Lawn and Garden Cast IronBy

Lawn and Garden
Cast Iron

Reproductions of cast iron outdoor furniture and lawn ornaments have been appearing in large numbers since the mid 1990s. Many pieces not widely reproduced up until that time–such as fountains, birdbaths, chairs, benches, urns, planters and fountains–began to be copied from vintage originals. Wholesale prices for new items ranged from $30 to $475.

Background on originals

Cast iron outdoor furniture and lawn ornaments were at their height of popularity between 1850-1890. During this time iron workers developed the skills necessary to make decorative cast iron and Victorian interest in lawns and gardens created a public demand. Molded cast iron was relatively cheap and replaced the more expensive hand-made wrought iron used largely from the early 1800s to the mid-1840s. By the 1890s cast iron was in turn replaced by steel which was lighter, stronger and less brittle.

A few one-of-a-kind type cast iron pieces were individually designed and made for wealthy customers, but the majority of pieces were mass produced in molds and sold to the general public. Victorian manufacturers overcame the weight problems posed by cast iron by simply dividing a large design into a number of smaller castings. The small castings were individually boxed, shipped and then assembled into the final form on the grounds of the buyer.

Original cast iron urns up to five or six feet in height, for example, were typically created from 4 to 5 castings all generally under 12 inches tall and weighing no more than 50 to 100 pounds. Original garden benches were made from as many as eight to ten pieces usually in the 5 to 50 pound range. Certainly not lightweight, but these sizes and weights could be handled by a Victorian home owner and a helper fairly easily. Although these pieces look massive and imposing when assembled, most are easily taken apart and moved.

Some of the companies that made Victorian-era cast iron furniture and ornaments include: J.W. Fiske, New York City; Janes, Kirtland & Co. Manhattan, NY; Westervelt, New York City; Lorio Iron Work, New Orleans; F.P. Smith, Chicago; Kramer Bros. Dayton, OH; and Robert Wood & Co., Philadelphia.

Comparing old and new

The new furniture and ornaments suffer from the same general problems found in the majority of reproduced cast iron whether it's toys or doorstops. These typical problems are: 1) rough, pitted surfaces; 2) poorly fitting joints and seams, 3). grinding marks; 4) major differences in construction and 5) the reproduction is not as practical as the original.

Problems 1 through 3–rough surface, loose fit and grinding marks–are about the same on lawn and garden pieces as other new pieces of cast iron (Figs. 4-8). Since these problems have already been covered in depth in other articles about cast iron we will devote the remainder of our discussion to construction techniques and problems unique to garden and lawn pieces.

Benches, Chairs & Tables

All typical old cast iron furniture was constructed of a number of parts. Holes were usually cast, and sometimes drilled, completely through the pieces that required joining. Almost all joints were fastened with nuts and bolts. There were two basic types of bolts used, a flat head bolt and a round head bolt.

Flat head bolts were used on horizontal surfaces such as bench and chair seats and table tops which needed a smooth surface. The bevelled flat head bolt fits into a matching bevelled hole in the furniture which makes the bolt head flush with the surface (Fig. 10 and Fig. 13). If you find a piece that you believe is old but has another type of bolt or fastener, inspect the holes. Original flat top bolts could have been replaced over the years but the bevelled hole should still remain in seats and tabletops.

The other fastener you could reasonably expect to find in an old piece is a round head bolt. These bolts were generally used only in a deep recess of the three dimensional cast design where they would not catch on clothing or pinch the body (see Fig. 13-D). They are usually found in backs, armrests, side panels and structural supports in low areas between leaves, branches, flowers, fruit, etc. With rare exceptions, all original bolts and nuts on American cast iron are based on English inches such as 1/2", 5/16", etc.

The new reproductions are made quite differently. Rather than make a hole in both pieces to be joined, the new pieces only have a hole in one of the mating pieces. This hole then fits over a threaded stud permanently embedded in the frame or an inside threaded pocket in the frame (Fig. 12 A & B). Pieces over studs are fastened with nuts; pieces over the threaded pockets are fastened with bolts. Both of these methods leave the side opposite the joint not only flush but perfectly smooth without any holes at all.

Both of these methods--the stud and internal pocket--are easy to detect because only one of the pieces being joined has a hole. In other words, if you looked on the opposite side of any new joint, the surface would be perfectly smooth. The hole or bolt would not be visible. This is unlike old furniture which has clear open holes in both pieces being joined together. For every original bolt head or nut you see on one side, there will be a matching nut or bolt head on the opposite side.

