One reason behind the confusion is that somewhere between the time that grandpa made his wrought iron table and today, the actual metal went out of production in the U.S. During the 1960s, one plant after another discontinued its wrought iron operations until the last plant ceased operations in 1969.
The reason wrought iron was phased out is simple _ the process is very labor intensive and costly. In the old days, a laborer had to hold the metal with tongs and “work” it under a steam hammer. In addition, recycling of scrap added downward pressure on the price of steel. According to one estimate, production wrought iron cost nearly twice as much as steel.
Currently, the only way to get true wrought iron is to import it from Europe or find an old bridge, wagon wheel axle, or other antique item. The scarcity of the metal is unfortunate for the ornamental iron industry because wrought iron is an ideal metal to work with. The metal is corrosion resistant; handles stress well, and can accept a thicker finish.
Rather than having the “snap-off” characteristic of modern steels, true wrought is like bread dough or candy taffy. The reason behind the metal’s unusual properties is the addition of iron silicate. This glass-like slag is interwoven in the iron and gives the metal its “dough-like” form. In a single square inch there may be 250,000 or more of these little slag fibers. By their very nature, the fibers help the metal do a better job of absorbing stress.
The slag in wrought iron also provides natural corrosion resistance. Let’s face it, nearly all ferrous metals rust, but wrought iron does a better job at handling it. As corrosion progresses, the fibers tend to disperse the rust into an even film, which gives the metal a natural brownish appearance. This film repels the scattering spotty corrosive attack t that other metals endure.
Because of its corrosion resistance, wrought was the metal of choice in earlier years for marine use, bridges, and girders. In fact, in extremely corrosive areas, an architect may still specify the metal. Another niche where wrought is still alive and well is in the craft of knife making.
According to Bob Bergman of Postville Blacksmith, who regularly works with true wrought iron, wrought’s low carbon content makes it easy to weld. “Wrought can stand tremendous heat and is more forgiving,” says Bergman. “It is better structurally for old time blacksmithing.”
Yet another advantage of wrought is that it’s rough and irregular surface can hold a finish better. Reportedly, wrought iron can carry a zinc galvanizing coating that is 25 percent to 40 percent thicker than what would be accepted by a smoother metal.
It is no small wonder the word “wrought iron” is still used, even though the actual metal itself is a hard-to-find item. For at least 5,000 years craftsperson’s have used wrought iron to make functional items and works of art. Some of the world’s most famous metalwork is made of wrought iron.
A 1971 article that appeared in Fabricator magazine made an eloquent defense for wrought iron. Written by William F. Kruse, the column compared wrought iron and steel with Carrara marble and cement. He argued: “Marble does cost more than concrete, but they both have their proper place. Neither really substitutes for the other.” His reasoning was that true wrought should not have been phased out by cheaper substitutes.
He went on to say, “If death could come to a whole ancient and honorable industry as a result of a market erosion brought on by technologically cheapened substitutes, may not a similar erosion threaten the continued existence of the entire ornamental metals industry?” Mr. Kruse’s prophetic warning may have been a little off base. For one thing, the ornamental metal industry cannot take the blame for the demise of wrought iron. It was the plants that discontinued the metal when they no longer found it profitable. And second, the arrival of cheaper substitutes didn’t mean the industry was “selling out”, it just means change is inevitable in any industry.