Antique Iron Furniture

Tthe recent resurgence in outdoor living spaces - great rooms, kitchens, patios, meditation gardens, and so on - has fostered a revival of interest in antique iron furniture. The iron revival isn't limited to outdoor furniture, though; sales of decorative and functional iron of all sorts are on the upswing: kitchenware, lighting, sculpture, indoor furniture, architectural, and artwork are all avidly sought by collectors. Once-rusted castaways are being pulled from barns and basements to be cleaned, repainted, and made functional again.

Iron goods are ubiquitous: one sees them at antique stores, estate sales, online; even Wal-Mart carries them. Much of the iron furniture one sees at estate sales is not quality, vintage iron, though. Much of it is hollow steel or aluminum made to resemble iron. Unfortunately, these reproductions and look-alikes are being priced as if they are the "real deal", and few consumers are able to separate the antique and vintage goods from the newly manufactured knock-offs. Learning to identify quality vintage iron furniture isn't difficult once one becomes familiar with the manufacturing process. Let's review a few "points of connoisseurship" for vintage iron and establish a four-step process for identifying authentic antique and vintage iron furniture.

We'll start by clarifying a few terms. Iron furniture can be divided into two primary types: wrought and cast. Wrought iron is frequently mislabeled as "rod" iron. Although rods of iron may have been the raw material used to make an item, the end product is named for the process, not the material. "Wrought" is an archaic word usage that means "worked"; in other words, it is hand-worked iron. Iron rods or bars are heated, then hammered, twisted, and joined into the desired shapes. Most of us are familiar with iconic "blacksmith" scenes in movies, where a "Smithy" is seen working iron; that's what the process looks like.

In an iron casting process, iron and other ores are melted and poured into wet sand molds. When the iron cools, it is removed and has taken the shape of the mold. It is then filed to remove burrs and defects. It is not hammered, though; cast iron's high carbon content makes it brittle, and it will break.

Decorative iron casting was a major breakthrough in the 19th century, because goods could be mass-produced rather than made one-at-a-time as with worked iron. Factory owners would hire a woodcarver to create a three-dimensional representation of a part they required; then, sand molds would be built, one for the part's top and another for the bottom. For each new casting, sand would be replaced in the mold boxes and the original three-dimensional carving would be re-used to make a new mold. Compared to wrought iron, cast iron goods were cheap, plentiful, and better suited to the "frilly" decor of the Victorian era.

Much of what is sold as antique "wrought iron furniture" is not, in fact, wrought at all. The fancy scroll-work found on such furniture is created by casting, not hand-working. Garden benches and tables are sometimes a combination of wrought and cast iron, but in most cases are entirely cast. In manufacturing large cast-furniture items, individual parts are cast, and then the cast pieces are fitted and joined. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the parts were bolted together; in the 20th Century parts were welded.

How can you tell the difference between wrought and cast iron with a quick glance? This is a simplification, but if an item is "fancy", it's probably cast. Two-sided decorations will have a seam along the edge, where two halves of a mold were joined. Or, there will be a "front" side but no "back" side to the ornamentation. If an item appears to have been made from plain, twisted, or bent lengths of iron, then it is likely wrought.

Here's a four-step process for examining metal furniture products to determine if they are vintage wrought or cast iron.

  1. Determine that it's real iron:
    • Lift it. Real iron is solid and heavy. Many of the knock-offs are made from hollow stock "mild" (light) steel or powder-coated aluminum.
    • Use a magnet to check all parts of a piece. Iron products are always magnetic. Mild steel is also magnetic, but aluminum is not. Sometimes, ornamentation on fakes is made from cast resins, brass, or aluminum; those won't be magnetic, either.
  2. Determine if it is a knock-off. If the "magnet" test above didn't prove that an item is a fake, here are two more tests you can perform:
    • In wrought iron, look for hammer marks. Knock-offs are usually made from steel or aluminum and will show no such marks.
    • Are the curves, bends, and flourishes of wrought items symmetrical (the same on both sides)? If so, the item is likely a fake. Like hand-carved furniture, there are always slight differences in the matching ornamentation of hand-wrought items.
    • Look for the manufacturer's identity stamped into the item.
  3. Examine the joinery:
    • Check the assembly. Are the parts welded or bolted? Bolting is a sure sign that the item is an antique; welding as a manufacturing technique wasn't sufficiently developed until the 20th Century.
    • Check the type of bolts. In antique cast iron furniture, flat-head bolts were set into a countersunk hole to create a smooth seating surface. If bolts are not flush or do not fit the countersunk hole, then the item has been repaired, or may be a knock-off.
    • Are there holes in both joined parts? Newly manufactured metal furniture uses an "imbedded stud" bolting technique that does not require that the connecting parts each have a drilled hole. Antiques will always have bolts passing through both connected pieces.
  4. Examine the finish:
    • Casting sometimes leaves small pits and imperfections in the surface of an item. If a surface is perfectly smooth, it's likely steel, not iron.
    • Examine the finish. Vintage cast iron used heavier paints, not spray finishes. Usage wear patterns in the paint will be obvious. On antique furniture, seats, arms, and inside backs will show more wear than outside backs.
    • If the piece has never been painted, it will appear dark brown or black. Newly manufactured iron will appear gray or "dirty silver".
    • To determine if a piece has been repaired, use a black light to examine a questionable area. New paint will fluoresce differently than old, cured paint.

Authentic cast and wrought iron furniture is practical, beautiful, and affordable. And, we suspect, will out-last its modern counterparts by many decades.

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