Metalwork - Iron and Steel

Iron can be divided into two types: with little carbon content it becomes malleable and is steel or wrought-iron, and with more than the minimum of carbon remaining in its composition it is cast-iron and inclined to be brittle. Probably the greatest use of the metal in the past was in the making of armour and arms. Armour was used both for protection in battle and in jousting, and for ceremonial purposes. In the first instances it was designed not only to resist blows from lances and cudgels but to deflect them and upset the opponent's balance. Ceremonial equipment on the other hand, displayed the art of the armourer to the best advantage and exhibited his prowess at ornamenting a suit in the most striking manner. Fine armour of either type is now extremely rare outside museums, and even if it was available very few collectors have space in which to display it adequately. Embellishment takes the form of engraving, gilding, raised patterns, and damascening: inlay in gold and silver.

Swords and other hand weapons were often highly decorated; early ones of fine quality are rare, but seventeenth- and eighteenth-century examples can be found. Firearms have received a great amount of study in the last few years, and the value of a good pistol has risen enormously. The subject is a very wide one and cannot be dealt with briefly. Mechanisms for firing the charge of gunpowder and ejecting the missile can be divided into recognizable types that make dating possible, but only within wide limits. From the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries the powder was ignited by means of a wheel-lock, a hardened toothed wheel which attempted to strike sparks from a piece of flint-comparable to a cigarette-lighter. Its successor, introduced early in the seventeenth century, was the flint-lock, in which a piece of flint gripped in steel jaws was sprung down on to the powder and ignited it as it struck the steel powder-pan.

This method endured until early in the nineteenth century, when a small cap, containing chemicals that detonated on being hit, known as a percussion cap, was invented. The cap was placed near the powder, and when the trigger was pressed the hammer fell and the gunpowder was exploded by the cap. With the settlement of America there was a big demand for reliable firearms that could be made cheaply and in quantity. While all guns and pistols had been loaded from the muzzle, a practical breech-loader was invented in America in 1810. An important part in the development of firearms during the nineteenth century was played by Samuel Colt, born at Hartford. Connecticut, in 1814. He invented, manufactured and continually improved an automatic revolver, and his name remains linked inseparably with such weapons throughout the world. The Italians and Germans were foremost in the making and decoration of armour, and allied crafts were the making of ornamented caskets and strong-boxes with locks and keys in elaborate designs. While Continental guns were generally preeminent, with the development of the pistol English firearms were often as good as any others made in the eighteenth century.

Japanese armour is not greatly appreciated outside its native land, but swords and daggers are collected widely. The Japanese metalworkers were amazingly skilful in tempering and watermarking blades during manufacture, and their artistry was matched by that of the men making handles and mounts. Many of the mounts (known as Tsuba) are of iron inlaid with gold and silver in designs illustrating religious and other stories little known in Europe. The handle (Kodzuka) of the short dagger is also frequently the subject of similar decoration.

The most popular use of cast-iron was for the fireplace, where its hard-wearing qualities gave admirable service: as andirons, on which logs were supported: as firebacks to prevent the heat from damaging the building and to reflect it into the room; and in the form of grates to burn the coal which replaced wood. Much of this equipment for English homes from the fourteenth century onwards was made in Sussex, where ironworks prospered for as long as the forests of the county yielded wood for their furnaces. In recent years attention has been given to nineteenth-century garden furniture made of iron, and for this purpose it seems admirably suited. The use of iron for furniture had several advocates in the 1830's, and many designs were published for chairs and tables in which it was used for the supports. The iron bedstead was introduced also at about that date, but did not become widely popular until twenty years later. In the words of a Victorian designer: 'where carved work, or much ornament, is to be executed in furniture, cast iron will always be found cheaper than wood. In spite of this, the public was not convinced of its merits and little iron indoor furniture survives. In Germany, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, a method was found of casting very delicate tracery in iron, and jewellery was made from the metal. Surprisingly close imitations of bronzes were made there also from iron.

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