| Genuine wrought iron, with the craftsman's hammer blows|
forever frozen in time.
In the 1930s, the rise of Art Deco architecture, with its sleek, highly polished surfaces and geometric ornament, helped bring wrought iron’s golden age to a close. Iron’s appearance was far too crude to compete with the gleaming stainless steel and vitreous tile of this era.
| Small quantities of wrought iron are still produced for|
restoration. The crafter is hammering a white-hot
wrought iron "bloom" under a modern power hammer.
(Courtesy Chris Topp and Co.)
The production of wrought iron itself declined after World War II due to its high cost, which was about twice that of steel. The last U.S. supplier of wrought iron bars closed in 1969, and the last wrought-iron plant in the world, in Bolton, U.K. closed four years later. A minuscule quantity of wrought iron is still produced for restoration purposes, though only from existing wrought iron scrap.
|Spanish Revival window grill,|
Alas, most of today's ornamental ironwork is cold-formed from very flimsy tubular metal, and sometimes even from extruded aluminum. While economical, such work has far less character than hammered wrought iron. Fortunately, there are a growing number of metal crafters who do traditional wrought iron-style work using solid steel bars.
If you're a fan of traditional ornamental ironwork and want to incorporate it in your own designs, here are some ways to capitalize on its decorative qualities:
• Be generous with the size of elements. After World War II, wrought iron designs withered to extremely flimsy proportions because Modernist aesthetics favored the lightest possible appearance. In railings, for example, 1/2” square balusters became the norm. However, traditional styles demand heavier sizes. 3/4” square balusters are visually more satisfying, as well as more substantial. Bottom and top rails, too, benefit from heavier steel stock. In any case, the completed railing should feel very solid and not bend under pressure as many contemporary railings do.
|Modern forged gate.|
(Courtesy Scottsdale Art Factory)
• Remember that ornamental ironwork is susceptible to corrosion and must be protected by paint. If this seems burdensome, there are a few alternatives. Ironwork can be galvanized after fabrication, resulting in a silvery color that will resist rust for a number of years. Or it can be fabricated from a weathering steel such as Cor-Ten—a special alloy containing copper—which forms a protective brownish oxide skin and doesn’t require painting. It will, however, cause rust streaks on adjacent surfaces—just like wrought iron work of old. Avoid using powder coating on ornamental ironwork; it doesn't hold up well in sunlight, and cannot be easily refinished. What's more, it will leave your lovingly-crafted ironwork looking like it was dipped in plastic.