Restoring An Original Cast Iron Fireplace

** This was the first fireplace that we restored. Since then we have also restored another Edwardian fireplace using a slightly different and so much more effective method. You can read about it here. You can also check out our complete guide to Restoring, Maintaining and Running a period fireplace here!*

One of the only original features we still have in the house is the cast iron Edwardian fireplace in the master bedroom. When we moved in, it was completely covered in yellowish paint.

Cast Iron Fireplace

Although it would have been easier and quicker to have the fireplace sandblasted, we decided to undertake the restoration work ourselves. After a bit of research I found out, that you can’t use a heat gun on cast iron, as the sudden difference in temperature can cause the iron to crack so we opted for a chemical paint stripper.

After a few tries, I found that this method worked best for us:

First, I applied the stripper with an old paintbrush according to the instructions on the packet (make sure to use the necessary safety equipment). I left it in place as long as possible, being careful not to let it dry completely. Then, after it had dissolved the paint I wiped off most of the residue with a stripping knife and kitchen paper. It is important not to wipe down the cast iron with water, as it will cause it to rust. The best and by far easiest way to remove the remaining bits of sticky dissolved paint and stripper is to use white spirit. It seems to neutralise the paint stripper which makes it really easy to just wipe off. For any stubborn paint areas, I found that dipping some steel wool in white spirit and scrubbing the area works really well. This method is also good for areas where the cast iron surround is more patterned, and the sticky paint residue would otherwise get stuck in the details.

There were at least 7 layers of paint on our fireplace that had to be removed and although the chemical stripper worked well, it didn’t penetrate all of them in one go, so it took a few more applications to remove all of the paint.

We used the same method to strip the original encaustic tiles, but made sure to use a plastic scraper in order to not scratch the tiles.

Encaustic Tiles

Stripped Edwardian Fireplace

After a quick sand with steel wool and a final wipe down with white spirit, we applied black grate polish (bought at our local fireplace shop). When the grate polish was completely dry I used an old cloth to wipe off the excess and give the surface a polish.

Paste For Cast Iron FireplaceHere are my top 5 Tips for Restoring a Cast Iron Fireplace

  1. Let the chemical paint stripper work as long as possible.
  2. Remove the dissolved paint with a stripping knife and kitchen paper.
  3. Use lots of white spirit to remove the remaining paint residue until the surface is completely clean. Use steel wool to sand if necessary.
  4. Apply black grate polish and leave to dry. Then buff to required finish.
  5. For maintenance use WD-40 to clean the fireplace. Never use water.

And here are the before and after pictures for you:

Edwardian Fireplace Before

Restored Cast Iron Edwardian Fireplace

Fireplace Detail Before

Edwardin Fireplace Detail

Fireplace Detail

53 thoughts on “Restoring An Original Cast Iron Fireplace

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  5. Hi,
    I know this is an old post but just going through the same job myself.

    Far harder work than I had expected :)

    Just wondering do you have to remove every last piece of paint and residue before applying the polish. I have red residues left in some areas and wondering does that all have to come off.
    Will the finish be poor if I don’t get everything off or does the polish cover some minor remains?

    • Hi James! I really underestimated how long it would take to do, too. On the bedroom fireplace I pretty much removed all paint and dirt, but I also restored our dining room fireplace (you can read about it here: http://www.littlehouseonthecorner.com/edwardian-fireplace-restoration/). There is one picture there, where I have already applied the grate polish on one half of the fireplace and the other side is still just stripped cast iron. You can see that the half without the grate polish still has some residue left, but that later completely disappears under the polish. Having said that, I also had one small area where I’d missed some actual paint which the polish didn’t cover well at all. Any lumps and bumps on the surface will probably show though the polish, too. I guess what I’m trying to say is – if there is actual paint left, you will probably have to remove it, but if there is just some smooth residue, you will probably be fine. You could always test a small area to see if the polish covers any imperfections. When applying the grate polish, try thinning it down slightly with some white spirit – makes applying it so much more even and easier. Hope that’s some help. Let us know how you get on!
      Cx

  6. What’s the name of the chemical paint stripper you used on this fireplace and your other one (where you show the tape that absorbs the paint layers). These fireplaces turned out beautifully!!! Love your home and the care you’ve put into restoring it.

