QUESTION: I’ve recently become interested in collecting cast-iron toys. But there seem to be so many new ones out there, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the new and the old. Can you give me some pointers on what to look for? I believe it would be easy to get ripped off when buying toys for my new collection.
ANSWER: You have to be very careful when buying cast-iron toys. Even knowledgeable dealers often can’t tell the difference between new ones and old ones. And if you’re buying them at auction sites online, you need to know a few things to prevent yourself from getting ripped off.
Cast iron was the 19th-century equivalent of today's plastics—it was cheap, could be made in almost any shape, and identical pieces could be mass-produced in molds. Unfortunately, those reasons are why so many toys get reproduced in cast iron. Although manufacturers produce new cast iron toys in the same way as originals, there are certain differences between originals and reproductions.
Foundries make most cast-iron toys using a method called sand casting which begins with a full-sized, three-dimensional model or master pattern which the foundry worker pushes into the sand to make an impression. Some foundry workers place the master pattern in a wooden box, or casting frame, then pack fine sand, called casting sand, around the pattern. Each mold requires two frames—one frame for the top half of the mold and another for the bottom. Most makers use brass or bronze masters for toy molds for better detail and longer life.
The worker locks the casting frame halves together, then pours molten iron into the mold. The iron runs into the hollow impression and forms a copy of the master pattern. After cooling, he separates the frames and removes the cast piece for finishing. Most foundries use sand molds only once since the impression deteriorates when the worker pours iron into it. However, some can be used several times. The number of times a mold can be used depends on the skill of the worker, the complexity of the master pattern, and the level of quality acceptable in the finished casting.
Two other basic sand-casting terms—runner and gate—can help determine when the casting occurred by the marks they leave. A runner is a channel running through the mold which feeds molten metal into the individual castings. The gate is the point where the runner castings branch off into the casting.
The casting sand also allows for several important differences between new and old cast iron toys. Casting sand used in original molds was generally finer than the casting sand used today. This means that old cast iron almost always has a smoother surface than new castings made with coarser sand. The surface of old cast iron both looks smooth and feels smooth to the touch—something that’s impossible to tell when purchasing cast-iron toys online. New cast iron usually has small prickly bumps that rise above the surface and holes or pits that go below the surface. The rough texture is the most obvious on unpainted surfaces, such as the inside or underside of toys.
A second major difference caused by the casting sand is the amount of detail in new and old toys. The finer the sand, the tighter it could be packed around the master pattern, which transferred more and smaller details to the mold. Old castings almost always have sharper lines and more detail while newer ones are less sharp, blurred, and lack the fine details found in old pieces cast with finer sand.
Makers of reproductions, on the other hand, use actual antique toys as master patterns or copies of original toys or copies of copies. Cast iron shrinks 3/32 to 1/8 of an inch per foot between mold and casting. This means each time a maker copies a piece a certain amount of distortion occurs which results in loss of detail. Even if the foundry worker takes apart an older piece and uses it as a pattern, the reproduction will be smaller than the original due to normal shrinkage.
Another difference between old and new cast iron toys is the amount of hand finishing. Almost all old pieces had at least some hand finishing, while most reproductions have none. Evidence of this occurs in matching halves of original cast iron toys which makers fitted together by hand filing or at least had the edges tumbled smooth in a machine: This extra attention to fit produced a tight seam in original cast iron toys.
On the other hand, the seams in new cast iron are often loose, with 1/8-inch gaps or more. Worker’s perform what little finishing they do on reproductions with modern high-speed production tools, which leave obvious grinding marks. Whenever these marks appear, especially if they’re bright and shiny with no patina, it pretty much guarantees the piece is a reproduction.
The way decorators painted old and new toys is another indication of age. They used fairly heavy oil-based enamel paint on older ones and much thinner paint, usually a water-based acrylic, on newer ones. Also, they usually dipped the older cast-iron toys, rather than used a brush to apply the paint. Today, decorators use air-powered spray guns to speed production.
The use of thicker paint and the heavier coatings of paint produced by dipping produces a distinctive wear pattern in original painted cast iron toys. Dipping also leaves paint on surfaces that are hard to reach with a spray gun, such as inside surfaces, hidden angles, and along the edges where seams meet. Toy banks, for example, usually show paint on both inner and outer edges of the coin slot. Likewise, old paint around a coin slot should show the typical ragged paint chips which would occur with normal wear.
New, thin paint on reproductions doesn’t chip even if deliberately gouged. Most chips in old paint also show different layers of rusty brown or black which appear in the order the decorator applied them.
Even unpainted, old cast iron appears a different color than new cast iron. Old iron usually looks dark brown or even black, while new cast iron is typically gray or a dirty silver color.