Cast Iron Culture

L-R---Project Manager John Howell, President Ricky Robinson, Marketing Manager Luke Robinson, Vice President  J. Scott Howell (Not pictured: Project Manager Austin Robinson).

Written by Madoline Markham
Photography by Beau Gustafson

J. Scott Howell knew Birmingham’s Vulcan was in “big trouble” the day he first climbed to its base in 1990. When the statue was first placed on its pedestal in 1938, it was anchored with concrete, which over time expands and cracks in summer heat, and his 120,000-pound  body—the tallest freestanding cast-iron sculpture in the world—was deteriorating too. 

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By 1999, the city had realized the statue’s physical decline was bad enough, and the god of the forge was dismantled for Howell’s company, Robinson Iron, to begin the restoration process. Over the next several years, they would, among many other steps, replace the spear tip in Vulcan’s right hand to replicate the 1904 original. Robinson Iron also built a stainless steel structure on the inside to enable it to withhold up to 200 mile an hour winds. “The statue is much stronger and in much better condition,” Howell says. “It will be there for a long, long time.”

For most of its projects, Robinson Iron’s mission is the same—to restore historic cast-iron statues, fountains, gates, and other structures to their original glory. Around Birmingham, you can see their restoration work in the Beard Center on 2nd Avenue downtown, and their original creations in two fountains and several gazebos at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. 

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“We’re putting (them) back on in good shape,” Ricky Robinson, the company’s president, says of their restoration work. “Sometimes we just clean and paint, but it usually does not mean that. Usually we pick portions and re-cast them, make them again totally. We put it back structurally sound and pleasing to the eye.”

The Alexander City-based company has also done work on capital domes in Denver, Austin, Trenton, Washington, and Topeka, and they are preparing to start work on one in Nashville. 

They have restored the iron work of a hotel in Singapore that the Japanese dismantled during World War II, and they are currently working on a large fountain for Toronto that features 27 life-sized dog sculptures. 

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“We are in a pretty tight niche in what we do,” Howell says. “There’s no way that you could go overseas or to Mexico or China and get the kind of work we do because it’s so custom and detail-oriented because it’s a niche operation. There are probably only two to three other viable competitors.”

The company also recently created three-story-tall decorative gates that were in the original drawings for Philadelphia City Hall. Robinson Iron had looked at the project 10 years earlier, but it was only when the city found out that the Pope was paying a visit that they decided to move forward with the project. 

The gates were made of aluminum and stainless steel, metals Robinson uses more now than when they first started in the ’70s. Iron “goes back forever and ever,” but aluminum wasn’t used in the U.S. until World War II. “If you want to be strict about preservation, you use iron,” Robinson says. “Painted, you can’t look at them and tell the difference.”

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Iron is heavy and strong but will rust. Aluminum won’t rust but is almost a third lighter, and stainless steel won’t rust and is the same weight as iron but is more expensive. They also work with bronze sometimes. “If it melts, we can make it for you,” Robinson says.

Today, about 80 percent of Robinson Iron’s work is restoration and custom cast work, and the other 20 percent is creating items such as fountains, furniture, and urns. But it didn’t start that way.

The company began in 1974 as a spin-off from Robinson Foundry with a focus on manufacturing and selling smaller cast-iron products using patterns Robinson’s father had collected. While the U.S. has traditionally been a “tear down and rebuild” society, in 1966 the National Historic Preservation Act brought about increased work in the preservation of historic buildings and places—many that had cast-iron in need of restoration. 

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After the Civil War, a lot of foundries began producing more decorative products. Many of them were located on the East Coast and made cast-iron pieces for streetscapes across the country. However, the popularity of cast iron faded in the 1920s and ’30s as the art deco movement took hold, putting many foundries out of business.

With that, many foundries started sending their patterns—objects, traditionally made of wood, and used to create a mold for iron projects—to the South for replication. Robinson’s father, Joe Sr., was one of those Southerners who started collecting patterns, forming the basis for what became Robinson Iron’s collection. The company later obtained the Janney Collection from Montgomery and Hinderer collection from New Orleans, along with patterns from J.W. Fiske. 

“We have we think the largest collection of patterns anywhere,” Robinson says. “We have had a pattern shop for 41 years in operation.” Their expanse of options gives architects an advantage because they have so many patterns to choose from. Often, Robinson Iron will have a design’s original pattern, which saves the client the expense of creating a new one for the restoration process.

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Today they market their company to architects, municipal developers, and people with high end homes. But regardless of the client, they find that the strongest form of marketing is word of mouth.

“If you do good work for folks, you’ll get more work,” Howell says.

Over the years, the business has grown from “just a couple of guys in the shop” to more than 40 employees conducting up to 12 large scale projects at once. Howell and Robinson emphasize that their focus remains on quality in both traditional patterns and modern adaptations. Today they use digital technology, not just in design phases but also in manufacturing, utilizing laser scanners to scan 3-D objects, make 3-D models, and cut with a 3-D router.

As a true family business, Robinson’s son Luke is their sales and marketing manager and son Austin is a project manager, while vice president Howell’s son John is also a project manager. 

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“We like for them to travel to make friends with more people of their generation who are also coming up in the businesses,” Howell says. “Not to say we don’t do the same thing, but that’s where they are learning the business.”

At the end of the day, both Robinson and Howell say they really enjoy what they do. “All (our projects) have different challenges, so we are constantly having to really work together to find the right solution for each and every project,” Howell says. “That’s the fun part for me—to figure out the best way to produce something to give to the client.”