Steven Roberts, founder and managing director of Turnstyle Designs, a boutique company that has been making hand-finished door levers and latches since 1992.
Roberts originally moved from London to the seaside town of Barnstaple to pursue his passion for surfing and a career as a sculptor, but he had to find a more reliable source of income when his wife, Christina, was expecting their first child. He had experimented with making his own door handles while renovating a Victorian property in London, and his lucky break came when he met yacht designer Terence Disdale.
“About a year later, an order for 60 pairs of handles came through,” Roberts recalls. “I knew nothing about superyachts and thought he’d made a mistake. He pointed out that he still had another deck to do. It was at that moment that I realized the superyacht industry was worth looking into.”
Today, Turnstyle produces more than 12,000 door handles annually, not to mention many thousands more cabinet latches and door pulls. The yachting sector accounts for around 35 percent of its turnover, and the company supplies the British production builder Princess Yachts, for example, with the handle hardware for all its models.
It is the custom side of the business, however, where Turnstyle is best placed to draw on its years of experience. On most yacht projects, the process starts with ideas and materials based on existing models, which are then developed and engineered further according to individual requests.
“But there’s increasing demand for full-custom products,” Roberts says. “We’re currently working on our biggest order to date for hundreds of bespoke door handles, push buttons, fiddle rails—the full works—for a new-build project of 100 meters-plus [328 feet-plus] that has been four years in the making.”
The basic components of door handles have changed little over the generations. There is the lever or knob, a shank and spindle to connect with the handle on the other side, and the rose that covers the attachment to the surface of the door. What has changed is the sheer number of styles and materials now available.
One of Turnstyle’s early innovations was to develop a trademarked composite material called Amalfine, which can be hand-treated to look and feel like wood, shagreen or even metal. Colors run throughout the design, so unlike a surface application, they cannot wear off. Each piece is cast in silicone rubber molds and passes through at least eight pairs of hands before being packed for dispatch.
The Robertses design all the Turnstyle lines themselves and are constantly searching out new ideas and finishes. A sole exception was in 2019, when they were approached by yacht designer Andrew Winch to create a design together. The result was the Labyrinth collection that uses Amalfine in various finishes to mimic the complex organic patterns of brain coral, which are also reminiscent of a maze.
A new model is the Cartridge, a cabinet knob inspired by modern shotgun cartridges. It’s available in two sizes and more than 45 finish combinations.
“I do a bit of shooting, and what really caught Christina’s eye was the precision detailing of the outer brass casing that allows the cartridge to be loaded and ejected from the gun, as well as easily pulled from a cartridge belt,” Roberts says. “It’s a very simple design that lends itself perfectly to a cabinet knob with a cap machined from solid brass.”
The Hickory is based on Old Hickory hunting knives, much-loved tools for the simple reason that they felt good in the hand—ideal, in other words, for transforming into a door handle. This time, Amalfine is used to reproduce a gentle wood-grain finish for a range of door levers, cabinet knobs and D-handles with a timeless, understated look.
Other recent arrivals are the Norton and Bonneville door levers inspired by the classic British motorcycle brands of the 1950s and ’60s. The bold, robust Norton design has a heavily grooved grip for a tactile feel like the ribbed rubber handle of a motorbike. The Bonneville design is derived from the Norton, but has a smooth barrel grip that can be finished in saddle-stitched leather or hammered brass.
Turnstyle has become well known for its leather-clad handles, using hides imported from Tuscany, Italy, that are split into a more workable thickness. The leather is then cut to size, “pricked” to mark where the stitching holes will be, and bonded to the handle surface before the two edges are sewn together around the lever. Notably, the leather department is made up entirely of women. “Men rarely have the patience,” Roberts adds.
To achieve a hammered or “planished” finish, the brass surface is beaten using specific hammers to produce dimples that sparkle when they catch the light. The technique takes skill to produce a consistent effect; the craftsmen use planishing bags filled with sand and reaction blocks that deaden the blow. More recently, increased demand for the hammered finish has led to the company developing its own machine to assist in the process.
“You can imagine that hammering by hand all day can lead to a lot of repetitive strain injuries,” Roberts says. “The handles still have to be manually fed into the machine, but it means we can use greater force for a deeper and more pronounced impression.”
Turnstyle has also perfected an aging technique that lends a vintage look to its brass and nickel handles. The process starts with lightly sandblasting the components to “key” the surface for the subsequent processes. The surface is then bathed in acidic solutions at different temperatures to darken the metal. Finally, the pieces are gently scoured to reveal the brighter metal beneath the “antique” patina.
Roberts calls it a “living finish” because it evolves and becomes more nuanced with age.
For more information: turnstyledesigns.com
Turnstyle aims to minimize its carbon footprint, from replacing single-use plastics for packaging with biodegradable alternatives to offering staff a bike-to-work incentive. This drive has assumed a new urgency as sustainability becomes a mainstream concern, but Roberts believes the superyacht industry is still lagging behind.
‘We offer a complete refurbishment service for our old handles, for example, but on yachts they generally get replaced rather than repaired,’ he says. ‘This throwaway mentality is something we discourage because we want to be able to offer complete circle of life and sustainable sources for all our products. There are so many new and sustainable materials out there, and we feel there’s much more we can do.’ —J.R.