All About Andirons
I remember standing on the sidewalk and gazing with disbelief at the tired Federal home in Newport, Rhode Island. Our real estate agent had just enthusiastically promised that this particular property was perfect for people with vision. As we wandered through the dilapidated structure, six fireplaces with original hand-crafted mantels still intact gave us six very good reasons to buy the home and embark on a rejuvenation project. 16 months later, the house that was built during President James Madison’s administration, has been renewed. We are now preparing to celebrate the home’s 204th Christmas.
Our home’s fireplaces were intended for cooking meals and heating rooms. Like most hopeless romantics, we assign greater intrinsic value to these charming gathering spots. Each time we pile logs into a hearth, watch the glowing firelight, and listen to crackling embers, we feel contentment knowing we saved this relic from ruin.
Hunting for antique andirons to accessorize the fireplaces proved to be a great adventure. Some sets were handed down from family and others were discovered at antique shops in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. From brass finials with claw and ball feet to cast iron Hessian Soldiers, each andiron set lends personality to the fireplaces. The endless variety of designs can easily distract us from andirons’specific purpose, which is to raise logs above the hearthstone, increase air flow in the fireplace, ensure proper wood burning and minimize smoke.
Andirons’ history can be traced to ancient Greece. The earliest forms were made of clay or iron. During the Renaissance skilled metalworkers transformed the utilitarian objects into prized ornaments. Andirons were crafted from a variety of metals including copper, bronze, brass and silver. The styles celebrated classical forms, historical figures, and celestial bodies. When fireplaces became the focal point of formal rooms during the 19th and 20th centuries, andirons were designed to coordinate with a home’s architecture. If you browse antique venues or the Internet looking for andirons, you will be overwhelmed by the myriad of metals in Colonial, Victorian, Arts and Crafts, and Mid-century modern styles. Prices and conditions vary greatly too. For example, a pair of vintage brass andirons with a ball and finial design may cost $40 on Craigslist. However, a set of antique brass andirons with a similar motif may fetch $2,000 at auction.
An Antiques Expert Weighs In
For over 40 years Skinner Inc. has offered more than 60 auctions annually. Skinner auctions reach an international audience and showcase the unique, rare, and beautiful in dozens of categories including andirons and fireplace accessories. To better understand the many variables with andirons, I reached out to Chris Barber, Deputy Director of the American Furniture & Decorative Arts Department at Skinner, Inc.
Chris explains, “The andirons that we notice selling for the best prices these days are usually very grand – tall, stately, delicate, with complicated and elaborate decorative elements, such as pierced galleries, shaped log supports, matching log stops, delicate spurred legs perched on ball feet, and often signed by the maker and sold together with matching hearth tools, a bonus for the collector. The andirons in the middle of the market simply have fewer of those bells and whistles – they are slightly shorter, with no pierced gallery, no maker’s mark, and have a less complicated decorative scheme overall. At the affordable end, we have simpler forms, shorter again than the other two pairs mentioned here, but still with some of the decorative elements so prized in the other examples.”
To Polish or Not to Polish
Scott Ciardi is a master metal restorer who owns and operates Brass from the Past based in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. His passion for restoring metal objects including andirons, fireplace tools, clocks, bells, musical instruments and sextons began when he was a child and helped his grandfather at the family’s metals business in Boston.
Scott has been restoring metals for 35 years and says, “People either love or hate what I do. Some believe all dirt is patina and should not be removed from andirons. In my opinion brass should look good.”Give Scott a pair of black, rusty, dusty andirons. After he works his magic, you will be able to see your reflection in the shiny brass. When he lacquers the restored metal, the andirons will resist tarnish and look beautiful for many years.
Scott explains that restoring andirons requires special tools, buffing wheels, and cleaning solvents. Many of his clients will try to polish andirons using tarnish removers they purchased at a grocery store or hardware store. However, some antique and vintage andirons have a layer of lacquer that the tarnish removers cannot penetrate. If your andirons have a lacquered finish, no amount of elbow grease will remove the tarnish. You need to seek the help of a professional restorer.
If your andirons do not have a lacquered finish, Scott says you can tackle the polishing project with excellent results. Scott says, “Work in stages, use a cloth or 000 steel wool and wear gloves. Begin with Noxon Metal Polish, which has enough abrasive qualities to break through the first layer of dirt. Then work with Brasso Metal Polish, which is less abrasive and will help the brass shine. For the final step, use Nevr- Dull. This tarnish remover is the least abrasive and will really bring out the shine.”
When you see Scott’s before and after images, you won’t believe your eyes. Scott says,“ Once you realize that metal can be restored you can find an old tarnished andiron set for a steal.”