Theme railings can equal higher earnings

August 8, 2006
By: Dona Z. Meilach

With careful planning and proper estimating, fabricating commissioned metal gates and railings can be a lucrative endeavor. This article describes the process for designing, pricing, and creating these unique and often intricate structures based on client preferences. It includes examples of beautiful pieces constructed from copper, flat steel, and iron.

Metal fabricators are called upon to do many odd jobs, and most are within their range of skills. But when someone requests a gate or a railing with a specific theme, will your shop be up to the challenge? A themed gate may call for artistry beyond the usual uprights and scrolls. The projects described here are examples of one-of-a-kind jobs that are out of the ordinary. They require artistry and techniques that may be new to your shop. They also require costs and profits that can be significantly more than bread-and-butter jobs. But the trick, say the artists involved, is to plan your work carefully based on time and materials and to be careful not to underbid.

Figure 1
Stephen E. Lee's dimensional gate of copper horses shaped with repouss´┐Ż.
The forge welded roll work is iron. Photo by Kate Hoover.

A theme gate or railing requires grasping the client's wishes and making drawings that they sign off on. Often clients don't really know what they want or what is possible, so the sketching and drawing stage is crucial. It pays to have drawings, ideas, and pictures available to inspire a client's thinking. Often pictures will propel what would have been an ordinary job into one that is extraordinary.

The following are examples of "themed" projects in which the metalworkers had to call all their artistic talents into play, earning the title, artist-blacksmith.

Stephen E. Lee's Dimensional Horse Gates

Stephen E. Lee, of Walking Hat Forge in Bingham, N.M., was asked to design and build a gate with horses for "a woman who lives, breathes, and probably dreams of horses," said Lee. "She wanted something special for the entry to her home that reflected this passion."

Lee worked a long time carefully trying to capture her ideas that would integrate forged scrollwork with the horse motif. Originally, she said she wanted a design that also included her last initial, K, and hearts.

"We thought our first design was fabulous at integrating the two ideas: a series of scrolls that formed K's, and when placed back-to-back, they formed hearts, but this design wasn't quite what the client wanted, so it was back to the drawing board. After several iterations we presented an acceptable design," Lee said.

Each horse is 4 feet high, cut out of copper on both sides, and detailed with repouss´┐Ż. Lee used bronze rod to rivet the two sides together over a 1/8-in. steel silhouette to add structural integrity and to facilitate attachment to the gate frame. All the bars are tenoned and attached through mortises cut in the frame. The scroll crown is assembled with collars and bolted to the frame. The fun part of this project was that it required old-world forge welding for the scrollwork and modern techniques for creating the horses.

The gate is 20 ft. long and a little over 10 ft. at the crown's height. When it was delivered to Indio, Calif., standing up on a flat bed trailer, it caught quite a bit of attention as it traveled along the road.

Lee said, "A project like this doesn't happen overnight. Original client contact through the drawing and acceptance stage comprises the first part of the job, and your time to make and remake drawings must be figured into the original estimate. Next the materials and fabrication time must be carefully figured, including the engineering and mechanics if the gate is to open and close automatically. Finally, shipping and installation must be added into the final budgeting."

Richard Prazen's Flat Steel Horse Gates

Richard Prazen, president of Decoration Creations, West Valley, Utah, also was asked to create a gate with a horse theme to cover the entrance and exit for a circular driveway. The client, who raises champion paint horses, wanted the gate to make a statement that they were horse people. Said Prazen, "After the drawing and acceptance stage, we started by building a heavy gate frame structure from heavy-wall tubing. One gate was built for the entrance and one for the exit. The drawing was scaled up to size and projected with an opaque projector directly onto the 3/16 inch metal sheets and then hand-cut with a plasma torch.

Figure 2
One-half of a double gate with horses in a meadow
plasma-cut from flat steel. Photo by Richard Prazen.

"The design of the horses in the orchard created a sort of trusslike component and added to the strength. We then ground everything clean and primed and powder-coated the surface so it would remain weather-resistant. We mounted it on heavy hinges and added an electric gate opener for ease. The gates were a good contrast and accent to the rock wall that accompanied the gates. These gates took about 220 man-hours and six weeks to complete. Each gate is 5 ft. high, 13 ft. wide, 3/16-in. all steel plate."

Prazen cautioned that a project like this involves some trial and error, particularly on the first one you do. Invariably you underprice it, and that's part of the learning curve. But if you normally price your work at $600 a foot, these projects have to go to about $900 a foot. As you work, you try to figure out the history of where the profitability was and where it should have been. One other problem is finding and keeping people with the talent and skills to do artistic work.

John Boyd Smith's Low Country Railing

John Boyd Smith is used to creating themed commissions encompassing an amazing variety of plants, birds, fish, and animals. His Metal Studios in Savannah, Ga., fashioned this incredible "Low Country" railing for a private home in Georgia that features many examples of the coastal region's flora and fauna. Among them are herons, fish, frogs, sea turtles, palmettos, marsh grass, mangrove vines, cattails, sea oats, dragon flies, and sandpipers. The client's theme for this ocean-front residence was the marine life and nature of the region.

Figure 3
John Boyd Smith's Low Country railing for a private home in Georgia. Shown is one panel of the 360-degree staircase up to the landing. Photo by Rhonda Neil Fleming
Figure 4
John Boyd Smith's Low Country railing with a heron and local plant forms are on the landing railing and illustrate Smith's photorealistic approach to creating art in iron. Photo by Rhonda Neil Fleming.

Smith said, "I designed the grand stair railing with [the costal region's flora and fauna] in mind. The railing is forged from mild steel, and a bronze faux finish applied. All the forged elements are completely three-dimensional and almost 'photorealistic' in their detail. For example, all the marsh birds have every feather individually forged to suggest realism. For more than 20 years, this style of photorealism has allowed me to complete unique, challenging architectural commissions throughout the United States and several other countries.

"Concerning artistry, my approach to forging 'realism in iron' is not for everybody," explained Smith. "To achieve a realistic forging in iron/steel, much detail is necessary. Each forged element must project key details so that the visual impact is unmistakable. If the key details are there, much of the forged element can be 'suggested,' without losing the desired effect, that of depicting nature."

The railing weighs approximately 2 tons, stands 16 ft. tall, and sweeps through 360 degrees. Approximately 2,000 labor-hours were required to complete the railing (two men for six months).

Among Smiths's many commissions are railings and large panels for a refurbished hotel in South Miami Beach, Fla., and these can be seen in the recently published book Ironwork Today: Inside & Out. They encompass huge palm trees and marine life; many of the images are based on sketches made by his partner, Rhonda Neil Fleming, who is a deep-sea diver.

A themed commissioned project can mean extra dollars if you tackle the job with smart planning. Know that the design will take time, and there may be different opinions on how it should look. Plan on making several sketches, and be sure to have the client OK the final sketch, so you both know what to expect. Plan your time and costs carefully, and you'll find that one well-executed themed railing or gate can be the entry to many others. They will be challenging to do and extremely profitable when handled correctly.

Dona Z. Meilach

Contributing Writer
Carlsbad, CA
Phone: 760-436-4395
Dona Z. Meilach's early book, Decorative and Sculptural Ironwork, was a driving force in the renaissance of modern ironwork. Her more recent books include The Contemporary Blacksmith, Architectural Ironwork, Fireplace Accessories, and Direct Metal Sculpture, all published by Schiffer Books.