Another difference is that the threading on the new pieces is based on the metric system, not English inches. The new hex head bolts, for example, have 14mm heads; the hex nuts are 10mm wide. Since the threaded studs are embedded in the frame and the internal threads are also part of the frame, it will be very difficult to switch the new metric fasteners with the correct English nuts and bolts.

Does it really matter how old and new pieces are held together? Yes, it certainly does; it's an important matter of function and practicality. Original pieces were made to be used as outdoor furniture and were designed accordingly. Exposed to the weather, the nuts and bolts which hold the furniture together could become rusty and break. What then? Just replace it with a new nut and bolt which cost pennies and the piece of furniture is repaired.

A piece designed as a reproduction, however, is seldom as practical and functional as the original it copies. If the nuts or studs rusted together in these new pieces and broke, how could they be repaired? The studs and internal threads would have to somehow be drilled out and new studs installed or new threads cut in. Both very difficult and lengthy operations compared to replacing a simple nut and bolt on an original.

We were unable to find any references, examples or personal observations of American-made cast iron garden furniture with these studs and threaded pockets. A fast inspection of the bolts and holes may be a quick way to eliminate the benches, chairs and tables in this new group of reproductions. Keep in mind, however, that earlier reproductions may use a removable bolt like the originals--don't ever use just one test for judging age or authenticity.

Urns & Vases

Virtually every original Victorian period urn or lawn vase was assembled from two or more separate castings. The original urn in Fig. 14 is 27 inches high overall and is made from four sections. The original shown in Fig. 17 is 17 inches tall and formed with three separate castings. Each casting fits snugly into adjoining castings by the use of interlocking rims and projections. Although nuts and bolts were sometimes used to fasten urn handles, they were very rarely used to connect the separate castings. Nuts and bolts were not practical because they rusted quickly in the soil and water inside the planter. Victorian designers relied on gravity alone to hold all the separate castings together.

Another distinguishing feature on most original urns is an overflow opening. An overflow opening was necessary to drain water out of the planter; if there were no opening, the urn could fill with water and wash out the soil and plants. The overflow opening is usually in the ring casting just below the main casting. This ring casting generally has a solid bottom which also makes it act as a reservoir for the storage of water if needed. Other holes that may also appear in this ring are generally for accessories such as optional handles (Fig. 18).

The large new urn in Fig. 19 is typical of most reproduction urns. Unlike originals, the new urns are generally made up of only one or two castings. This particular urn contains two castings shown separated in Fig. 20. The large top casting is extremely difficult to handle because of its size and weight.

Unlike originals, this reproduction urn is held together with nuts and bolts which connect top and base (Fig. 21). Nor is there an overflow opening for excess water; the only drainage is a 1/2" dia. hole in the bottom. Another clue to its recent manufacture are the threaded studs embedded in the handles which fastened to the side of the urn with a nut on the inside.

Like most reproductions, this urn doesn't make practical sense. If it contained soil, how would you hope to move it? The nuts and bolts are buried under the soil and can't be loosened. You'd have to lift the entire piece as one unit. Not a pleasant thought. And without an adequate drain for excess water, you'd probably end up with a bird bath after the first heavy rain.

General Guidelines

All castings should have sharp, clear detail with relatively smooth surfaces. Casting flaws such as finning, pits and bumps are signs of new work. Old pieces should show evidence of normal aging and wear.

Be suspicious of any bench, chair or table that is not fastened with removable English measure nuts and bolts. Seats and tabletops should have flat head bolts in bevelled holes for a flush surface.

Be suspicious of large urns or vases not cast in three or more separate removable pieces. Original urns were held in place by gravity, not nuts and bolts. Urns 12" and more in diameter should have adequate drainage.

And don't overlook the obvious-- carry a magnet to make sure you're looking at cast iron and not cast aluminum.

Thanks to Big Grove Antiques of Fremont, Iowa for making all the original urns in this article available for photographing.


Fig. 1


Fig. 1-A

Figs. 1-1A This new cast iron bird bath and bench are only two of the many cast iron lawn and garden reproductions in the market. Many vintage shapes are beng reproduced including chairs, tables, planters, urns and fountains.


Fig. 2


Fig. 3

Figs. 2-3 The above illustrations are taken from a Janes, Kirtland & Co. catalog of 1870. The illustration in Fig. 3 shows cast iron urns from 12 inches to 60 inches. Large vintage items, such as large urns and the benches shown in Fig. 2, were shipped in pieces and assembled by the buyer. The lighter smaller pieces could be handled more easily than if the item were shipped as a large single unit.


