I would definitely say a beautiful cast iron fireplace in a Victorian property would be the first thing I would start on when restoring a Victorian property to it’s former glory, it is a major feature and focal point which instantly adds character and value to a property. I would advise anyone wanting to restore a working fireplace (rather than just cosmetic) where one had previously been ripped out to have their chimney swept and if needed, a new flue installed. Before doing this it may be worth enquiring for a quote as flue is charged by the meter, plus labour. It could get expensive before you even start on the actual fireplace.
Once you start knocking a hole in the fireplace wall through to where the original fireplace was you should find the brick edges of the original and it is best to work to this for the correct dimensions and to save yourself work. Cast iron fireplaces are extremely heavy, they need to be fitted properly with bolts. You must have a fireproof area in front of your fireplace. This is the constructional rather than the decorative hearth.
Check the floor is level in front of the fireplace, in many older houses this may not be the case. Fitting a fireplace level and plumb on a chimney breast that is not looks dreadful. Now on to the fun bit, looking for the perfect fireplace… I would definitely start looking at reclamation yards in your area, take your measurements with you. Cast iron fireplaces will vary dramatically in size and condition and thus price. You will probably find some are original and some will be reproductions. Most repro mantelpieces will be good quality and work as part of your vintage look, although some have been known to bend or twist, crack or even melt. I would always prefer to buy an original for it quality and history plus reuse is more environmentally friendly.
How do you know whether it’s repro or original? There are a few ways to tell:
Check the back of the fireplace, if the screws are new that’s a tell tale sign that the fireplace is new or some of it may have been replaced.
Check the detail: On an original the detail should be crisp and clear. Repro’s are made from moulds and some detail can be lost.
Can you see a name or brand on the back? On an original cast iron fireplace the name will be indented, on reproductions it will stand out.
SALVO.co.uk is a great place to start looking for your reclaimed items from the comfort of your own home and to start researching reclamation yards in your area. I would also have a peek on Ebay as you can get some fantastic deals.
To remove old dirt from a cast iron fireplace use methylated spirits, not water as it will encourage more rust to form. You can also remove old paint with paint stripper, always follow the manufacturers instructions. You can buy high temperature stove paint if a good clean hasn’t brought the fireplace up as well as you had hoped.
Original Victorian tiles
These can be hard to come by in the exact colour/design and quantity you require. If you are on a budget you may find putting together a patchwork design of original tiles would work well for you. Buying a whole set of matching tiles will be expensive as sets are rarer and thus worth more. Also matching the tiles you have could be difficult, although if you are ready to put in some time and effort you might be lucky. I would take a photo of the tiles I am trying to match and email reclamation yards with it. Keep an eye out for Delft or hand painted Victorian tiles. Personally I would always try to find original features and tiles rather than buying repo, although if you really get stuck you have repro to fall back on. And don’t forget original fireplace accessories which all add to the character of your fireplace; brushes, fenders, metal coal baskets, bellows, tongs, shovels etc and you can even find Victorian fire guards which are a must if you have young children.
My favourite reclamation yard is MASCO, Minchinghampton Architectural Salvage Company in the Cotswolds, it is run by a reclamation expert and good friend of mine, Steve Tomlin. His yard is beautiful and can take almost a day to get around. Steve has people coming from all over the world to visit his architectural salvage yard, he has even sold a band stand to the Sultan of Brunai! Steve is the Chairman of RITA (Reclamation industry Trade Association) and you can read more about that here: http://mascosalvage.wordpress.com/category/rita/ Obviously MASCO is a bit far for me to go unless I’m on a project in the area, nearer to home is http://www.dortonreclaim.com/ in Burgess Hill which I visit regulary. SALVO.co.uk is an excellent way to find out about reclamation and architectural salvage yards in your area and you can also buy from the listings on the website.
I have used these in my interior designs before, in fact I used one in The New Reclaimers series Glasgow episode. These are chunky and extremely heavy cast iron radiators, most have been reclaimed out of schools and churches as central heating didn’t become widespread until well into the twentieth century . You can often pick these up at very reasonable prices at reclamation yards, you can buy them unrestored and do any repairs yourself or buy one which has already been pressure tested and fully restored. You will find the cost difference is significant, although how much is it going to cost to restore your cheaper untested radiator yourself? The problem is, you don’t know the answer to that until you’ve done it! It can be almost impossible to tell what work needs to be done just by looking at the radiator. It may have hairline cracks that are virtually invisible to the naked eye… until they leak!
I would recommend buying a pressure tested radiator and having the old paint sandblasted off, as layer upon layer of old paint can effect the heat radiation. It will then need repainting, which you could do yourself if you want to feel you have done your bit but always listen to the experts advice. Get a qualified plumber to fit your rad and mention you are fitting a cast iron rad when you enquire for a quote to make sure they will bring the right equipment and not waste time and more importantly your money when they arrive to fit it.
Where else can you reclaim?
Being a habitual reclaimer I never stop looking for items to reclaim, up-cycle, reuse and save from landfill. I look in charity shops, boot sales, markets, reuse centres (check out http://www.frn.org.uk/) building sites (always ask permission) neighbours and friends and family, when people know you love old things it is surprising the amount of furniture and homewares you will be offered! I have even been known to do a bit of skip diving (again, always ask permission first) which is where I found two gorgeous antique pub chairs which now reside in my bedroom and my massive bathroom mirror! The answer to this question is everywhere, keep your eyes peeled at all times and use your imagination!
Good luck with your reclaiming, leave a comment to let me know how your own projects are going and ask any questions you have!