The Maintenance and Repair of Architectural Cast Iron


The Maintenance and Repair of Architectural Cast Iron

John G. Waite, AIA

Historical Overview by Margot Gayle

U.S. Department of the Interior
National Park Service
National Center for Cultural Stewardship and Partnerships
Heritage Preservation Services Division
Technical Preservation Services

Table of Contents

The preservation of castiron architectural elements, including entire facades, has gained increasing attention in recent years as commercial districts are recognized for their historic significance and revitalized. This Brief provides general guidance on approaches to the preservation and restoration of historic cast iron.

Cast iron played a preeminent role in the industrial development of our country during the 19th century. Castiron machinery filled America's factories and made possible the growth of railroad transportation. Cast iron was used extensively in our cities for water systems and street lighting. As an architectural metal, it made possible bold new advances in architectural designs and building technology, while providing a richness in ornamentation (Fig. 1).

This ageold metal, an iron alloy with a high carbon content, had been too costly to make in large quantities until the mid18th century, when new furnace technology in England made it more economical for use in construction. Known for its great strength in compression, cast iron in the form of slender, nonflammable pillars, was introduced in the 1790s in English cotton mills, where fires were endemic. In the United States, similar thin columns were first employed in the 1820s in theaters and churches to support balconies.

By the mid1820s, onestory iron storefronts were being advertised in New York City. Daniel Badger, the Boston foundryman who later moved to New York, asserted that in 1842 he fabricated and installed the first rolling iron shutters for iron storefronts, which provided protection against theft and external fire. In the years ahead, and into the 1920s, the practical castiron storefront would become a favorite in towns and cities from coast to coast. Not only did it help support the load of the upper floors, but it provided large show windows for the display of wares and allowed natural light to flood the interiors of the shops. Most importantly, castiron storefronts were inexpensive to assemble, requiring little onsite labor.

A tireless advocate for the use of cast iron in buildings was an inventive New Yorker, the selftaught architect/engineer James Bogardus. From 1840 on, Bogardus extolled its virtues of strength, structural stability, durability, relative lightness, ability to be cast in almost any shape and, above all, the fireresistant qualities so sought after in an age of serious urban conflagrations. He also stressed that the foundry casting processes, by which cast iron was made into building elements, were thoroughly compatible with the new concepts of prefabrication, mass production, and use of identical interchangeable parts.

In 1849 Bogardus created something uniquely American when he erected the first structure with selfsupporting, multistoried exterior walls of iron. Known as the Edgar Laing Stores, this corner row of small fourstory warehouses that looked like one building was constructed in lower Manhrattan in only two months. Its rear, side, and interior bearing walls were of brick; the floor framing consisted of timber joists and girders. One of the castiron walls was loadbearing, supporting the wood floor joists. The innovation was its two street facades of selfsupporting cast iron, consisting of multiples of only a few pieces -- Doricstyle engaged columns, panels, sills, and plates, along with some applied ornaments (cover photo and Fig. 2). Each component of the facades had been cast individually in a sand mold in a foundry, machined smooth, tested for fit, and finally trundled on horsedrawn drays to the building site. There they were hoisted into position, then bolted together and fastened to the conventional structure of timber and brick with iron spikes and straps (Fig. 3)

The second ironfront building erected was a quantum leap beyond the Laing Stores in size and complexity. Begun in April 1850 by Bogardus, with architect Robert Hatfield, the fivestory Sun newspaper building in Baltimore was both castironfronted and castironframed. In Philadelphia, several ironfronts were begun in 1850: The Inquirer Building, the Brock Stores, and the Penn Mutuai Building (all three have been demolished). The St. Charles Hotel of 1851 at 60 N. Third Street is the oldest ironfront in America. Framing with castiron columns and wroughtiron beams and trusses was visible on a vast scale in the New York Crystal Palace of 1853.

