Cast Lead Ornament
and Jonathan Taylor
hopper head refurbished for Ely Cathedral
principal use of lead today is in flashings and roof coverings, and
it is easy to overlook the extraordinary versatility of this dull-grey
material. Not only is lead also used for those small H-section strips
known as cames for fixing the glass quarries
together in stained glass windows and leaded lights, but its impermeability,
low melting point and soft malleable nature makes lead ideal for sculptural
decoration and ornamentation. Cast lead ornament can be found in many
churches and chapels throughout the country, including the decoration
of rainwater pipes and hoppers, finials and even fonts, as well as forming
the decorative cladding for domes and spires from the Middle Ages to
the present day.
Lead has been known to last hundreds of
years even in exposed conditions. This is because the surface of rain-washed
lead carbonates to form a protective layer which prevents deterioration.
When correctly installed, the greatest threat to all forms of leadwork
is not so much weathering as the ease with which the material can be
melted down and reused. It seems likely that many medieval cast lead
fonts, for example, were melted down to make bullets in the 17th century
in particular. Theft remains common, and ignorance of the value of original
medieval craftsmanship has also taken its toll in countless restorations.
The first architectural
use of leadwork in this country was probably by the Romans who recognised
its advantages as a conduit for water in particular, and the first known
use of the material on a church roof was as early as AD650 at Lindisfarne
where it replaced Scottish thatch. The use of lead sheet
in the Norman period is better documented and included weatherings to
protect exposed stonework.
Sand cast lead sheets have been used extensively
as a roof covering since the Norman period, and although most early and
vernacular architecture relied on broad eaves, the use of parapets led
to the introduction of parapet gutters and gargoyles to throw the water
clear. The rainwater pipe was a natural development. One of the first
instances of its use is identified in a letter quoted by Lawrence Weaver
in his book English Leadwork. Accordingly, King Henry III wrote
to the Keeper of the Works at the Tower of London in the year 1241 as
follows: 'We command you to
cause all the leaden gutters of
the great tower through which rainwater should fall from the summit of
the same tower to be carried down to the ground, so that the walls of
the said tower, which has been newly whitewashed, may be no wise injured
by the dropping of rainwater nor be easily weakened'.
Medieval church roofs were sometimes elaborately
ornamented with finials including figures of saints, and spires were
frequently clad in lead, such as the magnificent twisted spire at Chesterfield.
Cast rainwater pipes remained rare as most churches continued to use
gargoyles, but there are examples as at Kettering, Northamptonshire
By the late 15th century lead was growing
more expensive as the more accessible sources of lead ore were being
exhausted and deeper seams had to be found. Then, in 1539, the Dissolution
of the monasteries provided large quantities of recycled lead and gave
fresh impetus to the development of leadwork. Elaborate ornamentation
began to appear more frequently on lead rainwater hoppers and cisterns,
usually incorporating dates and heraldic motifs, particularly on secular
houses. Other artefacts included statues and urns, candelabra and coats
Early leadwork was all sand cast.
Sheets were made by pouring molten metal over a bed of moist sand which
had been smoothed meticulously. The thickness was made as even as possible
by drawing a board or strickle across the surface, supported
at either side by rails set at the height required.
As today, the principal use of these sand
cast lead sheets was in cladding roofs and as weatherings, but they
could also be used in a decorative capacity by dressing the metal to
an ornamental shape, usually over a timber or metal core to ensure that
the object retained its form. Hammering the surface produced a fine
grain structural texture which was less likely to corrode. By soldering
the sheet afterwards, a weather-tight seal could be achieved, making
it ideal for external uses such as the cladding of finials, provided
the fit was sufficiently loose to allow for expansion and contraction.
Surface decoration was applied in a number
of different ways. Raised decoration could be applied by bossing
(beating) the lead sheet into a die or by fixing cast embellishments
to it. The surface of the sheet could also be painted or gilded, and
tin foil was sometimes applied to the heated surface with a resin flux
so that the two metals partially fused to produce a harder shiny surface.
Where lead is to be painted today, the
best results can be achieved using a two-part etching primer. Conventional
paints do not adhere well to the surface of the metal, and as they crack
and flake they trap moisture which causes the underlying lead to corrode.
Decorative leadwork was also produced by
casting the lead in sand moulds which had been impressed with a carved
wooden former. To make the font (illustrated at the top of the page)
for example, it seems likely that only three patterns were used, as
the scroll motif and the two different seated figures are repeated in
an arcaded design around the tub-like form. This font was probably cast
in sections using a flat bed of sand with the decoration pressed into
it. Once cast, the sections were probably reheated and bent into a curved
form before being soldered together.
in progress on a cast lead finial in Terry Fillary's workshop
Permanent chill moulds were
introduced much later, probably following the industrial revolution.
They are called chill moulds because they are made of metal, which causes
the lead to solidify on contact with the cool surface. Today they are
usually made of cast aluminium, but cast iron and a variety of other
metals were commonly used in the past. Moulds are usually in two or
more parts enclosing the entire object, and the parts are disassembled
to release the finished casting. Finishing must be carried out carefully
to avoid creating any toxic dust.
To make a chill mould the component to
be cast is first made in lead in the conventional manner using sand
castings soldered together as necessary. From this original, a foundry
then makes plaster moulds, then a new plaster model and finally the
cast iron mould.
