Iron Workers Knowledge"Knowledge Is Power"

by Charles Dow
(New York)

Iron Workers Knowledge"Knowledge Is Power"Architectural ironwork the metal grilles, railings, fences and gates long valued for their unique combination of beauty and strength is suddenly back in style after decades of neglect. Old examples are being rescued from the wreckers and painstakingly restored. Craftsmen are making pieces both useful and pleasing to the eye. And artists are creating ironwork as practical as it is sculptural. Much of this renewed interest can be traced to changes in life style. Security is a major factor; if windows must be barred and yards fenced, protection should be attractive as well as sturdy. There is also the accelerating activity in restoration of gracious old homes farm houses, country town dwellings, and brownstones in central city districts.

The renovators of these neglected dwellings are repairing fences and grilles and scouring junkyards for pieces. But even owners of homes, turning from the architectural openness of recent decades, are commissioning ironwork of astonishing beauty and grace. Coinciding with this desire for more ornament in today's homes is the contemporary crafts movement the burgeoning production of handmade pottery, cloth, glass and metal pieces individually designed to be both useful and esthetically pleasing. Typical of those taking part in this renaissance is Christopher Ray of Philadelphia, who created the weblike gate. "I worked as a sculptor of wood for many years," Ray says, "but I always felt confined by the limits of the material.

I find that iron allows me to produce works that are spontaneous and expansive and practically unlimited in their form." Ray and his fellows carry on traditions established by the architects and designers of past centuries. Medieval builders created iron gates as intricately intertwined as the decorative lines in illuminated manuscripts. The forms became simpler as later centuries brought a revival of ancient classicism, but by the mid 19th Century, the elaborate fussiness of the Victorian age took over.

The Victorians were fascinated by the forms that seemingly static metal could take, and the Industrial Revolution enabled them to indulge their fancies. Cheap cast iron, often containing involved designs, could be molded in quantity in a factory rather than hand wrought by a lone craftsman. Iron was used for almost everything from beds to baby buggies. One catalog of the day offered fencing by the foot, in a wide variety of patterns; many were advertised as "cheaper than wood." At the turn of the century, handmade pieces regained popularity. Style was influenced by Artable in the work of the idiosyncratic Spaniard Antonio Gaudi.

But the Great Depression, which forced builders to cut costs and ornamentation, brought a hiatus ended only by the current architectural ironwork revival. Today's wrought iron is not really iron. True wrought iron, which contains a very low percentage of carbon, is no longer produced in the United States. Instead a mild steel is used. It rusts somewhat more readily than iron, but it is worked the same way and looks the same as iron.

Modern technology has altered not only the raw material for ironwork but also the method of fabrication. For most commercial ironwork, bars and rods are joined with welding equipment; simple ornamentation is generally bought ready made and welded on. Today's sculptor ironworker uses these 20th Century techniques, but also relies on traditional smiting methods. He heats the metal in a forge and shapes the malleable material on an anvil. To length-en a piece, he heats one end to a bright yellow and hammers it, turning the bar 90° with each blow.

To make the elongated bar into a scroll, he places it on the edge of his anvil and hits the hot tip from below, curling it like a ribbon. He can also shape the bar cold twisting it with a clamp or bending it with a jig. The smith may use an electric arc and a power grinder as often as he wields the traditional hammer and tongs. But regardless of his tools and techniques, the modern blacksmith's fences, grilles and gates many of them one of a kind creations could rightfully be placed on a pedestal instead of on a house.

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