a large church building with lead roofing
A good example of lead roofing at Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire © Historic England
A good example of lead roofing at Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire © Historic England

Metals

Metals are extremely versatile and can perform tasks that are impossible for other building materials. Each metal or alloy has unique characteristics and properties that govern how it can be used for architecture, art and ornament.

All metals traditionally used in buildings react with oxygen and moisture in the atmosphere in a process known as oxidation. Normally oxidation produces stable and protective patinas, but in a few situations, it can result in harmful corrosion that disfigures and seriously weakens the metal. Corrosion is usually a very gradual process and can normally be slowed or prevented altogether by good maintenance and the use of protective paints and coatings.

Deterioration and conservation of lead

Lead has been used in building since Roman times, and for many centuries it was the material of choice for covering the roofs of the most prestigious royal and ecclesiastical buildings. It is generally very durable and can last hundreds of years. 

Lead can occasionally suffer from underside corrosion leading to failure in as little as 15 years. Historic England has undertaken extensive research to understand the causes of underside corrosion and provide recommendations to overcome it. You can read more about our research into the deterioration and conservation of lead on our page on Lead Roofs and Statuary: Understanding, Monitoring and Conservation 

Lead theft

Another threat to historic lead is theft. Roofs are often the target but thieves also take gutters and downpipes. Such crimes leave buildings vulnerable to further damage through water penetration.

Historic England works closely with the police and various church authorities to tackle this problem. Read more about our advice and guidance on dealing with metal theft from historic buildings on our page on Theft from Places of Worship.

Alternatives to lead roofing

Following the theft of lead from a church roof, there may be occasions when re-covering the roof with a different metal (terne-coated or low-reflective stainless steel for example), rather than lead, may be appropriate. These more closely resemble lead compared to other modern alternatives, are extremely durable and have little salvage value so are less likely to be targeted by thieves in the future.

Historic England commissioned expert advice on some of the issues affecting the use of stainless steels on church roofs, and you can download a pdf of the guidance here:

Conservation of architectural metalwork

The field of architectural and structural metalwork encompasses a wide range of structures that vary in size, materials, significance and complexity: from engineering structures and bridges, to railings, rainwater goods or window frames, from fountains and statuary to catches, nails or simple hinges.

The webinar below covers what we mean by architectural and structural metalwork, the main metal groups (ferrous and non-ferrous), their properties and some typical problems, as well as a general approach to their conservation.

2021 webinar: Introduction to conservation of architectural metalwork

Conservation of iron gates and railings

Traditionally, gates and railings were made from wrought iron, cast iron and, later, steel. Sometimes the entire structure was made from a single type of metal, but in other cases different components could be in different metals (some in wrought iron and others in cast iron, for example). Regular maintenance is essential to keep iron gates and railings in good repair.

The webinar below gives an introduction to wrought and cast iron gates and railings. It describes fabrication methods, as well as the properties of the different metals use and some typical features to help recognise them. Common condition problems, assessment and options for cleaning, repair, and coatings, as well as general advice on maintenance are also covered.

2021 webinar: Conservation of architectural metalwork: Iron gates and railings

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