Fig. 4 Example of "finning" on new cast iron. If two mold halves are not fit together properly, molten iron runs out and produces "finning" shown about actual size in Fig. 4. Finning is rare in vintage cast iron but common in new reproductions. Also note the rough grainy surface that shows through the paint in all the new examples.


Fig. 5 Marks of modern grinders on new cast iron. Deep parallel lines left by modern grinding tools on the edge of a new bird bath are shown about actual size.


Fig. 6 Wide gaps in seams typical of new cast iron. The base of the new bird bath above fits together so poorly a wooden pencil can be passed through the gap in the joint. Loose poorly fitting joints like these are typical of the new reproductions.


Fig. 7 Tight fitting seam of old cast iron furniture. This is an example of a typical close fitting joint in old cast iron. It is the leg of a stool shown about life size. Compare this joint to the typical new joint in Fig. 6.


Fig. 8 Close up of pattern detail in a new piece. A good way to catch casting flaws (which indicate a reproduction) is to compare details in repeated patterns. Note the rectangular openings in the semi-circle in Fig. 8. There is some finning. The rectangles are only partially open. Original castings are crisp and clean with nearly perfect repeats.


Fig. 9 New threaded stud


Fig. 10 Original flat head bolt


Fig. 11 Old bolt painted in

Figs. 9-11 Many new pieces are held together by a nut on a threaded studs (Fig. 9) embedded in the furniture frame. Old pieces generally had flat headed bolts (Fig. 10) in bevelled holes for a flush surface. Paint chips in old pieces generally show two or more colors (Fig. 11).


Fig. 12 (New)

The new cast iron furniture has threaded studs rising from the frame or internal threading in a partial hole in the frame. All the threads on the new cast iron we examined were metric. Nuts and bolts used in vintage American cast iron are not metric.


Fig. 13 (Old)

Old cast iron furniture was assembled with nuts and bolts which were independent of the frame. Horizontal seats and table tops should have a bevelled hole to accept flat head bolts. Round head bolts could be hidden in the raised designs of vertical surfaces.


Fig. 14 Original Urn


Fig. 15


Fig. 16 Typical separation of original urns

Figs. 14-16 Typical original Victorian cast iron urns are made in several or more pieces to simplify shipping and handling. The original in Fig. 14, for example, is only 27 inches tall but weighs a total of almost 200 pounds. A similar sized original urn is shown separated into its separate parts in Fig. 15. The pieces are arranged in order with the top piece on the left. The illustration in Fig. 16 shows the way most original urns are assembled.


Fig. 17 Most old American urns have square or rectangular bases. Very few have rounded or oval bases.


Fig. 18 Original urns almost always have drain holes (top left) and overflow holes (bottom right). The smaller holes (far left, far right) are for attaching accessories such as handles.


Fig. 19 Large reproduction urn 17" high, 32" dia. The same design is also available in a smaller size, 7 1/2" high.


Fig. 20 Reproduction urn above made from only 2 castings bolted together rather than 3-4 sections like an original.


Fig. 21 Hex head bolts looking inside new urn from Fig. 19. Half-inch drainage hole appears in center.


Fig. 22 Planter, 25" wide, 9" tall, 8" deep. Fastened with nuts and bolts like old pieces but extremely coarse surface, extensive finning and wide joints. These problems are shown close up in Fig. 8.


Fig. 23 36" high, 33" wide. Reproduction bird bath/planter with long necked water birds around base. Similar to a design made by the Victorian firm of J.W. Fiske. The rounded base is incorrect. Large gaps in seams.


Fig. 24 38" high reproduction garden chair. Portrait medallion in center of back; bearded man's head lower back; clusters of grapes at sides. Legs are fastened with threaded studs embedded in the frame.


Fig. 25 34" tall reproduction chair. Legs fastened with threaded studs embedded in frame.


Fig. 26 A new top from a 25" diameter table.


Fig. 27 Complete reproduction table top and base shown from Fig 26. Table top is bolted to base with internally threaded pockets in the frame.


Fig. 28 Foundry marks are nice to have on original furniture and urns but are not necessarily a guarantee of either age or quality. The mark shown here is on the original urn in Fig. 14. Foundry marks are estimated to appear on 30-40% of original urns; about 10-25% of original furniture.