One of the jobs I got shortly after the military was as a welder in a custom metalworking shop. We built everything from aluminum boat guardrails to ultra-modern stainless steel lighting fixtures. Our bread and butter, though, was ornamental steel railings for staircases, balconies, and lofts. I would carefully cut each piece, bend it to shape, weld the pieces together, and then carry them over to the painter who would give them a couple of coats of paint. When he was done, we'd have black steel rail panels that assembled into wrought iron-look railings that could've come straight from Victorian London.
However, these weren't wrought iron railings. They were built from mild steel, a superior material and one that is far easier to work with than wrought iron. This became an issue for one customer who wanted genuine wrought iron railings for her dream home going up by a lake. She would settle for nothing less than the real deal, and because it was a large home and such a large project for the company, the owners were unwilling to turn her away. This became a massive headache for anyone in the company who worked with their hands.
Whatever Happened to Real Wrought Iron?
Wrought iron is an unpleasant material to work with, especially for welders. The standard procedure is to evenly preheat the metal before welding, and this takes some time. You use a torch to preheat the metal and getting it evenly heated is a challenge, to say the least. Only once you are fairly certain that it is evenly heated to just shy of melting can you begin welding, and intermittently you have to take a hammer and hit it to release any stress that may be building up in the metal as you weld. This is in comparison to steel, where welding is mostly just making sure the measurements are correct and then going ahead with the welding. The knowledge needed to weld iron is also uncommon; the only reason that I know it is that the military is slow to update its training and technical manuals.
Wrought iron is hard to work with because its unevenly dense due to an unevenly distributed amount of carbon, which forms visible flakes and nodules. Because the material has an uneven density it also means that forces aren't distributed evenly through it when it is heated. This can cause it to crack while it's being worked, with a tell-tale ping that is a welder's nightmare. The inability to distribute force evenly applies to iron under load, and in iron's heyday as a structural material it often failed, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. When the Bessemer process that could turn out steel economically was invented in 1853, steel rapidly replaced iron so that by the turn of the twentieth century, fewer than 50 years later, iron wasn't used anywhere. Over a century later, it's rare to find even an old piece of iron, and getting ahold of fresh iron stock is expensive and nearly impossible unless you're doing a historical restoration.
What Does This Mean for Homeowners Looking for Wrought Iron?
What most people are actually looking for when they specify “wrought iron railings” is a particular look. This usually means ornamental scrollwork, twists, baskets, or knuckles on the balusters. For all intents and purposes, “wrought iron” is used more as a term for a style than it is for a building material. What is sold as wrought iron is in fact nearly always steel with a few decorative features made out of wrought iron. Even then many of these “wrought iron” pieces are actually made of stamped or forged steel with the “wrought iron” grain actually being foundry marks or molded into the piece. When added ornaments are genuine wrought iron, they tend to look odd to my—admittedly biased—eyes. The wrought iron has a distinctive texture that shows up against the smoother steel and seems like a mismatch to me.
The headache with this particular customer came from trying to explain this to the people working in the front office, and then having them explain it to the customer. This led to a great deal of miscommunication between production, sales, and the customer, and it almost cost us the job. We finally compromised by building steel railings with cast iron accents. This ended up being a real hassle for the other welders and me because these cast iron ornaments wouldn't fuse with the steel. Adding to the difficulties was the fact that there were actually two sorts of iron pieces involved, cast and ductile, and they were as different from each other as they were from the steel. The cast iron was more prone to cracking during welding. Fabricating these railings took quite some time, and the result was a product that I would say was inferior to black steel rail panels.
Black Steel Rail Panels Are Stronger Than Iron and More Affordable
All of the difficulties that were involved in the job I've described were unnecessary. The reason that the term wrought iron is still widely used is that people are after the look of wrought iron, and don't necessarily know or care about the nature of the iron or steel used to make it. In my opinion, the customer would have been better off with a wrought iron railing alternative like steel panels railings, which have the right look without the weaknesses.
The reason this particular customer didn’t go with a steel railing system was that she felt that rare, difficult, and unusual were synonymous with quality. Working out of a small shop, the quality of fabrication was top notch, but even so, we’d frequently have to return to make minor repairs and touch up our work.
The reason was that as a small shop we didn't have a lot of control over the materials or the conditions we were working under. The steel was bought from whoever was offering it cheaply at the moment, and the coatings were applied in a roofed area outdoors for ventilation. The result was coatings that didn't hold uniformly and corrosion problems that sometimes struck very quickly. We'd often have trouble with rust around the welds, since welding burns off the galvanized zinc coating on steel and the paint we used on the steel wasn't enough to protect it once the zinc was gone. A better option is a well-engineered steel panel railing made in a controlled environment and given the proper treatment to resist corrosion for years.
One very good example is the Fe26 railing system from Fortress Railing. These pre-welded steel railing panels have the look of wrought iron railings and offer the option of ornamentation. Two-piece knuckles that install by wrapping around the balusters lend pre-made black steel railing panels the graceful touch of classic wrought iron while keeping installation simple. Fortress' steel balusters come in diverse forms that include twists, baskets, and even curved belly balusters that bring individual style, the strength of steel, and the elegant look of wrought iron to wood or composite rails and posts. Since Fortress' railings are pre-galvanized, e-coated (using the moisture-resistant coating that car makers use on auto bodies), and given a coat of black DuPont powder coating, they have the look of wrought iron but resist rust and are able to last for years in nearly any environment. This thoughtful engineering is the hallmark of Fortress Building Products and can be seen in their other offerings, such as bamboo-based composite decking and wrought iron-style fencing.