By Bob Oakes
Cold Hanworth Forge and Blacksmithing School have had many years specialising in this field, two of our recent commissions have been; the restoration of the early puddled iron railings surrounding the Queen Anne Summer house at Shuttleworth Hall in Bedfordshire and the recreation of twelfth century medieval ironwork for the Great Tower of Dover Castle.
The main problem which occurs all too frequently is the lack of understanding of many clients and even architects, who simply believe that all professional metalworkers are capable of such work! Much of our decorative ironwork today is manufactured by metal fabricators who buy in readymade scrolls, twists, finials and components that have been cheaply mass produced in other countries.
The railings, gates and screens are then mig-welded together, powder-coated and sold cheaply to decorate modern housing, The blacksmith who forges his scrolls with loving care, observing all correct terminations and technique now cannot possibly compete with the fabricator on price when producing ironwork for this type of market.
I am however filled with anger when I frequently see ironwork destined for historical and period settings, listed buildings and conservation areas, which have been manufactured, assembled and installed by fabricators using the every day techniques which they apply to ordinary domestic ironwork.
Would for example any one accept an oak cabinet made with a fillet of glue round every joint? Therefore why should we accept the same in our craft? All ironwork produced before the advent of the electric welder has clean, crisp precise corners, scrolls, leaves and frames are joined together by traditional techniques including tenon joints, the use of collars, rivets and fire-welding.
Anyone wishing to study this aspect of our craft in order to practice restoration and conservation has to begin with a project which will not be above their capabilities; advice must clearly be sought from those having a legacy of experience in the craft. A clear programme, list and description of the necessary work for each project should be drawn up and checked with clients, architects, conservation officers etc before commencement of work.
‘Can anything be done asked the conservator?’ Not wishing to appear defeated, I replied that ‘Anything is possible!’ however I made the mistake of hurriedly under estimating a price to which I became beholden and which I was to regret later on!
‘There is a photograph of the chandelier in the Victoria and Albert Museum,’ the conservator informed, ‘I will endeavour to have a copy for you to look at’, and sure enough a few days later I received two clear photographs of the chandelier taken in its original situation.
Using an oxy-acetylene flame we carefully cleaned the Ironwork with a bronze wire brush, and opened the joining collars. The delicate scrolls seemed capable of restoration and the iron itself in spite of its age proved to be in excellent condition.
Gradually the many individual components were reformed to their original shape and finally after many hours of meticulous and painstaking work the assembled chandelier had been restored to its former glory. The project had taught us a great deal and although our original quote did not nearly pay us for the time we had spent upon the work, the experience had been necessary, educational and worthwhile. We had now to obtain more work of this nature and ensure we charged accordingly.
The two hundred year old ironwork and its decorative scrolls however, had suffered acute corrosion over the years and one of the copper letters of the cardinal points had long since broken away from the frame and had completely disappeared. The ironwork had to be taken apart, cleaned and the most seriously corroded components replaced using wrought iron as the material; therefore replacing like for like.
There is always confusion between the different meanings applied to the terms Restoration and Conservation.
To conserve means to preserve the existing whereas restoration allows for the piece to be restored to its former glory and be indistinguishable in appearance from its original condition. The question is; as to how much of the original is to be conserved and how much we have to replace?
I generally take the point of view that if more than one third of the original is corroded to the point of none existence, a complete identical replacement part in the same material is necessary, although each case scenario has to be judged on its own merits.
Occasionally other factors fall into the equation; mainly considerations appertaining to the future maintenance and prevention of corrosion. The welding of manganese bronze or stainless steel locating stubs to ironwork that is to be fixed into stone is sometimes insisted upon by architects and heritage monitoring institutions. Again each case scenario has to be judged upon its own merits.
Conservation work is interesting and challenging, it requires experience and specialist knowledge. It is a realm where there are always new aspects to be learned and is generally well paid.
Cold Hanworth Forge and Blacksmithing School is based in the heart of Lincolnshire and we are renowned for our craftsmanship in ironwork. Under the guidance of professional blacksmith, Bob Oakes, we also offer professional and vocational blacksmithing courses as well as training and tuition in blacksmithing and forge work for all levels of ability. We are a working forge as well as a blacksmithing school and our website covers all aspects of our work.
Find Cold Hanworth Forge in the Heritage Register
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