    • Thanks Lauren! The chemical stripper we used on the yellow bedroom fireplace is Nitromors. It worked well and my best tip for removing after its done its work is to use lots and lots of white spirit – it seems to neutralize it.

      The stripper we used for the dining room fireplace was absolutely amazing! It’s called PeelAway. There are two different kinds available (Peelaway 1 and Peelaway 7), which one you use would depend on the application – we used PeelAway 1. You can find out more about it here.
      Good luck!
      Cx

  7. Hi the fireplace looks amazing. I am just trying to do the same. Was wandering with the black grate polish will this make it go black? Only asking as I would like the gunmetal colour which the fireplace in the picture looks like it may be?
    Thank you

    • Hi Emeline! Glad you like the fireplace, we’re so happy with it, too. The black grate polish will make your fireplace go black. To achieve the gunmetal look you’d like, you still use the same polish but have to rub and polish it – a lot! When applying the paste, mix it with a bit of white spirit – it’ll make applying it much easier and more consistent. Your best bet would probably be to to try it out on a small area first and see if you can achieve the result you are looking for. Let us know how you get on and good luck!
      Cx

    • Really love the fireplace. You have given me inspiration for mine and your tips are so much more helpful than the professional sites. I have been polishing the black grate polish with a buffer on the electric drill for ages, and although looks polished, I still don’t have that metal look of yours that I like. Should I keep going?

      • Thanks Jacky! So glad that we could help!
        We actually didn’t polish the fireplace very long, it just kind of worked out that way. Having said that, I know that the professionals use WD40 for cleaning and polishing cast iron. Definitely try it on a test area, but I think that a quick spray of WD40 should to the trick. Hope that helps – we’d love to know how you get on!
        Cx

  8. Just found your post, amazing job on the fireplaces!

    I’m currently renovating an old cast iron clawfoot bathtub which is how I found your page. Do you think the zip stove polish will work on the exterior of the bath (which I’ve taken back to bare metal)? I love the finish you have, but concerned it may require the heat from a fire to work, or may not stand up to damp bathroom conditions.

    Any advice gratefully received.

    • Thanks Ryan! We don’t actually use both of the fireplaces that we restored, so there definitely wouldn’t be any heat issues using the zip paste. Having said that, when you wipe over the polish, a tiny bit of it always rubs off, so I’m not sure how durable it would be in a bathroom where there is more moisture and cleaning (vs. occasional dusting). I’m also wondering if some sort of primer and painted finish would be needed to stop the bathtub from rusting over time. I personally think that a painted tub would be more durable – maybe spray paint is worth considering, as it should still give you a very smooth and even finish.
      Hope that’s some help!
      Cx

      • Thanks so much for getting back to me Christine. I think we’ll go for spray paints as you suggested.

        Best of luck with your ongoing renovations!

        Ryan

  9. Hi – was so glad to come across your article. Just bought a property with five fireplaces to restore! A couple of questions, how much peel away did you use and how long did it take ie could you do a fireplace in a day working 12 hours? Thanks so much. Feel a little daunted but can’t wait to see the final result!

    • Wow, 5 fireplaces! I think the time it’ll take will depend on the amount of layers of paint you’ll have to strip. We let our peel away work for about 24 hours before removing it. Really it depends on your situation. A test area might be a good idea… Peel away is absolutely amazing compared to other products we tried. Hope that’s some help!
      Cx

      • Thanks so much for the reply – just bought some peelaway so I’ll let you know how we get on!

