|Posted by Stuart DiNenno on July 12, 2011 at 11:35 PM|
Image: Andy Coan
Take a walk through the streets and gardens of Savannah, Beacon Hill, Georgetown, or New Orleans, and you cannot help but notice the subtle, structural beauty of ornamental iron. In historic fences, lampposts, balcony balustrades, and even boot-scrapers you will find this classic, dark material pounded and molded into various shapes and done so in a range of styles.
Both wrought and cast iron have great aesthetic value in the landscape, but the differences between these two materials should be properly recognized. Their titles are often used interchangeably, but in this week’s and next week’s posts I will try to clarify these two distinct materials, as well as highlight the unique strengths and limitations associated with each material.
Images: Tristan Savatier and A.B. Mann
Mankind began working with wrought iron thousands of years ago, and its importance should not be understated. Wrought iron gave the Roman’s spears, medieval knights’ swords, and revolutionary colonists’ rifles. The material also formed fasteners and fittings for the ships that allowed Europeans to explore and ultimately conquer the North American continent, and it produced the horseshoes and wagon axles that enabled American settlers to move west across the continent.
The iron alloy that was heated, hammered, and cooled to make up this wide variety of objects has a low carbon content and a high presence of slag. These fibrous slag inclusions not only give wrought iron a visible “grain,” similar to that of wood, but it also makes the material less prone to rusting than many other iron alloys. Perhaps the best demonstration of this quality can be seen in the Iron Ashoka Pillar in Delhi, India. The twenty-three foot tall, six-ton pillar is reportedly made of ninety-eight percent wrought iron, and archaeologists and metallurgists hypothesize that it is this chemical composition that has kept it intact even after 1,600 years of exposure to the elements.
Images: Ryan Gallagher
So how can you distinguish wrought iron from its sibling, cast iron? If you know what to look for it is actually quite easy. When you inspect a piece try to imagine if its form could be created by heating and then hammering, twisting, or otherwise warping an iron bar. On the other hand, anything that looks carved or molded, especially reliefs seen in floral-themed medallions or agricultural-inspired motifs, is probably cast iron.
Images: TheFadedPast, Bob Segal, and Sam Valentine
Wrought iron reached its heyday in the mid-nineteenth century, but after the 1860’s it began to fall in popularity as cast iron and steel became more easily attainable. The amount of objects that are made from wrought iron today is quite small, which is due to both a limited supply and the custom nature of installation. However, as a quick Google search will show, there are many off-the-shelf, mass-produced products that still falsely claim to be “wrought iron.”
Other than historic cases, there has been very little wrought iron work done in the last fifty years. A notable exception to this rule is the work of metal sculptor Albert Paley. Though he has worked in many metal media – gold, bronze, Cor-ten steel, and stainless steel – it is his work in wrought iron that I find most captivating. Paley employs the same techniques that blacksmiths developed for millennia before him, but he gives it his own twist. As a result, his work is both unmistakably wrought but undeniably new.
Image: Joseph Watson (Sculpture by Albert Paley)
Next week, I will go into a similar amount of detail on cast iron. In the meantime, please tell me if there are any wrought iron structures that you especially admire. Also, if you have any questions about the distinction between the two materials, please ask in a comment below.
Author: Sam Valentine, BLA, LEED AP