Russian Iron (or Russia Iron)
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This page was last updated on December 15, 2014.
In answer to a recent question about the proper color of unpainted steam locomotive boiler jackets, a bit of research finds that what is popularly known as both "Russia Iron" and "Russian Iron" can vary considerably between shades of gray, bluish gray, greenish-gray, and even reddish-gray.
Kyle Wyatt (Curator of History of the Nevada State Railroad Museum) wrote to Jerry Kitts (Foothill Model Works) in January 1997:
The following comes from a paper by Dr. Percy, included on pages 633 to 647 of the Appendix of The Practical Metal-Workers Assistant, by Oliver Byrne, published by Henry Carey Baird, 1874. The first two paragraphs are of interest and sets the tone for what we need to know as modelers.
"A particular kind of sheet-iron is manufactured in Russia, which, so far as I know, has not been produced elsewhere. It is remarkable for its smooth, glossy surface, which is metallic gray, and not bluish gray, like that of common sheet-iron. On bending it backwards and forwards with the fingers no scale is separated, as is the case with sheet-iron manufactured in the ordinary way by rolling; but on folding it closely, as though it were paper, and unfolding it, small scales are detached along the line of the fold."
"In the following pages this kind of sheet-iron will be designated Russian Sheet-Iron. This sheet-iron is in considerable demand in Russia for roofing, and in the United States, where it is largely used in the construction of stoves and for encasing locomotive engines. I am informed that it is there named stove-pipe iron."
Pages 633 through 647 deal with how Russian Iron or Russian Sheet-Iron or Russia Iron is made by Dr. Percy. He also had five additional authors describe the process. Each a bit different for different locations in Russia. The sheet-iron from the Ural area was the best.
Percy says "A first-class sheet must be like a mirror, without a spot upon it." We have always speculated that one of the colors of Russian Iron was blue. Somebody probably put it in print a 100 years ago and we keep repeating it. The blue part probably came from reflection from the sky in somebody¹s description. Not solid blue like some importers like to have their engines painted. As a further personal opinion I'd say that the green boilers so popular with some roads was an off shoot of the greenish color of some Russian Iron. It was noted that teams of workers did the work and the 12 hour day was normal as it was in most of the world at the time. The workers were paid by the quality of their output. In short after the sheet-iron was graded you got paid. You got more for first class and less as the sheets were graded down to roofing material.
The Percy paper includes three pages on American Sheet Iron, which is black or silver gray. The process was patented by two American companies prior to 1874. Another source is a June 10, 1870 engineering book from London, page 407, large format paper describing the process very similar to what was described by Dr. Percy. Other sources include an 1986 analysis by Kobe Steel of Japan using a piece of Russian Iron from V&T #12, and an 1883 flyer for Russian Iron, which gives the sizes of the sheets for locomotives.
In Garrison's version (in Engineering and Mining Journal in 1888), he mentions first green then metallic gray. What he did is quote two different authors. Different areas in Russia made different colors of Russian Iron, which include dark metallic gray (Dr. Percy in general about Russian Iron), a greenish color (Prof. Pumpelly eastern flank of the Ural Mountains), brown and smoke-gray color (N. DE KHANIKOF both flanks of the Ural Mountains). Once again not bluish gray. No matter what color they came up with its always mirror like or glossy.
Garrison's Manufacture Of Russion Sheet Iron
By F. Lynwood Garrison, Journal of the U. S. Association of Charcoal Iron Workers
(from the December 1, 1888 issue of Engineering and Mining Journal, pages 461 and 462, with some minor editing)
A summation of what Dr. Percy (an Englishman) wrote prior to 1874. Garrison wrote the article because even in 1888 the general engineering society thought that Russian Iron was a secret. It wasn't a secret at all. In 1888 they didn't know where to look and 100 years later, researchers still didn't know were to look for the information. The biggest problem in 1988 in finding what Russian Iron was, that we did not know where to look. The Engineering and Mining Journal doesn't sound like a place for how to make Russian Iron.
There appears to be much misunderstanding in reference to the manufacture of sheet iron in Russia, and questions are frequently asked the writer: "What are the secrets connected with it?" "How is it made?" "Could admission be obtained to the iron works in the Urals, where this iron is made?" It is difficult to understand why such questions should be asked by persons versed in the literature of iron and steel, for Dr. Percy wrote a very excellent and accurate monograph on the subject a number of years ago.
