I came around to iron the hard way. At a property I renovated in Tremé, repeated backyard burglaries taught me my wood fence provided a weak line of defense –– and privacy for miscreants to fiddle with locks and windows. Besides, iron harmonized far better with the 1840s Creole cottage.
Later, at a property in Faubourg St. John, cost considerations pushed me to give wood another chance. But time soon proved me pound-foolish. The winds of Hurricane Katrina burst through the boards and twisted the aluminum posts down to the ground. That opened the way to my back door for the looters who ran rampant in those days.
In rebuilding, iron was the answer.
There’s a science to iron fences, as I learned back then from neighborhood personage Ben Gasper. A retired welder with more than three decades behind the mask, Gasper has put torch to metal in yards across New Orleans. We met again recently so the old hand could refresh my memory on the rules of ironwork.
The first thing to know is that most of an iron fence is in fact steel. Steel posts are typically hollow but should be at least 11-gauge, or 1/8-inch thick. The pickets, however, should be solid and thick enough to prevent a ne’er-do-well from bending them open. “Hollow pickets are not strong enough, and they won’t last,” Gasper says.
The decorative elements are typically made of cast iron. These include decorative posts (hollow but typically 1/4-inch thick), medallions and finials. For a strong seal, Gasper says it’s important to ensure a welder uses cast-iron rods to make the welds on decorative elements. Some welders cut corners on this, he says, because cast-iron rods cost about 10 times more than steel.
There are two ways to affix pickets to the horizontal runners. For a historic look, the welder should run the pickets through punched holes in flat runners.
A less expensive approach –– that is also less durable and less historically authentic –– is simply to weld the pickets to the face of the runners. But Gasper says homeowners should check for at least three welds, on the top and each side, wherever picket meets runner. The more welds, the more durable and watertight, and therefore rust-resistant, the structure will be. Gasper says this is another area where some welders cut corners to save money. Fewer welds reduce the life of the fence and make it vulnerable to a thief with a good pair of pliers.
“It’s like putting in one nail where three or four are required,” Gasper says.
More posts cost more but lend structural strength, Gasper says. He cautions that posts should sit at least 18 inches in the ground. The concrete should fill 4 inches around at full depth; the hole should be cylinder-shaped, not cone-shaped.
Gasper recommends painting by hand rather than spray-painting. He prefers to start with a rustproofing primer and follow with an oil-based metal paint. This takes longer than spray-painting, but it provides a thicker coating and therefore less maintenance in the long run. Keeping an iron fence painted will guarantee almost inexhaustible durability.
Gasper says to keep in mind aesthetic considerations. He suggests keeping designs simple. And remember that the fence should be proportionate to the house and yard, particularly in the front. “The fence is only a statement,” Gasper says. “It is a psychological deterrent, but if you make a fence 10 feet tall and somebody wants to climb it, they will.”
Joe Strain, owner of Strain Metal Works, has a number of residential and commercial iron fence jobs to his credit. I talked to him about the ultimate option for iron fences: the automatic driveway gate.
Generally, Strain says, residential gates run via remote control, though alternatives include coded keypads and card sensors.
If the gate operator is UL 325-compliant, Strain says, that usually indicates a high standard of craftsmanship.
For safety, the system should include a photo beam that will prevent the gate from closing if a person or vehicle is in its path. For security, remote control fences should operate on a rolling code that will prevent a crafty burglar with a factory-set remote from gaining access to your property. In flood-prone areas, Strain says to make sure the installer places electronic components high off the ground so they don’t fry in a heavy rain.
Strain gushes over solar-powered models. Although they can cost about $1,000 more than a standard system, he says they’re just as reliable and can often be cheaper than running the electrical lines standard operators require. “If the power goes out, no problem,” he says.
He suggests that homeowners consider installing efficient outdoor lighting systems along with their operator. Or, if they already have garden lights, they may be able to hook the operator up to them, potentially decreasing installation costs.
Top-of-the-line gate operators should provide 15 to 20 years of service with few problems, while standard-quality models should last for at least 10 years, Strain says.
He considers FAAC a premium brand and says Door King, Chamberlain and Apollo all produce solid products. When installing a solar-powered system, Strain generally recommends Apollo. Regardless, he says installing an automatic driveway gate will increase costs by at least $2,500.
And, of course, make sure you have a quality technician, Strain says. “Make sure that person will honor the craftsmanship that they’ve done –– until it works right.” F