Things aren’t as bad as they used to be, but it does still feel like the television is overrun with programmes about antiques, furniture and upcycling. One programme that we discussed recently is about restoration – taking items from old houses, breaker’s yards or barns and putting them back ‘as new’ with the appropriate materials and techniques.
This set us thinking about how you can tell the probable age and history of an item due to its metal and materials. If you use the phrase ‘chrome plated’, then most people jump directly to the 1950s, bringing up images of bright, shiny bumpers on Cadillacs and the handles of big refrigerators. Chrome’s popularity exploded in the 50s, but this method of electroplating protection was actually introduced to the west in the 1920s, but took until the post-war era to catch on.
It’s become fashionable to refinish and restore parts of our industrial heritage and reuse them for modern purposes, whether it’s as home décor, garden art or as focal points for cafés, restaurants and beer houses. This can be very difficult as a lot of old machinery from the early part of the industrial revolution was made from cast iron – literally iron poured into a giant mould. Cast iron could be very brittle at the time and was susceptible to rust, meaning that pieces rarely survive intact. This is further exacerbated by the fact that cast iron is very difficult to repair as it doesn’t react well to the heat involved in welding repairs.
Later items are identifiable because cast iron was replaced by steel, which is much stronger. A little knowledge of steel history will let you date certain pieces, e.g. stainless steel items can’t be prior to 1910, as it was around then that Harry Brearley discovered his martensitic steel. For lots of other grades, there are limits to how early the piece can be as their development occurred at specific points in history.
If you couple your knowledge about popular materials with design trends, it can be a very effective way of not only identifying the age of a piece, but give you information about how to go about restoring it sympathetically and making it look ‘shop fresh’. Although some designs fall out of fashion before having a big resurgence, looking at how it was made and with which materials will tell you whether it’s original or revival – proof once again that a little metallurgy knowledge can be very valuable!