How to Identify Cast Iron Furniture

A Brief History of Cast Iron Garden Furniture

cast iron garden furniture
Cast iron dining set in garden. Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Metal is metal, right? Not so fast. In the context of garden furniture, cast iron is hard, brittle, and is more fusible than steel. While metal furniture also includes aluminum, steel, copper, and wrought iron, how can you identify if its made of cast iron?

What is Cast Iron Made of?

Cast iron is one of the oldest ferrous metals used in construction and outdoor ornamentation. Its composition is primarily iron (Fe), carbon (C) and silicon (Si), but it may also contain traces of sulphur (S), manganese (Mn) and phosphorus (P).

It has a fairly high carbon content of 2 to 5 percent. Unlike wrought iron, for instance, cast iron is strong, heavy, nonmalleable (it can't be wrought or worked, bent, stretched or hammered into shape), and is more fusible. While cast iron can fracture with extreme force, it performs well under compression. Its composition and manufacturing method are vital in determining its characteristics.

Grey, or common, cast iron is the most traditional form, and it is easy to cast but can't be forged or worked (wrought) mechanically in either a hot or cold form. Grey cast iron's carbon content is in the form of flakes distributed throughout the metal, while white cast iron the carbon content is combined chemically as carbide of iron. White cast iron has superior tensile strength and malleability (it's easier to manipulate).

Historically, cast iron has been made by heating iron ore in a blast furnace along with coke and limestone.

This process deoxidizes the ore and drives out any impurities, producing molten iron. It is then poured into molds of a desired shape (like garden furniture) and allowed to cool and crystallize. The most common traditional form is grey cast iron. Common or grey cast iron is easily cast but it cannot be forged or worked mechanically either hot or cold.

In grey cast iron the carbon content is in the form of flakes distributed throughout the metal. In white cast iron the carbon content is combined chemically as carbide of iron.

White cast iron has superior tensile strength and malleability. It is also known as malleable or spheroidal graphite iron. Cast iron is still manufactured by much the same process as it was produced historically. Iron ore is heated in a blast furnace with coke and limestone. This process deoxidizes the ore, producing molten iron. The molten iron is poured into molds of the desired shape and allowed to cool and crystallize. If manufactured right, cast iron develops a protective film or scale on its surface, which makes it more resistant to corrosion than wrought iron or mild steel. Finishes, coating or factory preservative treatments are applied to prevent the cast iron products from rusting (oxidizing) when exposed to humidity. These might include bituminous coating, wax, paint, galvanizing and plating.

Outdoor Uses for Cast Iron

Because it is relatively inexpensive, durable and can be cast easily into various shapes, cast iron is still used for a wide range of structural and decorative purposes. These include:

  • Garden furniture: At The White House, many of the white Rococo pieces of outdoor furniture, like benches or small dining sets, are made of cast iron, which fits with the famous house's architecture.
  • Historic markers and plaques
  • Columns, posts and balusters
  • Fences and gates
  • Hardware like hinges and latches
  • Decorative features

How to Identify Cast Iron

A passion for gardens during the Victorian era created a demand for cast iron outdoor furniture and lawn ornaments during the mid-to-late 1800s. At the time, cast iron was less expensive to make and favored over the more costly wrought iron garden furniture popular in the early-to-mid 1800s. Steel, which was more lightweight and stronger, became more popular by the turn of the 20th century.

Cast iron can be identified by the following:

  • Marks or stamps from manufacturers. This will help you trace its history.
  • Weight: if its heavy, it might be cast iron. Don't stop there, however.
  • Ornamentation: Cast iron was/is often adorned with classic motifs like flowers, fruit, and grapevines.
  • Molded or shaped: Furniture was made from carved molds and forged into curves and ornate patterns. 

References: U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) gsa.gov

Dictionary of Furniture by Charles Boyce (Owl Books; Henry Holt and Company; 1985)