Many original features (missing): Do you need a spear railing head or plaster cornice? John Windsor explains how you can bring your crumbling villa up to spec

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The Independent Online
WHEN THEY stopped making Victorian villas they threw away the moulds - which were eagerly snapped up by ironfounders and plasterworkers. These days, if you cannot find reasonably priced architectural salvage to match the twiddly bits such as cast-iron railing heads or plaster ceiling cornices that have fallen off your villa, the chances are that you can find a local firm that has kept the original patterns.

Iron foundries and plasterworks in the restoration trade are like museums. You can see hundreds, even thousands, of ancient handcarved wooden pattern-moulds glued into boxes awaiting a fill of sand (to create a mould for cast iron) or vinyl (to create a mould for plaster).

But how to locate the elusive company of cognoscenti or the 'little man down the road'? Until last year, the villa restorer needed a filing cabinet bulging with yellowing scraps bearing telephone numbers and legends such as 'Alf will take a squeeze for 20 quid'. Then George Sorensen, a 35-year-old Canadian chartered accountant, resigned after 10 years with Price Waterhouse to publish the first annual issue of The Building Conservation Directory.

Edited by Jonathan Taylor, a conservation officer for Kensington and Chelsea council in London, it lists more than 700 contacts and has a circulation of 10,000, including 8,000 within the conservation industry.

Besides information about iron, plaster and stone craftsmen, it lists organisations offering technical, policy and planning advice and more contacts. Mr Sorensen pointed me in the direction of Alan Hoyle, whose family firm, James Hoyle, is my local ironfounder in Hackney, east London. We took refuge from the din of sand-blasting, electric furnace, machine sand-sieving and metal polishing by crossing the road to the 'head office', a caff that serves bacon rolls. Back in the foundry Mr Hoyle's six employees were perspiring over an order for 13 giant iron lamp standards for Westminster Bridge.

Between bites of bacon roll, Mr Hoyle enthused about his collection of small domestic patterns, which includes 350 styles of railing head and 55 balcony balustrades. He said he could let me have, say, half a dozen fleur-de-lis or spear railing heads, sand-cast using one of his collection of wooden patterns, for pounds 3- pounds 10 each. A stock-pattern 8in urn 'queen head' would cost pounds 10. Or I could provide him with a sample rail head to make an impression in the sand: that would cost about 25 per cent more and the definition would be less sharp.

If there is no sample and no stock pattern and a new pattern has to be carved, then the same order might cost pounds 200 or more. Similar arithmetic applies to balustrades: half a dozen from stock patterns might cost pounds 25 each but pounds 1,000 or more the lot if a new pattern is made. For runs of more than 300 it usually pays to have a new wooden pattern carved and a bank of resin moulds cast from it. Prices are higher for designs with internal holes or 'undercuts' such as hook shapes.

Much Victorian cast iron has a low carbon content, making it brittle. Mr Hoyle uses softer, high- carbon iron.

I also spoke to Maurice Rugg, deputy chairman of George Jackson & Sons of Mitcham, Surrey, experts in plasterwork since 1780. Besides Hampton Court and the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, the firm restored the plaster mouldings of Uppark, West Sussex, partly destroyed by fire in 1989 - after which thousands of bits of salvaged plaster mouldings were stored in dustbins.

Villa dwellers' demands are more modest - such as the replacement of a few feet of acanthus-design plaster cornice lost during the repair of a bay window. A 'stick and rag' job, Mr Rugg called it, meaning the plaster would be fortified while still liquid with a layer of canvas and a lath inserted to take nails.

Using a pattern taken from the firm's stock of 20,000 carved boxwood moulds (some dating back to the firm's founder, the architect Robert Adam), a new cornice might cost pounds 10- pounds 30 a metre. If a vinyl mould - known as a squeeze - has to be made from the customer's sample section of plasterwork, it might cost half as much again.

Cold liquid plaster does not pose the problems of hot molten iron. It does not burn vinyl moulds - and vinyl moulds are flexible enough to pop out of undercuts.

The Building Conservation Directory, pounds 16.95 including p&p from Cathedral Communications, 66 Strathleven Road, London SW2 5LB (071-738 6462).

Alan Hoyle, James Hoyle & Son, The Beehive Foundry, 50 Andrews Road, London E8 4RL (office 081-551 6764, works 071- 254 2335).

George Jackson & Sons, Unit 19, Mitcham Industrial Estate, Streatham Road, Mitcham CR4 2AJ (081-648 4343).

WHO DOES WHAT IN THE RESTORATION BUSINESS

THE following supply the south London company Denny and Fancourt, which specialises in period refurbishment:

London Architectural Salvage and Supply Company Mark Street, London EC2A 4ER (071- 739 0448):staircases, doors and cast-iron radiators.

Winther Browne Nobel Road, London N18 (081-803 3434): banisters.

EJ Harmer 19a Birkbeck Hill, London SE24 (081-670 1017): plaster casts for ceilings.

F W Poole 12 Larkhall Lane, London SW4 (071-622 5154): slate, marble and granite.

Denny and Fancourt 68-70 Choumert Road, London SE15 (071-639 5719): wood mouldings. A G Holder 55-59 Bensham Grove, Thornton Heath, Surrey (081-771 3311): will copy anything that has been cast. Fired Earth 21 Battersea Square, London SW11 (071-924 2272): old tiles

These national organisations offer advice on historical detail and suppliers:

The Architectural Salvage Index c/o Hutton & Rostron, Netley House, Gomshall, Surrey GU5 9QA (0483 203221).

Association of Preservation Trusts 27 John Adam Street, London WC2N 6HZ (071-930 1629).

The Building Centre 26 Store Street, London WC1E 7BT (071- 637 1022).

Construction History Society c/o Chartered Institute Building, Englemere, Kings Ride, Ascot Berkshire SL5 8BJ (0344 23355).

English Heritage Fortress House, 23 Savile Row, London W1X 1AB (071-973 3000).

Royal Institute of British Architects 66 Portland Place, London W1N 4AD (071-580 5533).

Save Britain's Heritage 68 Battersea High Street, London SW11 3HX (071-228 3336).

The Victorian Society 1 Priory Gardens, Bedford Park, London W4 1TT (081-994 1019).

(Photographs omitted)

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