In the second half of the 19th century, the United States was in an era of tremendous economic and territorial growth. The use of iron in commercial and public buildings spread rapidly, and hundreds of ironfronted buildings were erected in cities across the country from 1849 to beyond the turn of the century. Outstanding examples of ironfronts exist in Baltimore, Galveston, Louisville, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Richmond, Rochester (N.Y.), and especially New York City where the SoHo Cast Iron Historic District alone has 139 ironfronted buildings (Fig. 1). Regrettably, a large proportion of ironfronts nationwide have been demolished in downtown redevelopment projects, especially since World War II.

In addition to these exterior uses, many public buildings display magnificent exposed interior ironwork, at once ornamental and structural (Fig. 4). Remarkable examples have survived across the country, including the Peabody Library in Baltimore; the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C.; the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles; the former Louisiana State Capitol; the former City Hall in Richmond; Tweed Courthouse in New York; and the state capitols of California, Georgia, Michigan, Tennessee, and Texas. And it is iron, of course, that forms the great dome of the United States Capitol, completed during the Civil War. Ornamental cast iron was a popular material in the landscape as well, appearing as fences, fountains with statuary, lampposts, furniture, urns, gazebos, gates, and enclosures for cemetery plots (Fig. 5). With such widespread demand, many American foundries that had been casting machine parts, bank safes, iron pipe, or cookstoves added architectural iron departments (Fig. 6). These called for patternmakers with sophisticated design capabilities, as well as knowledge of metal shrinkage and other technical aspects of casting. Major companies included the Hayward Bartlett Co. in Baltimore; James L. Jackson, Cornell Brothers, J. L. Mott, and Daniel D. Badger's Architectural Iron Works in Manhattan; Hecla Ironworks in Brooklyn; Wood & Perot of Philadelphia; Leeds & Co., the Shakspeare (sic) Foundry, and Miltenberger in New Orleans; Winslow Brothers in Chicago; and James McKinney in Albany, N.Y.

Cast iron was the metal of choice throughout the second half of the 19th century. Not only was it a fireresistant material in a period of major urban fires, but also large facades could be produced with cast iron at less cost than comparable stone fronts, and iron buildings could be erected with speed and efficiency. The largest standing example of framing with castiron columns and wroughtiron beams is Chicago's sixteenstory Manhattan Building, the world's tallest skyscraper when built in 1890 by William LeBaron Jenney. By this time, however, steel was becoming available nationally, and was structurally more versatile and costcompetitive. Its increased use is one reason why building with cast iron diminished around the turn of the century after having been so eagerly adopted only fifty years before. Nonetheless, cast iron continued to be used in substantial quantities for many other structural and ornamental purposes well into the 20th century: storefronts; marquees; bays and large window frames for steelframed, masonryclad buildings; and street and landscape furnishings, including subway kiosks.

The 19th century left us with a rich heritage of new building methods, especially construction on an altogether new scale that was made possible by the use of metals. Of these, cast iron was the pioneer, although its period of intensive use lasted but a half century. Now the surviving legacy of castiron architecture, much of which continues to be threatened, merits renewed appreciation and appropriate preservation and restoration treatments.

What is Cast Iron?

Cast iron is an alloy with a high carbon content (at least 1.7% and usually 3.0 to 3.7%) that makes it more resistant to corrosion than either wrought iron or steel. In addition to carbon, cast iron contains varying amounts of silicon, sulfur, manganese, and phosphorus.

While molten, cast iron is easily poured into molds, making it possible to create nearly unlimited decorative and structural forms. Unlike wrought iron and steel, cast iron is too hard and brittle to be shaped by hammering, rolling, or pressing. However, because it is more rigid and more resistant to buckling than other forms of iron, it can withstand great compression loads. Cast iron is relatively weak in tension, however and fails under tensile loading with little prior warning.