  10. Hi! Great job restoring your original cast iron fireplace. We have two in our house and you have inspired me to try it. I had a couple questions:
    1) You mentioned ongoing maintenance with WD-40. How often does that need to be done? Do you ever need to reapply the black grate polish? Is any other maintenance required?
    2) We will soon have two small kids (one is two, the other is due to be born in late November). Does the black polish transfer easily onto clothes and skin if you touch it? Will I have to keep the kids off the fireplace at all times?

    Thanks!

    Danielle

    • Hi Danielle, first of all thanks for your kind comment.

      To start with, I should say that we treat our fireplaces differently. The working one in the living room is polished and slightly shiny, the one that we’ve just installed in our guest bedroom (that used to be in the dining room) isn’t in use and has a matt finish and the one in our master bedroom is polished but not in use. The shiny and smooth finished is achieved by polishing everything with WD-40, the matt finish is not polished at all.

      Cleaning: On the working fireplace in the living room we use WD-40 to clean the hearth and give the fireplace (you shouldn’t use water on the cast iron) an odd polish. Basically I give the whole thing a quick wipe down when I clean the fireplace after using it. We’re not taking a proper clean, just a quick dust. The guest bedroom fireplace on the other hand doesn’t really get dirty, so I just use a standard duster to wipe it down every now and then (mainly before guests come to stay). Every now and then, I’ll give the working fireplace a proper clean and polish with WD-40. Three years down the line, we’re still on the first medium sized can of WD-40.

      Grate Polish: When we recently moved the fireplace from our dining room into our guest bedroom, we reapplied some grate polish for the first time. Even then it wasn’t really necessary. We’ve had the fireplace in the living room (which we use a lot in the winter) for 3 years and have never reapplied the grate polish. It still looks just as it did when we first got it.

      Maintenance: Except for general cleaning and dusting, and the odd polish with WD-40, we don’t do any other maintenance.

      Durability: On the fireplaces that we’ve treated with WD-40 hardly any of the black polish wears off. It almost seems like WD-40 seals the grate polish. The matt finished fireplace in our guest bedroom in the other hand wears of a lot more. On the rare occasion that we’ve accidentally got some of the grate polish onto our clothes, it has washed out (but we did wash them as soon as possible). In either case (polished or not) some of the polish will wear off if you touch it – it’s just a lot less if polished.

      Restoring the fire: After using two different methods to strip the fireplace, we found that the stripper called Peel Away worked best. You should never use a heat gun on cast iron as the sudden heat difference can cause the cast iron to crack. When applying the grate polish mix it a bit with white spirit. It’s much easier to apply and also goes much further.

      I hope that’s some help! Let us know if you have any other questions.
      Good luck for November!
      Cx

  11. Hi Christine, happy to have discovered your blog.

    We replaced the flue liners in our fireplaces that hadn’t been used for over 25 years. The service threw-in stripping the iron summer doors that had been painted in oil many times over. They came out really nice but were sitting in the basement while other renovations were going on and they got rusty again. I first cleaned with vinegar and wet cloth then used the black polish you recommended (different brand) and it came out well. I thought I had heard of an oil to put on it to protect it but I will try WD-40.

    The fireplace was mantal marble–we used Lead Out which is similar to Peel Away and did it ourselves: http://brownstonecyclone.com/2012/06/14/stripping-paint-off-a-fireplace-mantel/

    • Thanks Angela, so glad you found your way over to us!
      WD-40 works great for us (and it was recommended by our fireplace people), it also has about a million other uses, so is always handy to have around – even if you do decide you’d like to oil your doors at some point.
      I love your fireplace mantel! It’s turned out amazingly well – wish we had something as fancy in our house!
      Cx

  12. Hi Christine, I am very much enjoying your blogs especially on your fireplaces! I am about to attempt this is my little girls room. I am a bot worried about the grate polish. I have found some on ebay item no. 160962921740 its the Zip product but it says lead in the title. Am worried that it will give out poisonous fumes. I am not going to use the fireplace but was just worried for my little girl. Am I being paranoid here.. is this the product you used?
    Thank for your time!
    Vanessa

