WHEN DOES MY CAST IRON STAIRCASE NEED ATTENTION? - - ALWAYS!
By Paul Ponzelli, owner of Suburban Welding Company
Original cast iron staircases, a common sight in the lower
sections of the District Of Columbia and Capitol Hill are a
glorious testimony to a masterful art that highlights
houses lucky enough to have them. Or still have them. Or
still have one that is intact.
Washington's original cast iron staircases are unique.
Unique to the city, sometimes unique to a street, or even a
single house. unique not only because they represent
some of the finest staircases ever cast, anywhere, but
also unique because they were cast right here in the city
for nearly exclusive use here. In some cases by foundries
representing several generations of the same family
owned experts of the cast iron art.
These original staircases represent many things aside
from being highly sought after items. They are a thing of
beauty and a focal point for that all important "curb
appeal" to a historically correct house. Today, the most
noticeable (and troubling) thing they represent is the fact
that they are disappearing from the once proud houses
they highlighted at a pace that is not only troubling, but in
some cases unnecessarily. Disappearing, never to return.
They can't, because they are not made anymore.
Unnecessarily because in some, if not most cases, they
can be saved if properly maintained. They must also be
The majority of cast iron staircases here were made and installed between the late 1800's and the
1930's. It should therefore be no surprise that they were not designed for the lifestyle of today's
average household or commercial building. Such as moving a 300 pound refrigerator, complete
with two 200 pound delivery men up or down the fragile cast iron staircase. Especially bouncing it
down the steps on a hand truck. Obviously not a concern during the time period they were made in.
Add to the equation 100+ years of time passage and even a well maintained original cast iron
staircase is quite likely to have maintenance or repair issues. With this type of material, a serious
or even hazardous condition may exist or one may suddenly appear without warning. They are at a
stage of their life where constant monitoring is not only prudent, but necessary.
There are two main factors that lead to problems with these original cast iron staircases.
Factor #1, DETERIORATION Chiefly, this is the result of neglect. While it is true that cast iron is
much more resilient to wear and long term weather conditions, and it can withstand prolonged
periods of not being protected by paint, they will take a toll over 100 years. Try that with one of the
STEEL staircases of today! Did you ever wonder why manhole covers are made of cast iron? Some
are older than your staircase. And they are still made of cast iron today. Manhole covers are not
cost prohibitive however, so they did not go the way of the cast iron staircase. Nor do they require
a lifetime of experience to design and craft, or a complicated foundry to manufacture.
Unfortunately, most of these cast iron staircases were neglected in many ways. Material specific
paint and even more importantly, the correct primer is a must. Another form of neglect is not paying
attention to changes taking place and having them addressed before more serious problems arise.
Loose components, misaligned pieces, bolts shearing off or missing completely, settling or
sagging, loose or broken railing posts, cracks, broken Stringers, etc.. A good tell-tale sign that a
previous owner had serious problems with the staircase and repairs were not made is the presence
of added supports, posts, props or bricks, etc. to hold the staircase up. Of course that sounds
obvious, but many people pay that make-shift added support thing no attention. That could be a
Factor #2, DAMAGE Damage can result from a variety of things, including construction, renovating,
moving heavy items over the staircase, dropping something on the staircase from above, placing a
ladder in the center of a step or on the stoop plate, tree limb falls, bouncing down the steps or
skipping steps while descending the staircase and improper repairs. It should be remembered that
cast iron is FRAGILE. It will not bend like steel. It will snap and break. Damage can also occur, and
frequently does, from IMPROPER WELDING PRACTICES and poorly designed and carried out
repairs. An inordinate amount of repairs are necessary due to improper welding. Sometimes, the
piece that was welded is not salvageable, and usually this welding has more serious consequences
than the original problem presented. That is not to say that sometimes, contrary to the belief of
some, that welding is not called for. But specific to the task and material, not just welding. In a
perfect world, parts can be replaced with "salvage" parts from other similar model staircases, but it
is not a perfect world when dealing with antique structures and the right part in the right size from
the right model staircase are not always available. And some of the "reproduced" ones are a
Availability of the parts needed and cost effectiveness sometimes dictates proper welding to make
the staircase safe again. Installing poorly engineered support under the staircase or in the wrong
places can almost certainly cause damage or structural failure. Don't just "prop it up", instead,
determine the reason it suddenly needs artificial support. Usually, something more serious is going
on. Structural integrity is everything with any structure, but it is even more important with castings.
Obviously, these staircases consist extensively of castings.
