What Is Wrought Iron?
as published in Traditional Homes, July/Aug. 1997
The term “wrought iron” is greatly abused in today’s commercial marketplace, as it is applied to everything from bent steel wire to cast aluminum. Technically, the term should be applied only to iron that has been worked white hot; physical force (such as the smith’s hammer) is used to cause the metal to flow and be reshaped into the desired form.
Much work that is termed “wrought iron” is simply “bent work,” that is, commercially available mild-steel bars, tubing, or strips that have been cut, heated, and bent -- or sometimes even worked cold. Separate elements are then joined via arc welding or mechanical fasteners. The purist metalsmith rejects the term “wrought iron” for this bent work because it has not received the hammering, stretching, twisting, and piercing that a top-grade piece of wrought iron is subjected to. And rather than arc welding, the elite metalsmith will go to the trouble of forge welding -- joining two pieces by heating them white hot, then fusing the elements into a single unit under the blows of a hammer. Through the use of such techniques as forged collars, piercing, and forge welding, the skilled metalsmith can assemble a grille or similar piece of ornamental ironwork without ever resorting to arc welding or bolts. True wrought iron can usually be distinguished by its sensuous patterns and curves -- and often the marks of the smith’s hammer are evident. Since wrought ironwork is forged by hand, small irregularities are usually apparent -- and valued as evidence of the smith’s craft.
From this description, it’s easy to see why true wrought iron is a relatively rare commodity today. The amount of skill, labor, and time required for it’s production makes it considerably more expensive than the “bent work” ornamental iron commonly found today. And because most customers don't have the eye to understand or appreciate top-level metalsmithing, they are unwilling to pay the differential.
Even more rare than skill in hand forging is the low-carbon iron (0.04% carbon) that is the basis for historical wrought iron. Besides it’s characteristic grain structure that imparts an almost organic look to true wrought iron, the low-carbon material possess another attractive characteristic: it is far more resistant to rust then mild steel (0.2 to 0.6% carbon content), which is universally used now for ornamental iron work. Even when the highest level of forging skill and technique is used, the material being wrought is mild steel. The only source for low-carbon iron today is a small boutique mill is England. In the U.S., a few metalsmiths have been farsighted enough to squirrel away stockpiles of low-carbon iron salvaged for demolished 19th-century buildings and bridges.
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