Not having had the opportunity of personally visiting the Russian iron works in the Urals, Dr. Percy's paper was compiled from data furnished him by a number of persons who visited these sheet iron works. Since it has been my good fortune to have the opportunity of seeing some of these works in the Urals but a short time ago, I will, at the risk of telling an old story, briefly describe the process of manufacture as I saw it.
The ores used for the manufacture of this iron are mostly from the celebrated mines of Maloblagodatj (Ural mountains in Russia), and average about the following chemical composition: Metallic iron 60 per cent, silica 5 per cent, phosphorus from 0.15 to 0.06 per cent. The ore is generally smelted into coal pig-iron and converted into malleable iron by puddling or by a Franche-Comté hearth. Frequently, however, the malleable iron is made directly from the ore in various kinds of bloomaries.
The blooms (or billets) thus obtained are rolled into bars 6 inches wide, 1/4" inch thick, and 30 inches in length. These bars are sorted, the inferior ones "piled" re-rolled whilst the others are carefully heated to redness and cross-rolled into sheets about 30 inches square, requiring from eight to ten passes through the rolls. These sheets are twice again heated to redness and rolled in sets of three each, care being taken that every sheet before being passed through the rolls is brushed off with a wet broom made of fir, and at the same time that powdered charcoal is dexterously sprinkled between the sheets. Ten passes are thus made, and the resulting sheets trimmed to a standard size of 25 by 56 inches. After being assorted and the defective ones thrown out, each sheet is wetted with water, dusted with charcoal powder and dried. They are then made into packets containing from 60 to 100 sheets, and bound up with the waste sheets.
The packets are placed one at a time, with a log of wood at each of the four sides in a nearly air-tight chamber, and carefully annealed for five or six hours. When this has been completed the packet is removed and hammered with a trip hammer weighing about a ton, the area of its striking surface being about 6 by 14 inches. The face of the hammer is made of this somewhat unusual shape in order to secure a wavey appearance on the surface of the packet. After the packet has received ninety blows equally distributed over its surface it is reheated and the hammering repeated in the same manner. Some time after the first hammering the packet is broken and the sheets wetted with a mop to harden the surface. After the second hammering the packet is broken, the sheets examined to ascertain if any are welded together, and completely finished cold sheets are placed alternately between those of the packet, thus making a large packet of from 140 to 200 sheets. It is supposed that the interposition of these cold sheets produces the peculiar greenish color that the finished sheets posses on cooling.
This large packet is then given what is known as the finishing or polishing hammering. For this purpose the trip hammer used has a larger face than the others, having an area about 17 by 21 inches. When the hammering has been properly done, the packet has received 60 blows equally distributed, and the sheets should have a perfectly smooth, mirror-like surface. The packet is now broken before cooling, each sheet cleaned with a wet fir broom to remove the remaining charcoal powder, carefully inspected, an the good sheets stood on their edges in vertical racks to cool. These sheets are trimmed to regulation size (28 by 56 inches) and assorted into Nos. 1, 2, 3, according to their appearance, and again assorted according to weight, which varies from 10 to 12 lbs. per sheet. The quality varies according to color, and freedom from flaws or spots. A first-class sheet must be without the slightest flaw and a peculiar metallic gray color, and on bending a number of times with the fingers, very little or no scale is separated, as in the case of ordinary sheet iron.
The peculiar property of Russian sheet iron is the beautiful polished coating of oxides ("glanz") which it possesses. If there is any secret in the process, it probably lies in the "trick" of giving this polish. As far as I was able to judge, from personal observation and conversation with the Russian iron masters, the excellence of this sheet iron appeared to be due to no secret, but to a variety of conditions peculiar to and nearly always present in the Russian iron works of the Urals. Besides the few particulars already noted in the above description of this process, it should be borne in mind that the iron ores of the Urals are particularly pure, and that the fuel used is exclusively charcoal and wood. Another, and equally as important consideration, lies in the fact that this same process of manufacturing sheet iron has been carried on in the Urals for the last hundred years. As a consequence, the workmen have acquired a peculiar skill, the want of which has made attempts to manufacture equally as good iron outside of Russia generally less successful. It is difficult to understand what effect the use of charcoal powder between the sheets as they are rolled and hammered has upon the quality. It is equally as difficult to understand the effect of the interposition of the cold finished sheets upon the production of the polished coating of oxide. The Russian iron masters seem to attribute the excellence of their product more to this peculiar treatment than to any other cause. One thing is quite certain, there is no secret about the process, and if the Russian sheet iron is so much superior to any other, it is due to the combination causes already indicated. *Paper by F. Lynwood Garrison, Journal of the U.S. Association of Charcoal Iron Workers.
