Restoring a 19th-Century Garden Statue

With better weather also comes the time to catch up on old projects that got waylaid during winter. That includes going through the masses of antique cast iron lying around.

I admit, I have an issue buying “projects” that may or may not be expeditiously completed. Don’t judge. Perhaps it’s the same trigger that encourages me to buy books that I never read, artwork that I have no wall space for, and a creative vision for more.

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A future project discovered deep inside the smokehouse during a recent spring cleaning

I love the potential of something that could be repaired, “fixed up”, and returned to its former glory. The problem here is that not only do cast iron projects take up space, but they are ridiculously heavy to keep shuffling around. Someone once suggested that I take up painting matchboxes instead. (That person’s name shall remain omitted from this post.)

My most recent project has been a basic restoration of an antique cast-iron statue and pedestal, likely produced in France during the late nineteenth century. The woman (we really need a good name for her), draped in a Greco-Roman style, holds a torch in her left hand and has her right arm raised above her head. She was rescued at auction from a house where she had been left to rust under an overflowing gutter for many years. Her outer coat of paint had been compromised, letting water pool underneath, expediting corrosion. She was not a happy camper.


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Step 1 – Preparation

The first step was to manually remove as much of the outer shell as possible. Being attentive at this stage is important to reduce any risk of major damage or unnecessary pitting to the iron surface. This is one reason that sandblasting isn’t always the first recommendation for this type of project. (People always ask me why I don’t just sandblast the hell out of it.) Oh, and I really didn’t want to spend the fortune that it would have been to sandblast these two pieces.

I had four favorite tools for this and there wasn’t much that I couldn’t do with this combination: a stiff bristle wire brush, some fine steel wool, coarse-grit sandpaper for painted areas, and of course my trusty five-in-one tool. (Everyone should have a good five-in-one tool in their tool belt.)

Step 2 – Prime

After doing my best to clean and prepare the surface, I was able to prime the existing paint and newly exposed cast iron with a stabilizing primer. After testing a few different ones, I really liked the adherence of the Rustoleum Gray Enamel Primer.

I chose the aerosol for this stage of the project, because I wanted good coverage but with minimal pooling in some of the small grooves. There are already several coats of paint, and I didn’t want to obscure the statue’s details any further.

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Step 3 – Top Coat

For the top coat, I utilized an oil-based enamel in white to ensure the best weather protection and long-term adherence. After testing a few different finishes, the flat white was the winner, providing the best coverage and hiding small imperfections in the surface. I utilized the same process for both the pedestal and the statue with excellent results.

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I’m still dealing with a little rust bleeding through on the base of the statue where the corrosion was really bad from years of sitting in a pool of water, but I think that is at least stabilized and better protected at this point. It’s something that I can work on in more detail later.


Step 4 – Enjoy

Standing about seven feet tall, and god only knows how many pounds, she now graces the north side of the vegetable garden thanks to the muscles of a few good men.

My friend Karen says it looks like she’s dancing – party style. I think that’s a great perspective – the more joy in the garden, the better. Maybe a little garden boogie will help the plants grow!

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