Mesker Brothers column base replicas
Earlier this year I wanted to explore replicating Mesker Brothers Iron Works column bases, with the idea of complimenting the middle ornament that’s already available in cast aluminum, and eventually completing a set of all three ornamental pieces for a six-inch wide column. Each base is a separate attachment bolted to the column, and serves no other function than to provide ornamentation and to identify the manufacturer through a small rectangular nameplate located near the top. (For more information on Mesker Brothers storefront column construction see here). In terms of appropriateness and durability, nothing beats a cast aluminum reproduction, which actually improves on the performance of the original cast iron pieces. However, due to the extended length (34 inches) and thickness of the base piece, cast aluminum proved to be cost prohibitive, not necessarily because of material costs but in the initial stage of creating a master pattern. Unless hundreds of pieces are to be made, this initial investment (in the thousands if to be done properly) cannot be justified. Additional difficulties arose because of the nameplate. Although I abandoned going with cast aluminum before it came to this, matching the typefaces used for the original nameplate would have been challenging at best, if not impossible. For these reasons, I needed to find an alternative method of exactly reproducing the primary characteristics of the original design at an affordable cost. Working with Abatron—a Kenosha, WI, company specializing in adhesives, sealants, coatings and epoxies, with a custom molds and castings department—we explored two options, their pros and cons described below.
Option A: Fiberglass and epoxy composite. This method produces an extremely light casting, weighing at 3 lbs versus 15 lbs of an original cast iron piece. Similarly to the original, its interior is hollow. The material appears to be very durable and actually has a bit of flexibility which I think is helpful. Because it is not as rigid, it is less brittle and less prone to cracking or breakage. The process is more labor intensive and requires a vacuum pump, hence this option is more expensive. Price per piece: $290
Option B: Epoxy casting compound reinforced with wire mesh. The casting compound used was Abocast 8-3, with marble powder filler added to the epoxy to produce a smooth hard surface. Unlike a cast iron original or the fiberglass/epoxy composite, this piece is filled solid in order for the mesh reinforcement to be effective. It is still significantly lighter than the original, weighing at 8.8 lbs. The castings appear to be very durable, but also very rigid. The rigidity can prove to be problematic especially in thin sections where there is little material, such as around the top bolt hole. My concerns are that over-tightening the bolt in this area could cause the piece to crack and essentially replicate the problems of an original cast iron piece, very prone to failure around the bolt openings. We also noticed that the curing process took longer than anticipated. As we went though several rounds of prototypes, the pieces arrived with some deflection which surprised the manufacturer who was very careful about making sure they were straight. This indicated that the material remained somewhat flexible and was being bent by tight shrink wrap. Abatron corrected this by shipping multiple pieces with their flat backs against one another or with rigid stiffeners for single pieces. Needless to say, we did not encounter these issues with the fiberglass and epoxy composite. So the only real advantage over Option A is the cost. Although extra careful handling is required in shipment prep, the manufacturing is less labor intensive. Price per piece: $210
Visually, both methods replicate the original nearly flawlessly. The mold or pattern is derived directly from the original piece, capturing all of its surface characteristics including imperfections and the like. The imperfections lend the castings an aged quality making them look very authentic, but if there are too many layers of paint, the lettering on the nameplate can be dulled or obscured. Prior to making the mold for the reproductions, I had my original cast iron piece glass-blasted clean and primed with two coats of primer so the lettering in relief is very sharp and therefore very readable on the replicas. For the record, the nameplate on this replica is the earlier of the two available designs; if trying to match the other, another mold will have to be made. Both materials can be painted which will make them visually undistinguishable from cast iron. The biggest drawback is that neither method addresses the little lip/profile at the top and bottom of the back. That profile provides a tight fit against those earlier columns (pre-1898) that use flanges at the corners. But since not all columns did have this profile, a flat back, as on these replicas, appears to be a better baseline solution. The resulting ¼ inch space at top and bottom can be addressed on site, through a small spacer or an elastomeric sealant, etc. And truth be told, this really is only problematic with Option B (epoxy casting compound) because that spacer is rather necessary for a structural solution. Otherwise the material is so thin and brittle that without the additional thickness, the top opening becomes decorative and will require another attachment, such as blind fastening (the material can be drilled into) or a construction adhesive. I prefer Option A hands down for its durability and lack of connection issues. But it is significantly more expensive, especially if multiple replacements are required. Both prototypes were installed on Mesker facades as replacement pieces so we will observe the long term performance and weathering of both materials.
The mold-making cost for this piece was approximately $300, so anyone requiring more than a couple of pieces and having access to an original that’s suitable to make a mold from, should likely work directly with Abatron. If only one or two pieces are necessary, it will be less expensive to purchase the pieces from me since the mold is already made and paid for. I may also be able to assist owners who require other pieces/sizes/widths and have a suitable original to make a mold, but only need a limited number of replicas and do not want to incur the cost of the pattern. Since these are custom made to order by Abatron and their material and labor costs are subject to change, the above named prices are estimates only. Any interested party can contact me and I will obtain an estimate from Abatron before placing an order.
In addition to developing a viable alternative to cast aluminum, I believe that the fiberglass and epoxy composite has potential for other uses. Due to its light weight I think this material could be experimented with to inexpensively replicate stamped zinc pieces that were used to provide high relief ornamentation on upper facades of Mesker fronts. The original pieces were soldered and/or riveted to sheets of galvanized steel/iron so the attachment method would have to be successfully resolved.