    • Hi Vanessa, glad you like our fireplaces!
      I’ve just checked the ebay item and the image shows exactly the same paste as we used. I’ve just checked the packaging of ours and there is no mention of lead at all, so I assume it’ll be fine. I’m not even sure they’d be allowed to sell something that contains lead these days.
      Here’s the link to ZIP, just in case you’d like to see if they have any more information: http://www.zipfires.com.
      If it makes you feel better, we bought our paste at a fireplace restoration company that uses that exact paste for restoring all of theirs.
      Oh, I know I’ve mentioned it before, but you should definitely mix the paste with a bit of white spirit when applying it – it’ll make it much easier to apply and you’ll have to use much less of it, too.
      Hope that’s some help!
      Cx

      • Thanks so much Christine! I think you guys are great at what you are doing and giving this information out…Thank you so much its a real help. Vanessa xx

          • Hi Christine,
            Its me again…lol :-P Okay, so I have just finished applying the grate polish and then I gave it a light buff. Its come up a lovely dark grey. This is the fire for my little girls room but i’m worried about the touch appeal. When I touch it it does come off on my hand. I don’t want to buff it anymore as it gets more grey and more shiny. Do you know if there is something I can spray over it to seal it in to stop the grate polish rubbing off? Or do I have to accept this is the way it is? Thanks as always
            Vanessa xxx

            • You certainly don’t ask any easy questions Vanessa! ;)
              We had exactly the same issue with the fireplace in our guest bedroom. We love that it isn’t shiny, but it does wear of much more easily than if it’s buffed more. We aren’t too bothered about ours, as the room isn’t used too much. I just ran upstairs (which is easier said than done, as I went to the gym today and am suffering) and gave ours a rub to see if it has become more touch resistant over time – it hasn’t.
              I’m not aware of anything to seal the it with, but I wonder if spraying it with hairspray – like you would as a fixative for pastel drawings – would do the trick. Having said that there are propper products available to seal pastel and coal drawings, so I’m wondering if one of those would do work. If you try one of those options, I’d definitely try it out on a small test area first! We’d love to know how you get on!
              Always happy to help (if we can)!
              Cx

              PS. Congratulations on finishing your fireplace!

            • …ok, I will try and find some from an art shop…I did see that you mentioned using WD-40 and that seals the grate polish? Did you do this on your very buffed fireplace? Could I used wd40 over it all? Just don’t want to mess it up…thanks for your help!
              Vanessa xx

            • I completely understand that you’re scared of messing up the fireplace after all of your hard work!
              I use WD-40 to clean the fireplace that we use in our living room. It’s much, much more shiny than the others without WD-40. You could of course use WD-40 over your complete fireplace (it’s what the professional fireplace restorers do to seal everything), it will make everything more shiny though. Again it will depend on how much you buff it though!
              Good luck!
              Cx

              PS. I’m not sure that sealing it with hairspray or any other art fixative will work – it’s just a guess! I’d definitely try it on a test area first!

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  14. H Christine, we are attempting to restore a similar fireplace in our bedroom, sadly someone at some point tiled over the original tiles with really ugly tiles – so I am going to buy some reclaimed one – we have removed the old tiles and there were the original tiles underneath but these are beyond repair. So we now have a gap for the new tiles to go in – and it looks like they will slip into the surround. I can see how it will be easy to get the first ones in but not how to get the last ones in? Do you have any advise?