This sheet-iron is in considerable demand in Russia for roofing, and in the United States, where it is largely used in the construction of stoves and for encasing locomotive engines. I am informed that it is there named "stove-pipe iron".
From "The Manufacture of Russian Iron" in Engineering & MIning Journal, December 1, 1888, page 461:
A high-grade, smooth, glossy sheet iron, not liable to rust; once made by a process that was long a secret with Russian manufacturers. The sheets were subjected to severe hammering in piles with powdered charcoal between them.
This name is applied to sheet iron of very highly polished or glazed surface also known as planished iron. It is used for protecting the lagging of engines and boilers and for other uses where a non-corroding black iron of finished surface is desired. These sheets are made by piling together about fifty pickled sheets of soft steel with powdered charcoal sprinkled between adjacent sheets. The pile is wrapped in old sheets, wired and heated in a furnace to a cherry-red heat for about 6 hours. Upon cooling, each sheet is swept free of loose charcoal and is then sprayed with steam to form a thin oxide. Again the sheets are piled together, heated and then placed on the hammer table, several in a bundle, and pounded with a steam hammer. This brings about a grinding action which grinds the carbon and oxide on the surface down to a highly polished coating.
From "An Elementary Outline Of Mechanical Processes," by G. W. Danforth, 1912 (digital copy at Archive.org).
Russia Iron -- This name is applied to sheet iron of very highly polished or glazed surface also known as planished iron. It is used for protecting the lagging of engines and boilers and for other uses where a non-corroding black iron of finished surface is desired.
These sheets are made by piling together about fifty pickled sheets of soft steel with powdered charcoal sprinkled between adjacent sheets. The pile is wrapped in old sheets, wired and heated in a furnace to a cherry-red heat for about 6 hours. Upon cooling, each sheet is swept free of loose charcoal and is then sprayed with steam to form a thin oxide. Again the sheets are piled together, heated and then placed on the hammer table, several in a bundle, and pounded with a steam hammer. This brings about a grinding action which grinds the carbon and oxide on the surface down to a highly polished coating.
Additional Comments by Kyle Wyatt, dated March 24, 1998:
"American iron" was developed by Woods and Sons Iron Co. over the course of the 1870s and 1880s (including some industrial espionage in Russia in the early 1880s) as a product to compete with true Russian Iron. This may have been the predecessor for the American Rolling Mills (later, ARMCO) product listed in an advertisement in the 1930 Locomotive Cyclopedia. Southern Pacific used the ARMCO product on some 4-8-2s built in the 1920s.
Acknowledging that Pantone PMS colors do not accurately reflect the true color of the materials (Pantones are designed as inks, to be apllied over white), Jeff Saxton asked about the accuracy of colors presented in Dunscomb's Southern Pacific Steam Pictorial, Volume 1, which has several Pantone matches for locomotives in the California State Railroad Museum. Jeff added that all three colors shown were all in the blue to gray range.
The Smithsonian Institution used a paint to represent Russia iron on their narrow gauge 1876 4-4-0 in the 1970s. The California State Railroad Museum (CSRM) and the Nevada State Railroad Museum (NSRM) both used this same paint color. This is the Pantone match in Dunscomb's book. It is MUCH too light. In 1991 Chris deWitt, master mechanic at NSRM, developed a hot dip chemical "bluing" (not really all that blue) for a new jacket on the V&T #22 in preparation for Railfair in Sacramento in 1991. This is a reasonably accurate representation of the real Russia iron color - matched to a sample. Later Chris made a jacket for Dan Markoff's "Eureka" and for the Overfair engine in the lobby of CSRM. Also, in a case in the lobby of CSRM is an 1880s model of a Central Pacific 4-4-0 engine which has a real Russia iron jacket.
Jeff Saxton also noted that the Dunscomb book outlines perhaps where painted green jackets come from, vis; as Russia Iron became unavailable due to the Russian revolution, and as true Russia Iron required frequent wipings to maintain it, one SP official said to paint all jackets to match a specific loco in the yards, which had a greenish Russia Iron jacket. Seeing as Russia Iron varied from deep reds to dark blues, this may explain why railroads like the Southern, Great Northern, B&O, D&RGW, SP, etc..... had green or blue jackets on steam into the thirties and beyond.
