The new originals

Spring is the time when many people's thoughts turn to renovation, but for those lucky enough to own a historic home, a trip to the DIY store just won't do. Martin Gurdon tracks down the specialist suppliers
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Your ancient cast iron gutters are oxidising, and the hand-forged hinges on your original Victorian kitchen door have finally unhinged. So can you buy new replacements? Yes, if you're prepared to do some detective work and pay a little more. This applies to items like age-appropriate mortars, paints and domestic fittings.

Your ancient cast iron gutters are oxidising, and the hand-forged hinges on your original Victorian kitchen door have finally unhinged. So can you buy new replacements? Yes, if you're prepared to do some detective work and pay a little more. This applies to items like age-appropriate mortars, paints and domestic fittings.

A good starting point is the Building Conservation Directory, which lists a plethora of manufacturers, suppliers and fitters specialising in items that you won't find at Homebase. We were told about the directory by Douglas Kent, technical secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB).

Founded by William Morris in 1877, SPAB is keen to protect architectural loveliness. It has a telephone advice line, publishes information sheets and runs courses to help householders and professional builders achieve it, and avoid aesthetic vandalism or inadvertent damage.

Mention of the latter issue makes Kent rail against the use of modern cement when repointing old buildings with single cavity walls, rather than the lime-based mortar originally used. The lime allows moisture to breathe out of a building's structure. "If you use modern cement the breathing process goes into reverse. The masonry does the breathing. All too often builders think they're putting in nice, strong cement, but they're actually causing damage."

Rory Sumerling agrees - hardly surprising, given that he runs Anglia Lime in Sudbury, Essex, which produces lime-based mortar, washes and plaster. But he's something of an evangelist for the material. "Cement was first patented in 1824. Any building pre-dating that shouldn't have a bag of cement near it," said Sumerling, who trained as a civil engineer, and describes lime as "amazing stuff". He, too, runs practical courses demonstrating how to use products based on it.

Before the arrival of petrochemical-derived paints, linseed oil was often a principle element of their predecessors, and such paints are still made. Norfolk-based Holkham Linseed Paints imports them from Sweden, and claims for exterior timber applications that they can last for 15 years, be pepped up with occasional application of raw, warm linseed oil, don't use solvents and are made from a renewable resource.

The managing director, Tom Coke, happens to be a Viscount. His family owns the Holkham estate, which comprises 310 buildings. "We were repainting them every six years - about 52 houses a year. It was costing £70,000 to £80,000 annually. On southern elevations, modern paints were cracking after three or four years."

Coke reckons about 70 per cent of domestic window replacements are UPVC, but many of the discarded original frames were still sound beneath their bubbling paint. A mix of sympathetic joinery and the use of paint that works with the wood, rather than sits on top of it, would help preserve the survivors, he says. His products cost around £24 a litre ("about twice what you'd pay trade at B&Q").

For many years, the charmingly named J & JW Longbottom, based in Huddersfield, has made cast-iron manhole and drain covers. It is now competing against much cheaper Indian and Chinese producers, however, so the company is concentrating on new domestic, cast-iron gutters, downpipes and associated paraphernalia, using patterns and designs that date back to the late 19th century.

"Nothing's really changed for producing gutters," said managing director Richard Gudgeon. Apparently, the trick lies in the quality of the castings, which use something called green sand. He says that a decade ago, most householders assumed leaking cast-iron gutters were knackered and replaced them with lighter, cheaper plastic items. (In fact, many leaks relate to the putty and paint seals between gutters, which can often be split and recaulked by knowledgeable builders.) But there is a growing demand for "original" fittings.

"We go to a lot of home building and renovation shows. They're very relevant for us," he says, adding that his firm saw 1,200 people at one event. Recent clients include Kensington Palace - although that was to repair some original gutters. Gudgeon reckons the average period-semi owner would need "about £500" for a complete set of cast-iron gutters, downpipes and fixings.

Ian Pritchett has long been in the restoration business, and on the back of that opened a builder's merchants in Henley-on-Thames. Called the Old House Store, it is an MDF-free zone. Pritchett himself doesn't employ the studied, monosyllabic contempt his high-street colleagues often seem to reserve for non-trade customers. He also runs "how to" training courses.

Owners of wattle and daub houses beat a path to his door. "We sell the mud and people put the straw in themselves," he says. "It's highly sophisticated mud."

Other product lines include cow, horse and goat hair for different forms of plastering. "We also sell hand-forged latches and hinges." Wooden roof tile pegs are another favourite, and for about £335 plus VAT the company will make internal oak doors. He thinks the supply of such things is getting easier through a mix of demand and practice at finding people to make them. Nothing Pritchett sells is reclaimed.

"Reclamation ultimately leads to buildings being demolished. France has been raped and eastern Europe could be next."

Perhaps future generations of flyboys will one day be tearing down ageing semis for their period UPVC glazing and selling stone cladding (aka Wally Bricks) on the black market. Somehow it seems unlikely.

SPAB: Mon-Wed 020-7456 0916; Thur-Fri, 01524 251293; www.spab.org.uk

Anglia Lime 01787 313974

Holkham Linseed Paints: 01328 711348; www.holkham.co.uk

J&JW Longbottom: 01484 682141

Old House Store 0118 969 7771; www.oldhousestore.co.uk

Building Conservation Directory (£19.95, Cathedral Communications), 01747 871717; www.buildingconservation.com

Comments