THE DEMISE OF SAND CAST LEAD
Sand cast lead sheets are
still produced in relatively small quantities in the UK for conservation
work. However, at the turn of the century milled or rolled lead sheet
production began to take over from sand casting and rapidly emerged as
the principal method of producing lead sheet. In this method of production,
which dates from the mid 18th century, lead is cast in a slab of about
125 mm thick, weighing two tonnes or more. When cooled, the slab is rolled
out into sheets by passing it through heavy rollers repeatedly, to produce
a progressively thinner sheet. When the required thickness is achieved,
the sheet is slit into widths and cut to length.
Although milled lead is the only material
covered by a British Standard and its thickness is more accurately controlled,
the Lead Development Association considers that there is little difference
in performance between well made sand cast and milled lead sheet. The
principal difference lies in the less regular appearance of sand cast
lead. The minimum thickness of sand cast lead sheets is approximately
code 7 (seven pounds per square foot), while milled lead
sheet is available in codes 3 to 8.
It was the introduction of cast iron which
finally heralded the demise of lead rainwater systems. In the 19th century
cast iron systems generally copied the design of leadwork, but with
modifications. In particular, the much stronger nature of the material
enabled the use of shallow collars and two point fixings. Unfortunately,
in the various stylistic revivals of the Victorian period, new leadwork
tended to copy ironwork details. Evidence of this can also be seen at
the Tower of London where, as you exit The Bloody Tower by the external
staircase, you can see how a rainwater shoe has distorted because the
shallow collar cannot support the lower section. The date on the work
LEAD RAINWATER SYSTEMS
The Tower of London is
an excellent place to study the history of rainwater discharge systems.
They mostly consist of cast iron or lead.
In 1992, 750 years after King Henrys
letter, Terry Fillary and his son Paul were summoned to the Tower by
Martin Caroe, of Caroe & Partners, to discuss the installation of
new cast lead rainwater pipes on the wall walks and on the Wakefield
and Lanthorn Towers. Over the years many of the lead pipes had been
replaced with cast iron pipes, many of which in turn now needed replacement.
It was decided to use lead for the replacements.
The new pipes and collars were made in
the style of the existing pipes on the north elevation of the Bloody
Tower. The 114mm square pipes were formed from code ten sand cast sheet,
two metres in length. The collars and ears were cast in aluminium chill
molds. The fixings for each pipe were two stainless steel ear plates
and four stainless steel coach bolts. Although the collars were required
to be plain and not ornamental, Terry Fillary confesses to having cast
a crown and QEII 1993 on the collars of the last smaller
pipes, which can be seen on the right hand side of the road by the Traitors
In principle, the same materials and details
should always be used on historic buildings as the existing, unless
the restoration of earlier details can be justified. Where lead is concerned,
the temptation is to use less expensive substitutes. However, the life
expectancy of lead is in excess of 200 years, and as the material will
not rust, painting is not necessary. As a result, on high and large
buildings such as churches, the cost savings of using lead can be colossal
in the long run. The use of alternative materials may be justified where
there is an over-riding need to reduce the risk of theft, where the
lead is highly accessible and where, in remote buildings, there is little
chance of theft being spotted.
Because of the weight of lead, rainwater
pipes are best installed using the new small type of rope block and
tackle used on sailing boats: a 3x4 pulley that can pass through the
pipe is required. First get a safe fixing above the outlet from the
roof; attach the lifting tackle and pull the hopper up into place, fixing
with stainless steel coach bolts. Then pass the lifting tackle down
though the hopper head and the first pipe, with the spigot of the hopper
in the pipe socket, down to the ground. Attach the hock to a stout piece
of timber across the lower end of the pipe and pull it up into place.
This lifting method will not damage or scuff the surface appearance
of the pipe. When the second pipe is in place only half the effective
pipe collar should be used, so each pipe is totally independent of the
next one. This is to allow for thermal movement and creep. Each joint
is left open so that if the pipe blocks it will not be too long before
it is detected.
The action of the weather on lead, alternating
between wet and dry, creates a very hard insoluble surface patina. This
hard coating, left undisturbed, will protect the lead from corrosion
and therefore prevent damage to the environment. On new works an application
of patination oil will prevent corrosion initially while the patina
is being established.
In rainwater pipes a good air flow is necessary
to create the wetting and drying process required to provide the conditions
for a protective patina to be formed. Direct connection to the drainage
system should be avoided, as this will cause condensation within the
pipe with resultant leaching of the lead when it rains,
in much the same manner as the underside lead corrosion of lead sheet
To maintain a good airflow, a rainwater
shoe approximately 150mm above the trapped gully should be specified.
This method is preferred for another reason - if the underground drainage
system becomes blocked, water will spill over the gully, thus giving
a visual warning that there is a problem. With direct connection to
the drain however, water would build up within the pipe work, escaping
from the collar joints above, running down the walls, often undetected,
causing much long term damage to the fabric of the building.
At the top of the rainwater system, a hopper
head should be used not a direct connection to the discharge from the
roof, for exactly the same reasons as described for the base of the
Drive or pipe nails
should not be used when fixing rainwater pipes as they damage the fabric
of the building. The rule of conservation should be 'dont
use a hammer when a spanner will do'. Work must be reversible,
and removable without damage.
article is reproduced from The Conservation and Repair of Ecclesiastical Buildings, 1999
FILLARYworks part-time teaching
leadwork at college and sometimes trains interested people in his workshop.
He also lectures on leadwork and is currently writing
a book on the subject.
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