Cast iron

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Cast iron fireback
MFA# 1982.618


An alloy of Iron with Carbon that is hard, brittle and nonmalleable. Cast iron contains about 2 to 4% carbon and 1 to 3% Silicon. It was made in China by at least the 3rd century BCE. The technique for its production did not reach Europe until medieval times. Cast iron is manufactured by melting scrap iron or pig iron in a cupola that is in contact with the coal fuel, then casting the molten iron into a mold. It is inexpensive and easy to make. In the 1830s, cast iron was used for structural and decorative building components in North America. It was also used for cast iron pipe, stove pipe, firebacks, cauldrons, and cannons.

Cast iron sculpture
MFA# 1991.620

See also Gray cast iron, and White cast iron.

Synonyms and Related Terms

grey cast iron; gray cast iron; Gusseisen (Deut.); fonte (Fr.); gietijzer (Ned.); gjutjärn (Sven.); hierro fundido (Esp.); ferro fundido (Port.)

Physical and Chemical Properties

  • Gray cast iron (with silicon) has less tensile strength and shock resistance than steel. It is difficult to weld.
  • The seasoning or impregnation of cast iron cookware with oil minimizes rusting.

Additional Images

Resources and Citations

  • David C. Scott, Metallography and Microstructure of Ancient and Historic Metals, The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, 1991 Comment: usually 2-4 % carbon
  • Dictionary of Building Preservation, Ward Bucher, ed., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York City, 1996 Comment: 2.5-4.0% carbon
  • The Dictionary of Art, Grove's Dictionaries Inc., New York, 1996
  • G.S.Brady, Materials Handbook, McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, 1971 Comment: p. 155
  • Richard S. Lewis, Hawley's Condensed Chemical Dictionary, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 10th ed., 1993
  • Henry Hodges, Artifacts: An Introduction to Early Materials and Technology, Ronald P. Frye, Kingston, Canada, 1988
  • Random House, Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, Grammercy Book, New York, 1997
  • The American Heritage Dictionary or Encarta, via Microsoft Bookshelf 98, Microsoft Corp., 1998 Comment: 2.0-4.5% carbon, 0.5-3.0% silicon
  • Susan E. Schur, Conservation Terminology: A review of Past & Current Nomenclature of Materials, Technology and Conservation, Spring (p.34-39); Summer (p.35-38); Fall (p.25-36), 1985
  • Cast iron at; 2.0-3.5% carbon, 1-3% silicon