The characteristics of various types of cast iron are determined by their composition and the techniques used in melting, casting, and heat treatment. Metallurgical constituents of cast iron that affect its brittleness, toughness, and strength include ferrite, cementite, pearlite, and graphite carbon. Cast iron with flakes of carbon is called gray cast iron. The "gray fracture" associated with cast iron was probably named for the gray, grainy appearance of its broken edge caused by the presence of flakes of free graphite, which account for the brittleness of cast iron. This brittleness is the important distinguishing characteristic between cast iron and mild steel.

Compared with cast iron, wrought iron is relatively soft, malleable, tough, fatigueresistant, and readily worked by forging, bending, and drawing. It is almost pure iron, with less than 1% (usually 0.02 to 0.03%) carbon. Slag varies between 1% and 4% of its content and exists in a purely physical association, that is, it is not alloyed. This gives wrought iron its characteristic laminated (layered) or fibrous structure.

Wrought iron can be distinguished from cast iron in several ways. Wroughtiron elements generally are simpler in form and less uniform in appearance than castiron elements, and contain evidence of rolling or hand working. Cast iron often contains mold lines, flashing, casting flaws, and air holes. Castiron elements are very uniform in appearance and are frequently used repetitively. Castiron elements are often bolted or screwed together, whereas wroughtiron pieces are either riveted or forgemolded (heat welded) together.

Mild steel is now used to fabricate new handworked metal work and to repair old wroughtiron elements. Mild steel is an alloy of iron and is not more than 2% carbon, which is strong but easily worked in block or ingot form. Mild steel is not as resistant to corrosion as either wrought iron or cast iron.

Maintenance and Repair

Many of the maintenance and repair techniques described in the Brief, particularly those relating to cleaning and painting, are potentially dangerous and should be carried out only by experienced and qualified workmell using protective equipment suitable to the task. In all but the most simple repairs, it is best to involve a preservation architect or building conservator to assess the condition of the iron and prepare contract documents for its treatment.

As with any preservation project, the work must be preceded by a review of local building codes and environmental protection regulations to determine whether any conflicts exist with the proposed treatments. If there are conflicts, particularly with cleaning techniques or painting materials, then waivers or variances need to be negotiated, or alternative treatments or materials adopted.


Common problems encountered today with castiron construction include badly rusted or missing elements, impact damage, structural failures, broken joints, damage to connections, and loss of anchorage in masonry (Figs. 7, 8).

Oxidation, or rusting, occurs rapidly when cast iron is exposed to moisture and air. The minimum relative humidity necessary to promote rusting is 65%, but this figure can be lower in the presence of corrosive agents, such as sea water, salt air, acids, acid precipitation, soils, and some sulfur compounds present in the atmosphere, which act as catalysts in the oxidation process. Rusting is accelerated in situations where architectural details provide pockets or crevices to trap and hold liquid corrosive agents. Furthermore, once a rust film forms, its porous surface acts as a reservoir for liquids, which in turn causes further corrosion. If this process is not arrested, it will continue until the iron is entirely consumed by corrosion, leaving nothing but rust.

Galvanic corrosion is an electrochemical action that results when two dissimilar metals react together in the presence of an electrolyte, such as water containing salts or hydrogen ions (Fig. 9). The severity of the galvanic corrosion is based on the difference in potential between the two metals, their relative surface areas, and time. If the more noble metal (higher position in electrochemical series) is much larger in area than the baser, or less noble, metal, the deterioration of the baser metal will be more rapid and severe. If the more noble metal is much smaller in area than the baser metal, the deterioration of the baser metal will be much less significant. Cast iron will be attacked and corroded when it is adjacent to more noble metals such as lead or copper.

Graphitization of cast iron, a less common problem, occurs in the presence of acid precipitation or seawater. As the iron corrodes, the porous graphite (soft carbon) corrosion residue is impregnated with insoluble corrosion products. As a result, the castiron element retains its appearance and shape but is weaker structurally. Graphitization occurs where cast iron is left unpainted for long periods or where caulked joints have failed and acidic rainwater has corroded pieces from the backside. Testing and identification of graphitization is accomplished by scraping through the surface with a knife to reveal the crumbling of the iron beneath. Where extensive graphitization occurs, usually the only solution is replacement of the damaged element.

