One of the most common products of any iron foundry is cast iron. Cast iron is used all around the world in a variety of applications. It can be found everywhere from the top of the average suburban stove to the piping that’s been in place for hundreds of years. In this article, we’ll look at some of the various uses of cast iron and why foundries have been busy producing it for hundreds of years. Primarily, we will be looking at home cast iron applications, as well as farm applications.
Arguably the most common application for cast iron that is most likely to come to the average person’s mind is cooking. Cast iron skillets in various shapes and sizes are can be found in kitchens from Beijing to New York to Rio. Why? The cast iron, of course, is very durable, conducts heat well and can be seasoned so as to make it nearly as non-stick as much more expensive cookware that achieves its non-stick properties via Teflon or some other chemical treatment. Its durability and ability to evenly distribute heat also make cast iron skillets a favorite among campers.
Remaining in the realm of the residential for a moment, cast iron is also useful for heating stoves. Woodstoves have undergone a resurgence in the United States in recent years due to increases in the cost of propane and heating oil. Cast iron woodstoves can be made in many different sizes and still allow for owners to easily and safely add fuel and regulate the burn rate. The cast iron can easily handle the high temperatures within without suffering damage and still conduct the heat out into the room. A centrally placed and well ventilated cast iron wood burning stove can provide heat for a large room. For those interested in saving space, the top of the stove also makes a perfectly good stovetop for cooking or even heating leftovers. I use my stove in my small cabin for exactly this and it works great.
There are a host of other uses for cast iron. One of the classic examples is the humble bathtub. Given their strength and durability, the only real downside to the cast iron tub is that once you have it in place, you really shouldn’t plan on moving it again. Ever. That iron is heavy. Similar to the tub, of course, is the cast iron sink. Again, ideal for many uses but difficult to move should the need arise.
Cast iron also makes excellent horseshoes. The constant pounding that a horseshoe takes virtually demands a material with the properties of cast iron.
One of the oldest, most useful and most widespread home-based applications of cast iron is the hand pump. Developed back in 1848, the cast iron hand pump made it possible to get fresh water reliably in a variety of locations. Wood pumps had been used before but were susceptible to insect damage, more likely to break in bad weather, could swell up due to water absorption and be just generally unreliable. The cast iron pump was far better suited to pioneer conditions. Even today, these kinds of pumps provide water on farms and campsites around the world, with little to no change to their design. It’s hard to recast perfection I suppose.
Farms and machine shops have benefited from cast iron in a number of different ways. They’ve made use of iron wrenches, chains, bench vises, screwdrivers, hooks, pulleys, axes, hammers, and any number of other uses. Sure, these have largely been replaced by lighter and less brittle materials over the years but one thing you can say for sure is if you stumble across an eighty-year-old cast-iron wrench it will still get the job done.
Cast iron has proven to be a valuable and incredibly useful material in the hundreds of years that people have been using it. Whether it’s been smelted and cast in-house at a turn of the last century blacksmith shop, a backyard hobby foundry or a large modern iron foundry like Faircast, cast iron has been proven to stand the test of time in more ways than one. And if anything, its use will only continue to become more widespread as we discover new ways to make use of this versatile material.
In part two, we’ll look at some of the industrial and architectural uses of cast iron.