There is something pleasingly reassuring about the sight of a run of simple, well-proportioned iron railings surrounding a park or paddock, or a garden with gates, pergolas and other metal structures that are robust enough to fulfil a function, yet elegant and unfussily designed. Often they have stood for several centuries, and, with careful maintenance, will last for several more. But is anybody continuing to produce this sort of thing today?
The answer is yes: Stonebank Ironcraft has been making estate and garden iron-work in Gloucestershire for more than 30 years, and currently employs five crafts-men in its workshops just off the Fosse Way. The company manufactures traditional fencing, gates, stiles, tree guards, pergolas and arbors to a number of standard designs, as well as making a wide range of structures, including fruit cages, all kinds of kitchen garden metalwork, and more idiosyncratic, oversized pieces to individual specifications.
The advantage of using metal rather than wood is that a greater delicacy of form can be achieved without compromising strength. Paul Leach, the company’s senior ironworker, gained his welding experience working in the motor trade, but switched to his present job because he found it ‘more interesting being able to create attractive things’.
He explains the manufacturing process, which takes advantage of the availability of modern steel, but uses traditional techniques. ‘We make a jig out of large plates of steel, onto which has been welded a strip of flat metal in the shape required.
The jig is the form or support around which steel bars are then shaped and welded together to form the structure a pergola arch, for instance. There is nothing mechanical about the process the steel is bent and pulled round the jig by hand the only time we use a forge is for delicate parts such as the details of a gate or stile that can’t be shaped by hand. For a pergola, we use 20mm or 25mm round bars of solid steel, rather than the more widely used steel tubing; this makes for a stronger construction.’
Once Mr Leach has made the arches, he welds on brackets for supporting the connecting bars, and eyelets, through which the wires that support the plants will thread. A typical pergola comprises a series of hoops with a row of top and two rows of side connecting bars. It can be any length, and can have side hoops added to create offshooting arches and walkways.
Stonebank’s fencing is unusual in being built from continuous lengths of steel welded together on site, rather than from pre-fabricated panels or sections which are then clipped together. This makes for a much more graceful flow of railings as they follow contours and curves. The company also makes a range of tree guards, built in two sections so that they are not too difficult to transport and install. Repair and replacement work is also undertaken. Railings that have become badly pitted are renewed by being dipped into acid, galvanised and repainted, the badly decayed sections being cut out and remade.
All these structures can be finished in a variety of ways. It is fashionable at present to leave metal bare, so that it weathers naturally and gains a surface rust. Or it can be painted with an oxide undercoat and two topcoats of paint for protection and colour, or, for maximum protection, hot-dip galvanised, after which the metal may be painted, or left to weather to a dull grey.
Stonebank Ironcraft: 01285 720737; www.stonebank-ironcraft.co.uk