Hand-forged gates - a case study

This page is a photo-journal of the making of some bespoke hand forged gates from design through to installation.  Not all ironwork is as large or as complex as this, but the project offers a good opportunity to demonstrate the many steps involved in a commission.  For an explanation of the techniques used, refer to the Features in Construction' page.

The design brief was for two matching pairs of gates to the entrance and exit of a private dwelling.  The gates were to be a strong security barrier without appearing to be so, the design to be fairly bold and decorative but not fussy.  The client also liked the idea of using their Welsh heritage as inspiration and the incorporation of repousse work.

After an initial site survey (for approximate dimensions) and discussions with the client, several designs were drawn up for consideration. These are often a starting point for further development rather than definitive options, however in this case the clients chose the design on the left of picture 1 (below). This has Celtic knotwork between the mid rails, repousse dragon motifs, a curved top with intermediary spikes and a twist in the dog bars (the shorter vertical bars that sit between the main bars).
With the design settled and the commission agreed, a full site survey is conducted (for accurate dimensions) and the metal in all the relevant section sizes ordered and duly delivered.  The specification was for black, rolled mild steel which is supplied in six metre lengths.
Meanwhile, the main elements of the design are drawn out full size on the workbench in chalk. This helps to sort out how the different elements relate to each other and provides a 'bench mark' for comparison of each piece as it is forged.
Heals are forged on each end of the horizontal bars by upsetting (hitting on the end to swell the bar). The heals form a large area from which to forge the tenon and provide strength to the frame.

The tenon is a spigot forged on the end of a bar that fits into a corresponding mortice hole on a bar fixed perpendicular to the first. The tenon is then heated and riveted over to fix the two pieces together. Mortice and tenon joints with swollen heels are very strong, it is the traditional way of fixing the main elements of ironwork. Great care must be taken with their positioning to ensure that the gates are exactly the right dimensions and that all joints are at right angles to each other.
The mortices, finials and hinge journals are forged on the front and back stiles, and the hinges made to suit.
Black stile finial, mortice and hinge journal detail.
Front stile finial and mortice detail.
The main vertical bars with spiked tops are forged as are the dog bars and intermediary spikes (above and below the top rail).

The dog bars are given their decorative twist detail.
The horizontal bars are punched where the vertical bars are to pass through. The hot punching process causes a slight swelling to the bar which is part of its character. The bar length is adjusted as necessary to give even gaps and checked against the chalk bench marks.

As the design calls for the top rail to be curved, the spaces and the holes on the bar are different depending on the angle. This must be worked out and carefully forged while the bar is flat so that the vertical bars are all parallel when the top rail is curved.

The intermediary spikes are attached. These little spikes above and below the top rail caused no end of trouble (due to the curvature of the top rail) but they play a subtle yet tangible part of the overall look of the gates, as well as deterring climbers.
The main vertical bars are threaded through the punched holes.
With all the primary elements completed, the gates can be 'dry' assembled (ie. not riveted together) and checked for accuracy.
Next the knotwork panels were made. These were made in sections, the metal bars being bent and plaited together hot and then fire-welded together as one continuous piece.
They had to be very accurate to fit in the rectangle formed by the mid rails and front and back stiles. Each panel took about 1 week.
I was pleased with the results.
The dragon motif is drawn out at full size. The pencil marks are the vertical bars of the gate and the hoop in which the dragon sits. The black lines are the repousse dragon outline and detail and the red lines are the 'skeleton' of the dragon to which the repousse 'skin' is attached (solid lines are visible while dotted lines are covered).
The hoop is made and attached within the main vertical bars.
The feet ....
.... tails ....
.... and tongues of the dragons skeleton's
     are forged.
All of which are fire-welded together and fitted within the hoops.
The dragon 'skins' are cut out and filed. Note that the wing positions and leg fronts are different on each side.
The 'skins' are given texture and shape using highly skilled and time consuming techniques using repousse. This involves beating the sheet metal from both sides with various specialised hammers over stake tools. The metal must be annealed frequently to prevent it from becoming brittle and splitting.
Now all the elements are complete, the gates can be riveted together and sent for galvanizing; that is, dipped in molten zinc to resist corrosion.
The gates are then fettled to remove any drips and painted.
Finally the gates are carefully stacked and transported to the client's property in Surrey ....

.... where they are carefully positioned and installed.
The finished gates.

Contact Dan Liggins, Black Dragon Forge

Office address: 4 Hancock Row, Greenaway Lane, Hackney, Derbyshire DE4 2RA
[visitors by appointment only please]

TEL: 01629 312994 / 07984 668981