    Thanks
    Jane

    • Hi Jane! It’s so sad that people remove or destroy original features. Like you’ve already said, the tiles slot in the back of the fireplace, but that’s pretty much all we know, too. The shop where you are buying the tiles will probably be able to advise you on how they can be fitted.
      Good luck!
      Cx

  15. Hi I’ve used wd40 to remove rust but what do I do once I’ve scrubbed it with the oil
    Please help haha

    • It sounds like you’ve done all of the hard work, Paula! Assuming your fireplace is free of paint and dirt and is clean, all that’s left to do it apply the grate polish. You can read more about what kind of polish we used and how we applied it here.
      Cx

  16. Hi there

    I just wanted to say a massive thank you for this excellent post. We’re 15 months into a full renovation of a 4 bed house and it seems never ending! I thought I’d try and tackle the cast iron fireplace in our bedroom and it seemed overwhelming even though it was just really dirty and rusty. I spent hours sanding the fireplace and it didn’t seem to make much difference. I googled renovating a fireplace and found your website suggesting grate polish. Luckily my local little hardware shop stocks it and it’s just fantastic! It’s so quick and easy to use and the fireplace looks amazing!

    I think I’ll take a look through your other projects now!

    Thanks again! and keep up the great work!
    Christina

    • Thank you so much for your kind comment, Christina! Our renovation seems like a never ending job, too, but it’s all worth it when you finish something as wonderful as an original fireplace. So glad that our experience with the grate polish was able to help you!
      Now that you’ve found your way over to us, we hope you pop back for a visit again soon!
      Cx

  17. This is such a wonderful and helpful post – thank you so much! I’m going through some similar updates at my house at the moment, and I wondered if I could ask your advice on something if you don’t mind? My fireplace hearth tiles are all intact (and look lovely now I’ve cleaned them up a bit!), but my problem is they are laid onto the original floor boards, just as yours are in the picture above, which I think is going to make it tricky for me when I lay my new floor (I’m replacing original floorboards with new hard wood floor in the next couple of weeks)… The depth of the new floor will be substantially greater than the current boards, and I’m wondering if you had any ideas or suggestions for how I would raise the hearth tiles so that they lay on top of the new floor and/or flush with the new floor? The option my flooring man has given me is to put a skirting board around the tiles and have them sunken, with the new floor at a higher level, but I would really like to avoid this if possible as the tiles are so beautiful and I’m scared this would detract from them somewhat. If you have any ideas at all I’d be really interested… Thank you again! T x

    • So glad that our post was able to help you out, Tommie!
      Our tiles (and I assume yours will be, too) are actually on a small concrete foundation and not tiled to the floorboards. I completely understand that you’d like the tiles flush with your new floor, but I think that the option your floor guy has suggested is probably the only way forward. We’ve actually tried to remove some of our hearth tiles and it’s pretty much impossible to get the up in one piece. As you’re lucky that yours are in a good condition, I’d be too worried about causing unnecessary damage.
      I know that’s not what you wanted to hear, but I really can’t think of an option to remove them safely.
      Cx

      • Hi Christine,
        I just wanted to say you’ve done a lovely job on your fireplace amp; I’m really proud of my one now too, all thanks to your helpful tips! It was a lot harder work than I thought amp; a lot of elbow grease was needed but was well worth the effort! I wanted to post before amp; after pictures on here but can’t seem to attach them.
        Thanks again,
        Cheryl

        • Thanks Cheryl, that’s so kind! Congratulations on restoring your fireplace, we’re so happy that we were able to give you a few tips. We’d love to see some of your before and after pictures – it would be great if you could email us some (general@littlehouseonthecorner.com)!
          Cx

  18. Hi Christine,
    I just wanted to let you know that the fixative spray worked so well! Its perfect thank you so much for helping me here – my little girl is not frightened of the fireplace now :-) On another note..oh no you must think…well, I lifted up the carpet in the other bedroom and took a look at the hearth. It is a concrete slab (no tiles all have been removed) but is about a good 1cm up from the wooden floorboards. I thought that the hearths sit at least 1cm down as that is where the tiles once were and it would lay flush with the floorboards. We are looking to re-tile the hearths but if I place tiles over the current concrete slab there’s going to be a horrid step of about 2-3cms from the floorboards. In your experience were your hearths steeped down or were they flush with the floorboards. I don’t know if this is original hearth or if someone has concreted over the existing hearth?? I appreciate your wisdom! Kind est regards Vanessa xx

