Protecting our historic fireplaces.
One of the messiest annual tasks is black leading the firebacks. All the firebacks are cast iron and each year we need to refresh the protective coating on them.
An iron fireback has a dual purpose: protecting the back of a fireplace and reflecting heat into a room. By black leading them each year we protect the surface from deterioration and improve their appearance by highlighting features in the casting.
Black leading substances are flammable and can irritate the skin so we wear full body protection while black leading - a white suit that covers us from head to toe, a mask and a pair of vinyl gloves to protect our hands.
Preparing the fireback
Firebacks came into fashion as luxury items in the 16th century, and were traditionally cast from sand moulds. The fireplace in the Garden Hall was cast using pastry stamps and butter moulds to create detailing in the sand.
Although the chimneys in the house are now blocked up we still find that adverse weather can occasionally force moisture, dirt, and insects past the blockage. This can cause damage to the firebacks. After thoroughly dusting the iron we scrape the surface with a wire toothbrush to remove the rust.
The blackleading process
The black lead substance is mixed with white spirit to create a thin paint which is applied and left to dry overnight. The area of the fireback that would reflect the path of light in the room is then lightly rubbed with a brush to take some of the matte effect off, allowing areas to stand out and to highlight detail in the casting.
You can see firebacks in the Gun room, The Library and the Garden Hall.