One of the major causes of damage to one of these original cast iron staircases is poor or improper
support due to ground settling, causing the staircase to drop or lean toward the bottom or one
side. This will cause it to be out of level and result in poor or no support in critical areas. It can also
cause too much stress in some areas and weight not being equally transferred to the ground at the
bottom step. In extreme cases, the bottom step will not even be in contact with the ground. Look
for a make-shift bottom step or bricks holding up the bottom step. A sure sign repairs are needed.
Severe settling of the ground near the bottom of the staircase can cause the Stoop Plate (flat
landing or porch area) and/or the handrailings to pull out of the building. Risers (the "up" section
between the steps) can break out and Treads (steps) can crack or break. Bolts that hold the Risers
and Treads in place can be broken or missing and both can be loose as the components became
misaligned. A dangerous condition indeed.
The Stringers (long "side" pieces that run from the bottom step up to the house) can crack or
break, and in a worse case scenario cause a collapse.
On many of these staircases, the stringer's flat structural support bar that runs behind and along it
is rotted and no longer in contact with the bottom step. Continuous longitudinal support of the
Stringers (main side supports) is thereby interrupted and the entire weight of the staircase can be
on the FRAGILE castings, which are largely ornamental in nature and not designed to support the
total weight of the staircase.
When these staircases were installed, the current practice and technology of digging a deep hole in
the ground (below the freeze line) and pouring an adequate concrete footer to serve as a
foundation for the staircase was not done. Understandable for the time period, but this factor alone
continues to contribute to settling of the staircase resulting in serious damage. In some more
serious cases, such a concrete foundation must be added before repairs to the staircase can be
What can you do to preserve your original cast iron staircase into perhaps the next generation,
when it will be even more valuable? The answer is, read again the above two problem factors, #I
DETERIORATION and #2 DAMAGE. Look for any of these signs, and keep looking. They require
constant monitoring now and into the future. We can only guess if the Artisans who crafted them
thought their masterpieces would endure into a time generations beyond them, but to their tribute
and to the testimony of original DC architecture, they have. Now it is up to you.
If you notice any of the conditions mentioned here, or any others of concern, or if you have any
doubts regarding the structural integrity of your cast iron staircase, call a qualified Ironworks or
Welding Company for an inspection. As previously mentioned however, cast iron is markedly
different from steel and the materials commonly used today in staircases. They were produced by
experts qualified by many years of experience with cast iron. Similarly, they must be repaired and
maintained by such experts. These experts are hard to find anymore, but do your homework and
don't be discouraged by a backlog of work they may have. Unless you have serious or dangerous
problems with your cast iron staircase, it may take a little time to get the repairs you need. But it
should not be a problem to at least get them to do a thorough inspection and evaluation of your
needs and a priority for those repairs.
Loose or separating parts can lead to a hazardous condition and costly repairs. Early detection and
repair is best.
WARNING: These are not the type of repairs to shop for the cheapest cost estimate, since that is
likely what caused some of the damage in the first place, even though it may not be evident if you
don't know what to look for.
Unfortunately, the amount of cast iron staircases needing repairs in our area has not gone
unnoticed by unqualified individuals, some from states far away, seeking to profit by promising
"expert" repairs. Be leery of someone with a telephone number from outside the area, a pager
phone number, a telephone number or company name you can not find in the yellow pages, an
individual with no company name at all or someone showing up with only a pickup truck and not an
obvious larger Service Body truck equipped for ironworking or any truck not prominently lettered
showing the company name and local phone number, except for Estimator's vehicles. Also watch
for far away state tags on the truck. There are many "horror stories" of unprofessional and even
damaging repairs being made and the individual could not be located afterward. It should have
been obvious with any of the above conditions existing, but he was cheap and he said he has been
doing this for 106 years and was an expert. He was, but not at what you paid him for. If you suspect
something is amiss, notify the D C Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, or in most
egregious cases, the Metropolitan Police Department.
Paul Ponzelli, the owner of Suburban Welding Company is a GOLD member of NOMMA (National
Ornamental And Miscellaneous Metals Association) and a member of the American Welding
Society. He has contributed to and has been featured in Welding and Ironworking articles, including
Time-Life Publications and the Washington Post Magazine. He has been a Welding Instructor,
trained apprentice ironworkers and worked in a large Forge and Foundry before forming his own
company, which is a Registered Trademark. His company provides a full line of ironwork and
welding services, including repairing original cast iron staircases.
He can be reached at 703-765-9344.
Suburban Welding Company® also provides a full line of ornamental iron and ironwork services
including hand railing, wrought iron products, ironwork repairs and welding services.
CAST IRON STAIRCASES