    • I’m so glad the fixative spray worked, Vanessa! Might give it a go myself! ;) In our home, the hearth tiles were always flush with the floorboards (and therefore the concrete is always a bit lower than the floor). Newer regulations state that the hearth has to be higher than the rest of the floor, so I’m not sure if thats why someone may have built up the one in your home. If you’re fireplace is purely decorative, it won’t matter though. What are the other hearths in your home like? Are they all higher than the floor? Is this hearth the odd one out? Do your neighbours have a hearth in the same position – and is theirs higher than the floor, too? If all of the others are flush with the floor, I’d assume that it isn’t original concrete. It’s really hard to guess, but if it’s just decorative, I’d just do what you feel is right for the room.
      Cx

      PS. Had to laugh so hard about “my wisdom” that I nearly chocked on my breakfast. ;)

      • Hi Christine, :-)
        I had a look at all the other hearths and they all sit up higher than the floorboards? Am wondering if they had a surround around them – I’m just not sure…boo hoo! I wanted to do this myself but now will have to get a tiller in to see what he thinks and if it would be better to just re-tile over the top of the concrete hearth. In an ideal world I’d like to knock it out so that it drops back down but hubby is not allowing the extra work…oh well…thanks for your reply xx

        • Boo – that’s really annoying. I does sound like that’s the way your hearths just are. Knocking it out sounds like a big job and probably isn’t worth the effort. I’m sure there’s a good design solution out there… just finding it is always the problem!
          Cx

  19. I own the century old family farm and live in the house my grandparents built when my great grandparents home burned to the ground in 1950. The coal burning fireplace insert has never been painted but is really rough looking and the surrounding “tile” is ugly red brick. The mantle and insert style are beautiful. I have no idea how to restore the insert, but would love to maintain it rather than replace it if I could find someone to do it for me. Would I have to take it out? Can they clean it up and replace the tile without destroying the floor, carpet, newly painted walls, etc? I wish I had thought of this part beforehand, but it’s too late now. I was looking at gas or electric inserts and when I saw yours I realized how beautiful it could be if we replaced the tile and refurbished the cast iron insert. I work full time and care for elderly parents, so I cannot do the work myself. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I Love what you have done with yours! Thank you – Pat

    • That’s not an easy question to answer, Pat! There are definitely lots of fireplace restoration companies around and I would assume that they could restore your fireplace without removing it. I have to admit, that I would be worried about your already finished carpet and walls! It’s really not a clean job. Most fireplace can be removed and then stripped or even sandblasted away from your finished room, but it would depend on how easily your fireplace can be removed. I’d get a few fireplace restoration people to come round, have a look and give you a quote for the work. It won’t (or at least it shouldn’t) cost anything and will give you a better idea of what’s involved and how much it will cost to put right.
      Good luck!
      Cx

  20. Hi,
    Amazing results. I have a similar fire place, which was originally coated with a brown varnish to give a wood effect, then after 50 years of coal fires it was covered with white gloss. I followed your instructions with the Nitromors, which gave the gloss paint a fright but didn’t have any effect on the varnish. Also, the nooks and crannies were nigh impossible to clean. A friend advised a car grit blaster, which cost about £60 and I used 3 bags of grit. This has taken the fireplace back to original metal, including all the inaccessible corners, and I would thoroughly recommend this route.
    A couple of tips though!
    1. The grit is re-useable, but creates more and more dust so construct a shelter around your work area to contain the mess (don’t use polythene!!!!)
    2. Duct tape on the tiles to prevent scratching (although I did this a small corner lifted but fortunately it’s not too obvious,
    3. Make sure to use a filter mask and eye protection. Also protect ears from grit as it’s tricky to wash out.

    The finish is like new, and after a wipe down with WD40 I’ll apply a coat of stove polish.

    • Those are some great tips, thanks Andrew! We stripped our second fireplace issuing PeelAway which worked amazingly well! Your method sounds amazing, definitely something we’ll look into if we have something too strip in the future!
      Thanks for the tips!
      Cx

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