Castings may also be frartured or flawed as a result of imperfections in the original manufacturing process, such as air holes, cracks, and cinders, or cold shuts (caused by the "freezing" of the surface of the molten iron during casting because of improper or interrupted pouring). Brittleness is another problem occasionally found in old castiron elements. It may be a result of excessive phosphorus in the iron, or of chilling during the casting process.

Condition Assessment

Before establishing the appropriate treatment for castiron elements in a building or structure, an evaluation should be made of the property's historical and architectural significance and alterations, along with its present condition. If the work involves more than routine maintenance, a qualified professional should be engaged to develop a historic structure report which sets forth the historical development of the property, documents its existing condition, identifies problems of repair, and provides a detailed listing of recommended work items with priorities. Through this process the significance and condition of the cast iron can be evaluated and appropriate treatments proposed. For fences, or for single components of a building such as a facade, a similar but less extensive analytical procedujre should be followed.

The nature and extent of the problems with the castiron elements must be well understood before proceeding with work. If the problems are minor, such as surface corrosion, flaking paint, and failed caulking, the property owner may be able to undertake the repairs by working directly with a knowledgeable contractor. If there are major problems or extensive damage to the cast iron, it is best to secure the services of an architect or conservator who specializes in the conservation of historic buildings. Depending on the scope of work, contract documents can range from outline specifications to complete working drawings with annotated photographs and specifications.

To thoroughly assess the condition of the ironwork, a close physical inspection must be undertaken of every section of the iron construction including bolts, fasteners, and brackets (Fig. 10). Typically, scaffolding or a mechanical lift is employed for close inspection of a castiron facade or other large structures. Removal of select areas of paint may be the only means to determine the exact condition of connections, metal fasteners, and intersections or crevices that might trap water.

An investigation of loadbearing elements, such as columns and beams, will establish whether these components are performing as they were originally designed, or the stress patterns have been redistributed. Areas that are abnormally stressed must beexamined to ascertain whether they have suffered damage or have been displaced (Fig. 11). Damage to a primary structural member is obviously critical to identify and evaluate; attention should not be given only to decorative features.

The condition of the building, structure, or object; diagnosis of its problems; and recommendations for its repair should be recorded by drawings, photographs, and written descriptions, to aid those who will be responsible for its conservation in the future.

Whether minor or major work is required, the retention and repair of historic ironwork is the recommended preservation approach over replacement. All repairs and restoration work should be reversible, when possible, so that modifications or treatments that may turn out to be harmful to the longterm preservation of the iron can be corrected with the least amount of damage to the historic ironwork.

Cleaning and Paint Removal

When there is extensive failure of the protective coating and/or when heavy corrosion exists, the rust and most or all of the paint must be removed to prepare the surfaces for new protective coatings. The techniques available range from physical processes, such as wire brushing and grit blasting, to flame cleaning and chemical methods. The selection of an appropriate technique depends upon how much paint failure and corrosion has occurred, the fineness of the surface detailing, and the type of new protective coating to be applied. Local environmental regulations may restrict the options for cleaning and paint removal methods, as well as the disposal of materials.

Many of these techniques are potentially dangerous and should be carried out only by experienced and qualified workers using proper eye protection, protective clothing, and other workplace safety conditions. Before selecting a process, test panels should be prepared on the iron to be cleaned to determine the relative effectiveness of various techniques. The cleaning process will most likely expose additional coating defects, cracks, and corrosion that have not been obvious before (Fig. 12).

