If you’re lucky enough to have a building with beautiful cast iron ornamental work, you should take pride in it. Cast iron architectural details have a long history of use in some of the most decorated and beautiful buildings, and represents a feat of engineering that took place at the turn of the century that allowed buildings to be built taller due to the strength of the iron framework.
Decorative iron work found its way into widespread use, appearing everywhere from window screening, ornate fences and gates, railings and balcony support. As time went on, builders and artisans took liberties with the designs and created detailed works of art that still grace buildings today.
Unfortunately, while cast iron is extremely durable, it’s not impervious to the elements. Salt, sand, rain and other environmental conditions can cause wear over time. When you combine long-term damage with the fact that many people tend to paint over cast iron, which seals in corrosive damage, you may have ornamental work that exhibits all the signs of failing cast iron: rust, pitting, discoloration and other defects.
Some of the highly detailed pieces are more prone to problems as the nooks and curves of the ironwork tend to trap damaging substances into areas that aren’t easily cleaned. Extensive damage can occur before they are noticed. This can lead to breaks, cracks or even warping of the metal.
If you’re a homeowner who is unsure of what steps are needed to take to protect the beauty of their ironwork, you’re not alone. There are many homeowners that are facing the same questions with their older cast iron components. The good news is that cast iron continues to be one of the strongest metals used in architecture and repairs are possible.
Cast Iron – Repair or Replace?
How do you know the difference between cast iron that needs repair, and cast iron that needs to be replaced? There are a few differences in the appearance and structural integrity that can tell you which route to take. Due to its extremely strong makeup, if damage is caught and treated early enough, most cast iron can be repaired.
In the event that you do need to replace your ironwork, take heart. There’s a higher chance that only the heavily damaged areas would need to be removed. A skilled restoration professional could then cast identical replacement pieces that could be welded into place, making the repair almost indiscernible.
If your ironwork shows any of the following signs, it’s likely that a repair can rectify the issues. Restorers are trained with special tools and solutions that can not only remove surface blemishes and light rust, but that neutralize the chemical reactions that are causing the damage. Once treated, the iron can be re-sealed and protected against further environmental damage.
● Surface sealant peeling or cracking.
● Small holes or pitting along the surface.
● Very light rust or discoloration.
If your cast iron shows any of these signs, it’s likely time to seek a replacement, at least in part. Cast iron is created by heating iron in a furnace and pouring the molten metal into molds. It’s then processed as it cools to temper and harden the metal, giving it further strength. While that makes for a very strong metal, if your iron work suffers structural damage, replacement is really the only option. Once cooled, cast iron can’t be easily bent back into shape, and broken segments can’t be readily welded together again.
● Large holes that go through a section of iron.
● Bent pieces, finials or structural supports.
● Broken pieces, typically the top of fences or decorative ironwork.
● Heavy rust that compromises the structural integrity of the iron.
● Dipping or sagging railings.
● Cast iron that flakes or shears when touched.
● Large cracks through the metal.
Again, in these instances, often the heavily damaged pieces can be removed and a replacement part can be cast. You’ll want to hire a qualified, trained restoration professional to inspect your cast iron. Often, a combination of repair and replacement can have even older work restored to its original beauty.
As a note, even if your ironwork was able to be repaired, the metal will be slightly weaker due to corrosion or rust that was present. Repaired iron should always be well-maintained with a protective coating in good repair to prevent further damage to the strength of the metal.
If you live in an area that experiences excessive elemental conditions, such as salty air from the sea, high humidity, sand or other environmental concerns, you should always seek the help of a trained cast iron professional for upkeep, repair and preventive maintenance of your ironwork.
While these materials can accelerate the failing of cast iron, they aren’t the sole cause of ironwork damage. For this reason, it’s recommended that you have your ironwork professionally cleaned and inspected annually. A small amount of preventive maintenance can help keep your beautiful cast iron strong for years to come.
If you need additional information, or have an historic cast iron restoration project coming up, give us a call at (607) 264-3607 or email us at