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Our 'estate'... ironwork

This article is one of a number offering expert but general advice about maintenance and repair of property in our area.

This is the fourth article, on
railings and gates has kindly been contributed by
Roger Mortimer
, architect, who lives and practices in Redland.

Also see...

Stone Garden Walls  Common Property Issues No.1
Trees  Common Property Issues No.3


Ironwork

Click on headings on list of contents or scroll down the page


Introduction

Low stone walls, with railings on top, and a gate between stone pillars, were an essential feature of nearly all Georgian and Victorian houses in our area. They provided occupiers with a feeling of security and defined their territory. Old photographs show how they also helped to create an orderly street scene. They were also another opportunity for competitive display of decorative detail.

Most original railings were casualties of war, being surrendered for scrap iron (which was never used). Those that survived were to prevent people falling into basement areas in the blackout!

More recently, new drives and parking areas have changed the look of many streets. However, the above benefits of railings and gates,  plus their ability to contain toddlers and dogs, make them worth having.
In addition railings help to moderate the impact of parked cars.

It is well worth ‘improving your estate’, and the street scene, in this way. Almost any railings do this! However appropriate design will make the biggest contribution so this article covers design as well as practical aspects. Properties of almost all periods can benefit from good railings and gates but the focus here is on the Victorian and Edwardian properties that dominate much of our area.


Terms used

Horizontal members are called rails, vertical members are bars.

Various materials have been used in the past
see page ..... for some local examples.

Wrought iron

(loosely used to describe almost any decorative metalwork!)

Wrought iron is the traditional blacksmith’s material and was generally used until around 1800.
The bars in early railings were normally set individually in the coping stone.

The forging process can produce attractive minor variations of texture and shape.
Wrought iron is still available, and some modern blacksmiths are creating exciting new designs.
It is relatively expensive, but can provide high quality results.

Cast iron
Widely used from the early nineteenth century.
It enabled elaborate bars and decorative panels to be produced cheaply.
Not used today except for high quality refurbishment.
Cast metal, usually steel or aluminium used today for a range of standard finials for attaching to bars.

Steel
Welded mild steel is the most common material today. It lends itself to factory production.
It can be galvanised, which prolongs life.
Different materials are often combined in railings and gates – painting conceals this.


Design

Overall Layout
Usually dictated by existing or new entrances for people and cars. It is important to retain or restore stone gate pillars, even if they have to be moved. The aim should be for the whole frontage to be enclosed by railings /gates. Frontage railings look best if the top lines up with the coping of a stone pier. This is usually about 5ft above pavement level – a good security height.

Existing examples

 It is worth looking at any surviving original ironwork – sometimes this can be restored and extended. It can also be a guide for a new design. Older railings will usually look more solid and I suggest attractive than many new examples. This is mainly because of the stouter bars used and it is important to recognise that substantial properties look best with reasonably substantial railings.

Detailed design
An accurate survey of the frontage is essential especially as our sloping streets cause complications. A design drawing showing the complete frontage as proposed will ensure that the overall effect is appropriate.

Today’s railings are fabricated in panels, with more substantial supports at the ends, but detailed design can avoid the ‘modular’ look of standard ‘park railings’. Most railings are only fixed to the surface of copings and need to be braced with ‘back stays’ at intervals.

Railings are seen at close quarters and at eye level, so detailed design really counts.

Many new railings, particularly the off the peg standard panels, have very thin bars.
Anything less that ½ inch (12mm) is likely to look weedy and larger diameters nearly always look better.
A wide range of bar size and cross section is available.

The height of the railing is also a consideration – stouter bars for taller railings. Standard modular panels of railing
rarely fit the property and where the railings are made to order it costs little extra to use stouter bars, as the labour costs are not affected. Square section bars, which give a sharper look are often best and often set diagonally.

Finials
- The finials of wrought iron railings can be forged as part of the bar but a vast range of standard finials are available, ranging from reasonable imitations of traditional spear finials to elaborate mock heraldic emblems worthy of Hollywood.

Their rounded edges, required by law (except where out of reach), sadly lose some of the
crisp quality of older ironwork.


Gates

Pedestrian gates are best hung on stone or brick piers where these exist.

Gates for car access may need their own posts due to weight.

Gates are not allowed to open out across the pavement so are impractical in some small gardens.
This is unfortunate, as in addition to better security they improve the street scene and
provide an opportunity for decorative detail.


Gate design

Gates have always been available off the peg.

Some houses still have the flimsy objects, with token scrolls, produced after the war.
Today’s bigger range includes some that are ‘over the top’ visually and seem more appropriate for new suburban executive homes than our city streets.

Gates that match the general pattern of the railings usually look best.
Some standard gates achieve this but again purpose made may be best.


Painting

Mild steel should be primed before delivery and then given at least two coats of paint.

A semi-matt or eggshell finish generally looks best. Special paints are worth considering.
The National Trust range includes an excellent charcoal called Railings, a change from the normal black.
Touches of gold are best avoided – unless on the family crest!

Good modern paint treatment protects mild steel well and requires infrequent maintenance.
Galvanising protects against corrosion almost completely but requires treatment with a mordant before painting.


Getting it done

It is worth consulting an architect or designer, particularly where the work is extensive.

Attention is also drawn to the Planning Department Advice Note 6: Off-street parking in Residential Areas.

Also RCAS Common Property Issues No.1 on Stone Garden Walls.
Some makers have been recommended by members in the Trades Register.