'Wrought Iron Work'
What it really is - what it really means...

Wrought Iron was the metal of the ancient smith :
• It is a specific type of material, both chemically and physically much different than modern mild steels. Wrought Iron is typically forged (hot worked) at different temperatures, when finished is softer and more flexible than our modern day steels, and is more resistant to basic oxidation (rusting).
• The truth is that real wrought iron has not been produced in commercial quantities since the late 1970's. It is basically NOT AVAILABLE anywhere in the Western world, save as re-cycled antique material.
• Despite what may be claimed by some, all modern smiths work with industrially produced mild steel bars.
• Today, most self described "wrought iron workers" are in fact using machine formed, cold twisted, mild steel elements which have been mass produced over standard forms - then arc welded together. Typically these shops employ not blacksmiths, but welders and production fabricators. Most often the poor design, and frequent duplication, of the objects they manufacture clearly reflects these limitations.

A truism among actual artisan blacksmiths :
When some one says they are producing 'wrought iron work' - the first question should always be -
"Where did you get the iron?"


More on Wrought Iron:

This metal is created using special equipment and processes that result both a distinctive physical structure and also a specific chemistry. All three of these factors combine to a metal that is quite different than modern steel alloys. 'Wrought' in this case refers to the hammering process required to compress and purify the spongy iron bloom that is extracted from a bloomery furnace. There will always be some microscopic layers of silica slag remaining within any wrought iron bar. It is this slag that gives this metal its distinctive  fracturing pattern, breaking as short tendrils. "Iron' is the primary element in the metal, and unlike modern alloys, most wrought iron will have few other components. Typically wrought iron has extremely low carbon content, on a grinder the sparks will test as dull red balls.
Wrought iron is an ideal material for the process of hand forging. It will remain workable over a wider range of temperatures than modern steels. It will tend to de-laminate as it is worked, requiring it to be re-welded to consolidate the surface (a step not required with steel).  Any forge welding is considerably easier with wrought iron, where the slag incorporated within the material tends to float to the surface at welding temperatures, so that often no additional flux needs to be applied.
The modern steel alloys start replacing wrought iron when the Bessemer furnace was introduced about 1855. This new technology not only allowed for greater control in the iron smelting process, it also increased the volume of production by an order of magnitude. Both of these factors made the new steel more dependable in quality and also considerably cheaper than the old wrought iron. By the early 1900's very little of the older metal was still being produced.
The last commercial production of true wrought iron was stopped in 1974. There has been no new wrought iron produced in commercial amounts * anywhere in the West since that date.

Any real wrought iron available for sale today will be reclaimed from structures being dismantled. Most commonly the material will be from structural elements from things like bridges. In some cases, larger diameter bars may be reworked down before being sold. A modern industrial 'substitute' is sold, under the trade names 'Electric Iron', 'Rivet Iron' or 'French Iron'. These materials are in fact low carbon content bessemer steels, with a carbon content in the range of .05%. They have the crystal structure of modern steel, without the linear texture (from slag inclusions) of wrought iron. Even when available in suitable sizes, those modern materials run roughly three to four times the cost of standard mild steel bars.
Typically, only small amounts in random dimensions of true wrought iron, often originally created in the 1850's, can be found. Often this collected by blacksmiths as personal stockpiles of these historic materials. Historic wrought iron is treasured for its easy working when hand forged and its better aging characteristics than modern steels. It also becomes an interesting addition to the mix when creating layered steels for knife making.

The term 'Wrought Iron' has undergone a radical shift in its meaning at the hands of popular culture.:
• The term moved from the technical language of the blacksmith into a descriptive term used by antique collectors in the early 1900's. When referring to objects hand forged by blacksmiths in the Settlement / Colonial period, they were correctly described as being made of wrought iron.
• Eventually however, the definition became less exact, coming to be used for 'any object that had been hand forged' - regardless of the metal content.
• Over time (into the 1950's, as blacksmiths disappeared) the term 'wrought iron' has come to refer to 'any piece of metal with a shape that is painted black'. In this the 'wrought' was separated from the 'iron'. 'Wrought' was used in its much less specific definition of 'shapped'.
• Now objects that are composed of modern mild steel, formed cold, shaped by machine (even cast or plasma cut!), and then painted black - are referred to as 'wrought iron'.

Amazingly, the term 'Wrought Iron' is now become mere advertising copy. Retailers will describe objects which just vaguely have the 'look' of shaped metalwork as 'wrought iron work'. Take a look at any recent Home Depot flier, and you will see ALUMINUM railing pieces, which have been mould CAST - described as "wrought iron railings"!
This is almost as far from the correct meaning of wrought iron as its possible to get.

( * There are two exceptions:
There are a small number of museums preserving the history of technology and industry. Some of these will conduct smaller scale demonstration firings of their historic blommery furnaces. The metal produced is typically kept inside the museum community for restoration work.
The second exception are the small group of people using experimental archaeology methods to rediscover what are often ancient and lost smelting techniques. Yields from these  test smelters are quite small, typically 5 - 10 kg per firing.)


Wrought Iron at the Wareham Forge

As an Artistan Blacksmith, Darrell Markewitz uses the heat of the forge, the skill of his hands and the power of the hammer to forge individual bars into unique shapes.
The Wareham Forge blends historic, traditional, and modern working methods and tools. Darrell's extensive background in Viking Age objects and skills makes his approach and style unique.
As a one man workshop, the raw force required to shape heavy bars is provided by a 50 pound air powered hammer.
The primary material utilized is modern mild steels or specific alloys. Forging industrial structural materials (pipe / angle / channel) is a specialty.
A stockpile of antique wrought iron has been gathered over the years. This material is primarily reserved for detailed museum reproductions or incorporated into layered steel billets for bladesmithing.
Darrell is a leader in the 'Early Iron' movement, the most experienced in Canada. He regularly operates bloomery iron smelting furnaces to create actual wrought iron using historic methods.
The core of this article was modified from 'Defining the Artisan Blacksmith', originally published in the Metal Arts Guild newsletter MAGnews in 2006
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Forge Welding image by Neil Peterson
All text and images © to 2011, Darrell Markewitz - the Wareham Forge