There are a number of techniques that can be used to remove paint and corrosion from cast iron:

Hand scraping, chipping, and wire brushing are the most common and least expensive methods of removing paint and light rust from cast iron (Fig. 13a, b). However, they do not remove all corrosion or paint as effectively as other methods. Experienced craftsmen should carry out the work to reduce the likelihood that surfaces may be scored or fragile detail damaged.

Lowpressure grit blasting (commonly called abrasive cleaning or sandblasting) is often the most effective approach to removing excessive paint buildup or substantial corrosion. Grit blasting is fast, thorough, and economical, and it allows the iron to be cleaned in place. The aggregate can be iron slag or sand; copper slag should not be used on iron because of the potential for electrolytic reactions. Some sharpness in the aggregate is beneficial in that it gives the metal surface a "tooth" that will result in better paint adhesion. The use of a very sharp or hard aggregate and/or excessively high pressure (over 100 pounds per square inch) is unnecessary and should be avoided. Adjacent materials, such as brick, stone, wood, and glass, must be protected to prevent damage. Some local building codes and environmental authorities prohibit or limit dry sandblasting because of the problem of airborne dust.

Wet sandblasting is more problematic than dry sandblasting for cleaning cast iron because the water will cause instantaneous surface rusting and will penetrate deep into open joints. Therefore, it is generally not considered an effective technique. Wet sandblasting reduces the amount of airbQrne dust when removing a heavy paint buildup, but disposal of effluent containing lead or other toxic substances is restricted by environmental regulations in most areas.

Flame cleaning of rust from metal with a special multiflame head oxyacetylene torch requires specially skilled operators, and is expensive and potentially dangerous. However, it can be very effective on lightly to moderately corroded iron. Wire brushing is usually neccessary to tinish the surface after flame cleaning.

Chemical rust removal, by acid pickling, is an effective method of removing rust from iron elements that can be easily removed and taken to a shop for submerging in vats of dilute phosphoric or sulfuric acid. This method does not damage the surface of iron, providing that the iron is neutralized to pH level 7 after cleaning. Other chemical rust removal agents include ammonium citrate, oxalic acid, or hydrochloric acidbased products.

Chemical paint removal using alkaline compounds, such as methylene chloride or potassium hydroxide, can be an effective alternative to abrasive blasting for removal of heavy paint buildup (Fig. 13). These agents are often available as slowacting gels or pastes. Because they can cause burns, protective clothing and eye protection must be worn. Chemicals applied to a nonwatertight facade can seep through crevices and holes, resulting in damage to the building's interior finishes and corrosion to the backside of the iron components. If not thoroughly neutralized, residual traces of cleaning compounds on the surface of the iron can cause paint failures in the future (Fig. 14). For these reasons, field application of alkaline paint removers and acidic cleaners is not generally recommended.

Following any of these methods of cleaning and paint removal, the newly cleaned iron should be painted immediately with a corrosioninhibiting primer before new rust begins to form. This time period may vary from minutes to hours depending on environmental conditions. If priming is delayed, any surface rust that has developed should be removed with a clean wire brush just before priming, because the rust prevents good bonding between the primer and the cast-iron surface and prevents the primer from completely filling the pores of the metal.

Painting and Coating Systems

The most common and effective way to preserve architectural cast iron is to maintain a protective coating of paint on the metal. Paint can also be decorative, where historically appropriate.

Before removing paint from historic architectural cast iron, a microscopic analysis of samples of the historic paint sequencing is recommended. Called paint seriation analysis, this process must be carried out by an experienced architectural conservator. The analysis will identify the historic paint colors, and other conditions, such as whether the paint was matte or gloss, whether sand was added to the paint for texture, and whether the building was polychromed or marbleized. Traditionally, many cast-iron elements were painted to resemble other materials, such as limestone or sandstone. Occasionally, features were faux-painted so that the iron appeared to be veined marble.

