Maintaining original iron railings

How to clean, repair and repaint precious iron railings in eight easy steps

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Iron railings, whether enclosing parkland at a stately home or bordering a tiny front garden, are a valuable asset to any period property.

Technological advances in the Industrial Revolution brought about the mass production of wrought and cast iron. Once it became more widely available, and within the means of the growing middle classes, it soon became a favoured building material for use as a decorative boundary.

Cast iron railings are made by pouring molten metal into a mould and consequently they are heavier, chunkier, and the completed lengths are identical. Wrought iron has a more delicate appearance and, as each piece is formed individually, there is more opportunity for slight variations in the finished piece. The wrought iron railings pictured here were made by the village blacksmith in the 19th century.

Iron railings are durable and, if regularly maintained, will last for years. Proper repairs are expensive but cheap repairs often use inappropriate materials such as aluminium or mild steel, while poor quality welding can hasten damage. So if you are the proud owner of some original metalwork, carry out an annual inspection to anticipate problems before they arise.

Chopping back overgrown vegetation, dealing with patches of corrosion and repainting chipped and peeling paintwork will avoid trouble in the future. For the repainting I chose a slate black colour from the Hammerite Garden Metal Shades range (0870 444 1111; hammerite.com).

Leaves and debris become trapped in more intricate sections and will hold on to water, making them much more vulnerable to corrosion. As iron rusts and delaminates it can expand up to ten times its original size. If corrosion continues unchecked metal components set into the stone can cause the stone to fracture. Look at stone and brickwork pillars and plinths for rusty stains as this may indicate corrosion of the embedded metal.

You will need

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Restoring iron railings

1. Brush away detritus: Use a steel brush to get rid of all loose and old flaking layers of paint. This is important – the new paint won’t bond with the existing paint and protect the metal unless the railings are cleaned of loose rust and unsound paint. Brush away heavy algae growth and treat with a sterilising solution, then leave for 24 hours and rinse off.

2. Clear moss and weeds: Check the bottom of the railings: scrape away moss and clear away weeds. Sometimes there is a gap between the brick plinth and the bar at the bottom where debris can collect. This becomes a moisture trap encouraging corrosion as the metal never has the opportunity to dry out. Investigate and clean with the scraper.

3. Prepare prior to painting: Existing paintwork must be ‘keyed’ or roughened with medium grade abrasive paper to create good adhesion for the new paint. Wet and dry paper used with water prevents the paper ‘clogging’. Wet sanding is also advisable as it reduces dust. For a smooth finish rub around the edges to avoid ‘steps’ on the new paintwork.

4. Clean away grease and grime: Wearing gloves and using a clean cloth, wash the railings thoroughly with a solution of sugar soap dissolved in hot water. This will get rid of all the dirt and grime and any greasy deposits, too. Once the railings are completely clean use a new cloth and lots of water to rinse away the dirty suds.

5. Prune nearby plants: Cut back all vegetation. If painting over existing paint you must ensure that the new paint is compatible. Paint a trial section and leave overnight. Hammerite can be painted directly on to the metal without a primer, but if you’re using a gloss paint, the metal must be rust-free and then protected with two coats of zinc-based primer.

6. Protect plants from paint splashes: Try to obtain some large sheets of cardboard to prop behind the railings to protect plants. Ask at your local electrical appliance supplier – they will probably have some unwanted packaging they can give you. Hold in place by pushing canes into the ground on alternating sides of the board.

7. Make final preparations: Fix old newspaper to brick plinths, pillars and paths using masking tape. Check the weather forecast: a warm slightly overcast day is best; don’t paint when wind or rain are predicted and avoid the months from November to February as it will be too cold and damp for the paint to cure properly.

8. Apply new coats of paint: Brush on two coats of paint, following the manufacturer’s instructions regarding the length of time between coats. The first coat can become pitted if the second is applied too soon and two thin coats are more effective than one thicker one. If you have a lot of railings you may prefer to use a Hammerite Metalmaster gun.

When to Replace Iron Railings

Occasionally, where there is vehicle damage, for example, replacement may be the only option. New cast-iron and mild-steel equivalents can be readily obtained and, if carefully forged, mild steel is hard to distinguish from wrought iron. For a period-style finish, it is best to use traditional methods of assembly rather than arc welding, which is the method that’s commonly used today.