Wrought iron fencing from Bill's Custom Metal Fabrications

Wrought iron fencing from Bill's Custom Metal Fabrications

Wrought Iron Fencing

An ancient material—but effectively no longer made today—wrought iron is iron ore refined with a low-carbon content (no more than 0.35%). Compared to the higher carbon content of cast iron and steel, wrought iron is close to pure iron, which makes it very malleable and readily formed into characteristic scrolls, twists and leaves.

It is also easy to weld and less susceptible to rust than other ferrous metals. Explains Don Quick of Architectural Iron Company in Milford, PA. "Today what is commonly called wrought iron is actually mild steel bars that are heated, 'hammered,' and bent into shapes (frequently by machines) to mass produce scrolls, twisted bars and the like."

Wrought-iron fencing and railing have European roots, and though iron was available as early as the mid-17th century from small forges like Saugus Iron Work in Saugus, MA, (established 1644, now a National Historic Site), much was also imported. By the 18th century, domestic wrought-iron fencing was more common in cities such as Charleston, SC, which produced acclaimed fences and railings by three German smiths.

At the turn of the 20th century, when steel had eclipsed iron as the dominant architectural metal, wrought iron enjoyed a rebirth in unmatched popularity and creativity. The revival was propelled not only by the rise of the Colonial Revival and Arts & Crafts movements, but also by one of the visionary masters of the ironwork craft: Samuel Yellin.

metal fencing

This fence, constructed of tapered pickets, was forged from aluminum by King Architectural Metals.

Cast Iron Fencing

An iron-carbon alloy known for centuries, cast iron did not take off as building material until the invention of the hot blast furnace in England 1824, and the switch from charcoal to coke and coal as a forge fuel. In contrast to wrought iron, cast iron cannot be hammered, twisted or otherwise fashioned by an artisan; and though good in compression, to have any strength, individual pieces had to be beefy and therefore quite heavy. However, since cast iron products were cast from molds, they could be mass produced rapidly and economically in identical forms and unlimited numbers, making it the marvel material of the Victorian age.

While cast iron could not duplicate the lithe, muscular forms of wrought-iron fencing, it could mimic the surface decorations and general shapes and outlines of objects from houses to statuary to furniture. Moreover, because it could be mass produced, cast iron made possible the order-by-catalogs products of famous foundries, such as the Wood & Perot Iron Foundry of Philadelphia that shipped cast-iron fencing and railings all over the country, bringing affordable fencing to wide ranges of the population, and becoming an iconic part of cities like New Orleans.

wood & perot metal fence

This cast iron fence by the New Orleans branch of Wood and Perot  features a corn-stalk and morning glories motif.

The Hurdle Fence

Iron continued to be the most durable, as well as high-end, fence material throughout the 19th century, but by the early Industrial Revolution, it took a new, more versatile and affordable form still common today: the wire fence. 

One of the earliest wire fence types was the hurdle fence, which originated in England in the 1830s and eventually became commercially popular in North America in the 1840s. Fashioned from heavy wire—1/8 to 3/8 in. in diameter—drawn from wrought iron, the Hurdle fence was a purely functional simple diaper or diamond matrix of diagonal wires either woven or cold-bent around a jig, then set into framed panels seven to 10 ft. long. Panels were then set between decorative cast-iron posts. 

metal fencing

A bronze and steel fence from Wiemann Metalcraft.

Prosaic as it was compared to the more decorative fences to come, the hurdle fence remained popular into the 1880s because it bridged the era of decorative wire fences and a revival of traditional wrought-iron fences later in the century. Iron wire fencing really found its stride in the mid- to late-19th century as a material that was novel and fashionable, yet practical. Landscape critics hailed it for its transparency, while architects and building owners loved its elasticity—and with a strength close to cast- or wrought-iron fences. To have more visual appeal than the hurdle fence, manufacturers crimped the iron wires into decorative, geometrical patterns not unlike those seen in tile work. 

Composite Fences

By the 1850s though, they hit upon the idea of combining wire with wrought and cast iron to produce what was called a composite fence. Here, the decorative weave of a wire fence was enhanced by casting ornaments along the top rail or at strategic places where wires intersected. Composite fences were regularly used to set off featured spaces such as private yards, cemeteries and churchyards, and being relatively light and flexible they were particularly well suited to galleries and balconies—both inside as well as outside buildings—as the historic districts of cities like Savannah and New Orleans still show. 

This fence was fabricated by Mueller Ornamental with all solid bars, cast-iron points and hand-forged scrolls on the gate arch. 

This fence was fabricated by Mueller Ornamental with all solid bars, cast-iron points and hand-forged scrolls on the gate arch. 

Steel Fencing

Steel, which is generally iron with not more than 2% carbon, began to displace wrought and cast iron for fence-making at the end of the 19th century along with advances in mass producing the metal. Steel ushered in a new fence type—the composite fence made of steel and malleable iron—composed of light-gauge wire that was zinc-galvanized for protection, machine woven for rapid production, then shipped in rolls for installation on posts.

Such fencing—the precursors to the chain-link fence so ubiquitous today—were widely marketed by mail-order giants Sears Roebuck and Co. and Montgomery Ward and used on farms and households alike. The popularity of metal fencing, from iron to steel woven-wire, continued apace well into the 20th century until two world wars took their toll.

World War I saw many old cast- and iron-wire fences torn up and melted down in scrap drives—the historic fence surrounding Boston Garden being a famous example. During World War II, all fence production was shifted to strictly utilitarian types, spelling the end of decorative designs for most major manufacturers.


Select Suppliers

Wiemann Metal Craft 
Tulsa, OK

King Architectural Metals
Dallas, TX

Architectural Iron Company
Milford, PA 

Historical Arts & Casting
West Jordan, UT

Robinson Iron
Alexander City, AL

Stewart Iron Works
Covington, KY

Bill's Custom Metal Fabrication
Westbury, NY  

Mueller Ornamental Iron Works 
Elk Grove Village, IL


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