Thorough surface preparation is necessary for the adhesion of new protective coatings. All loose, flaking, and deteriorated paint must be removed from the iron, as well as dirt and mud, watersoluble salts, oil, and grease. Old paint that is tightly adhered may be left on the surface of the iron if it is compatible with the proposed coatings. The retention of old paint also preserves the historic paint sequence of the building and avoids the hazards of removal and disposal of old lead paint.

It is advisable to consult manufacturer's specifications or technical representatives to ensure compatibility between the surface conditions, primer and finish coats, and application methods.

For the paint to adhere properly, the metal surfaces must be absolutely dry before painting. Unless the paint selected is specifically designed for exceptional conditions, painting should not take place when the temperature is expected to fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit within 24 hours or when the relative humidity is above 80 per cent; paint should not be applied when there is fog, mist, or rain in the air. Poorly prepared surfaces will cause the failure of even the best paints, while even moderately priced paints can be effective if applied over wellprepared surfaces.

Selection of Paints and Coatings

The types of paints available for protecting iron have changed dramatically in recent years due to federal, state, and local regulations that prohibit or restrict the manufacture and use of products containing toxic substances such as lead and zinc chromate, as well as volatile organic compounds and substances (VOC or VOS). Availability of paint types varies from state to state, and manufacturers continue to change product formulations to comply with new regulations.

Traditionally, red lead has been used as an anticorrosive pigment for priming iron. Red lead has a strong affinity for linseed oil and forms lead soaps, which become a tough and elastic film impervious to water that is highly effective as a protective coating for iron. At least two slowdrying linseed oilbased finish coats have traditionally been used over a red lead primer, and this combination is effective on old or partiallydeteriorated surfaces. Today, in most areas, the use of paints containing lead is prohibited, except for some commercial and industrial purposes.

Today, alkyd paints are very widely used and have largely replaced leadcontaining linseedoil paints. They dry faster than oil paint, with a thinner film, but they do not protect the metal as long. Alkyd rustinhibitive primers contain pigments such as iron oxide, zinc oxide, and zinc phosphate. These primers are suitable for previously painted surfaces cleaned by hand tools. At least two coats of primer should be applied, followed by alkyd enamel finish coats.

Latex and other waterbased paints are not recommended for use as primers on cast iron because they cause immediate oxidation if applied on bare metal. Vinyl acrylic latex or acrylic latex paints may be used as finish coats over alkyd rustinhibitive primers, but if the primer coats are imperfectly applied or are damaged, the latex paint will cause oxidation of the iron. Therefore, alkyd finish coats are recommended.

Highperformance coatings, such as zincrich primers containing zinc dust, and modern epoxy coatings, can be used on cast iron to provide longerlasting protection. These coatings typically require highly clean surfaces and special application conditions which can be difficult to achieve in the field on large buildings (Fig. 13c). These coatings are used most effectively on elements which have been removed to a shop, or newly cast iron.

One particularly effective system has been first to coat commercially blastcleaned iron with a zincrich primer, followed by an epoxy base coat, and two urethane finish coats. Some epoxy coatings can be used as primers on clean metal or applied to previouslypainted surfaces in sound condition. Epoxies are particularly susceptible to degradation under ultraviolet radiation and must be protected by finish coats which are more resistant. There have been problems with epoxy paints which have been shopapplied to iron where the coatings have been nicked prior to installation. Field touchingup of epoxy paints is very difficult, if not impossible. This is a concern since iron exposed by imperfections in the base coat will be more likely to rust and more frequent maintenance will be required.

A key factor to take into account in selection of coatings is the variety of conditions on existing and new materials on a particular building or structure. One primer may be needed for surfaces with existing paint; another for newly cast, chemically stripped, or blastcleaned cast iron; and a third for flashings or substitute materials; all three followed by compatible finish coats.

Application Methods

Brushing is the traditional and most effective technique for applying paint to cast iron. It provides good contact between the paint and the iron, as well as the effective filling of pits, cracks, and other blemishes in the metal. The use of spray guns to apply paint is eco

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