Speaking from personal experience as a welder, steel is a lot easier to work with than iron. If someone manages to break a piece of steel (which isn’t easy), repairing it is a simple matter of properly positioning the pieces and welding them together. In contrast, repairing a cracked or damaged piece of iron means heating the whole piece back up to nearly molten temperatures, then carefully welding it in stages–with pauses to reheat the piece–while sometimes giving it a whack with a hammer and hoping you don’t hear the tell-tale ping of a crack forming somewhere else. Iron is a finicky material.
Still, iron was the first material to let people build truly tall buildings. The Eiffel Tower, for instance, is actually built out of wrought iron. Wrought iron is strong, but also inconsistent and prone to flaws that are impossible to detect until a particular piece fails catastrophically. This is something that happened regularly throughout the nineteenth century, causing factories to collapse on the heads of the workers below and trains to derail or fall into rivers when the bridges they crossed collapsed. Steel, in comparison, is much more consistent, and as soon as people figured out how to make it in large quantities they began using it for everything. In fact, when people say “wrought iron” in reference to fencing, what they are probably referring to is steel fencing that looks like wrought iron. The confusion might also come from the fact that steel is really just iron worked at higher temperatures to ensure an even distribution of carbon.
The Difference Between Iron and Steel
What most people are after when they want a wrought iron fence is a certain appearance, like the distinctive look of wrought iron fencing in front of a Victorian house. To explain this look, you need to know something about ironwork. To start with, there are two main types of iron. Cast iron involves pouring the iron into a mold while it’s molten and allowing it to cool into a distinctive shape. Wrought (worked) iron is iron that has been heated until red hot, then pulled, twisted, or extruded into shape. These two processes used to be used to produce a variety of distinctive features in fences.
- Scrolls, pieces of flat iron wrought into curls at the end, produce the curvilinear forms people often think of when they imagine ironwork.
- Twists involve a square piece of iron twisted between a stationary point and a spinning one. These give vertical pieces some texture.
- Sculptures, like flowers, vines, and fruit, are the result of pouring molten iron into molds.
- Ornaments, like knuckles and baskets, are also cast pieces that can be fitted onto vertical posts and balusters.
Most of these features, which used to be unique to iron, are now available in steel, which is by a large margin the superior material. And visually, the only difference between the two is the texture. Steel is smooth, while iron has a visible grain, whether it is produced by casting, or by pulling. This grain is actually caused by impurities in the iron and is what accounts for its unreliable nature. These impurities cause weak points in the iron that can lead to breakage when it’s put under stress. Steel’s smooth appearance results from the fact that these impurities have been burned out, or, in the case of carbon, evenly distributed throughout the material. When you think of the medieval blacksmith hammering away, what he is doing is distributing the carbon evenly to turn iron into steel.
To give you an idea of how unreliable iron is, Bronze Age civilizations actually knew about iron. Iron is actually the fourth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. It was just that iron was so prone to breaking that Bronze Age civilizations preferred bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, two much less common elements. The ancient Greeks would sail to Britain—literally going to England in a rowboat—to get the tin.
Fencing That Looks Like Wrought Iron–with the Strength of Steel
Today, it’s hard to find cast or wrought iron of any sort for structural purposes like fencing. The majority of what is produced is small or purely decorative ornamentation. In fact, the largest examples of iron you can easily find are large decorative wall panels. To create a pure cast iron fence, you would have to hire a skilled worker to weld pieces together into larger panels. This will be expensive, take a lot of time, and the final product would still likely depend on steel top and bottom rails as well as posts for its strength. Wrought iron stock for rails and balusters is meant for limited use—mainly restoration work—and getting ahold of enough stock for a large residential fence is difficult, and stunningly expensive. The end result of all this effort would be a fence that is notably less durable than one built of cheaper and more widely available steel.
The long and short of all this is that homeowners have two options when they’re choosing fencing that looks like wrought iron: a steel fence with decorative wrought and cast iron elements, or an all-steel fence. Here’s the rundown of these options:
- Steel fencing with cast iron decoration
- Iron decorations will not match with the rest of the steel fence due to the grain of the iron.
- Cast iron is actually quite brittle, and dropping a piece can shatter it.
- Repairing the fence if damaged during installation or after the fact can cost an undue amount since iron is a specialty item.
- All ferrous metals rust, but wrought iron tends to have more problems with rust than steel.
- Cast iron decorations tend to have an older, more solid look than steel.
- It can be easier to find detailed, ornate decorations in cast iron than in steel.
- All-steel fencing
- Not as easy to find complex ornamentation. Steel fencing more often comes in simple, clean shapes and styles.
- Doesn’t have quite as ‘weighty’ a look as iron.
- Any iron decorative element can be made in steel as well.
- Steel ornamentation usually has a smooth texture to match the rest of the fence.
- If someone really desires the cast iron grain there are steel alternatives that come from the foundry with mold marks that imitate the grain of iron.
- An all-steel fence is sturdier overall than the iron equivalent.
- Steel is also cheaper to fabricate and install as it’s abundant and widely available.
Finally, as steel is simply iron with more effort put into evenly distributing the carbon throughout the material, you can actually have a steel fence and call it wrought iron and still be perfectly accurate. It may even help you trip up the pedantic know-it-all in your life.
I’ve looked at many steel fences in my time doing construction and contracting, but Fortress Fence’s Versai fencing is some of the most impressively thought out wrought iron-look fencing that I have seen. Fortress’ steel panel fences are assembled and coated with hot-dipped galvanization after welding. They also use a unique e-coat that thoroughly fills in the irregularities in the weld, and this is topped by a powder coating for maximum protection. Fortress also offers decorative additions, such as finials and knuckles, as well as the option to create a customized ornamental fence gate. This is fencing that looks like wrought iron, but will last far longer. It can be matched with Fortress’ other products, such as their powder-coated steel railings, to give your home a classic look with the enduring strength of steel.