The story that the Russian Revolution killed Russia iron has been around for a long time, but personally I question it. Russia iron was always expensive. As paint technology on hot surfaces improved, more and more railroads started painting locomotive jackets. Also the Woods and Sons American iron was finally able to match the quality of Russia iron. These factors reduced the demand for the Russian product in the early 20th century. By the time of the revolution, there was very little Russia iron being imported.
As to the blues and greens used by railroads to paint jackets, I'm fairly confident that this was NOT an actual color match of any Russia iron. Rather the colors were chosen perhaps as representations, and as appropriate colors inspired by Russia iron, but lighter so they would stand out more. Also remember that when Russia iron jackets were common, most locomotives were NOT painted black, so the jacket provided a nice contrast. With a black painted loco, the blue or green jacket provided the contrast.
There has been a great deal of "common knowledge" (mythology) printed about Russia iron for a number of years. The model magazines have printed a lot of "information", almost exclusively from people who have never actually seen a Russia iron sample. Most of this has started a guesswork, and subsequently been presented as documented fact. This makes it all the more difficult to get accurate information, since it's always harder to learn something when you have to start by unlearning earlier information.
I've been fortunate to actually see a number of samples of real Russia iron (and a couple of early samples of American iron). I've also been researching the material for 20 years, and drawing on research by others from before that. There is a lot that we still don't know, but a great deal of information has come to light that was not previously available. (Russia Iron article at RailwayEng.com/dspp/)
Randy Hees wrote in June 1998:
Russia Iron (is) was made by taking iron sheet of a particular quality and layering it with burning coke between the layers, setting the sandwich in a noxious chemical bath primarily made of ureic acid, then beating the pile of iron sheets. The employees were primarily young children, and exposure to the chemicals shortened their lives, significantly.
The result was an oxide coating, primarily dark gray, with blue or green tones. All samples I have seen have been primarily dark gray... any colors are secondary to the gray color. It may have reflected its surroundings and as a result was seen as blue, as it reflected the blue of the sky. It has a particular texture, much like enameled metal, from the beating. There was a similar material made in the US by rolling instead of hammering the material, it was called "American Iron." It lacks the hammered texture.
It was used as a roofing material, and as trim on various machines, including steam engine boilerjackets, smoke stacks on ships, including French battleships.
I have a sample sitting on my desk. It is unique in my experience in that it seems to change color to a very great extent, based on its surroundings. In bright light it is medium grey. In indoor, subdued light it is very dark, bordering on charcoal.
Aarne H. Frobom wrote in July 1998:
Sometimes called "planished iron," probably after the pre-industrial hand-hammering process alluded to above. The only engines I have ever seen with real Russia iron jackets are three or four of the engines in the Henry Ford Museum, although there are others. Perhaps the material was still available in 1929 when they were restored, or Henry Ford ordered up a special run of the stuff. These jackets are a blue-grey color and are a real work of art, especially the 4-4-2 with a brass-beaded hole over every tell-tale hole! I recently looked at a builder's photo of a Pere Marquette 1920-era 4-6-2, and it appeared to have had a Russia iron jacket, the newest engine I have ever seen pictured with one.
Dan Markoff, owner of "Eureka" wrote in July 2001:
The original jacket on Eureka was Russian Iron. I still have it but it is rather beat up. However, it was good for making a pattern for the new one, and there was enough of the Russian Iron color to get a match for the new one.
I looked at a lot of engines, and all of the restorations used a paint on the boiler jacket. It never looked quite right to me. Also, most all others were static display, except Eureka and the Inyo. Both engines are 1875 Baldwin 4-4-0s. Since I was going to run my locomotive, I did not feel paint would stand up very well with extremes in temperature and rain, snow and what have you. However, having been involved in shooting for many years, it seemed that the bluing process used on guns would be about as close and more durable than just about anything. So, I got together with Chris DeWitt at the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City, Nv. and we blued both the jacket on Eureka and the Inyo at the same time. That was back in 1991, and I have had Eureka in every kind of weather you can imagine since then, and it has held up beautifully for 10 years. Also, the color with the original jacket is virtually identical.
The process is very caustic, and can be dangerous as the solution is also heated into which the sheets are dipped and cooked. Yet, the end product is beautiful. One bit of advice though.....regular oiling of the jacket keeps it in top notch shape. Also, no one but me touches the jacket, as some folks have a tendency to get ham fisted, and can grind scratches into the finish from sand and dust that gathers here and there. Like a fine rifle, if you treat the finish well, it will protect your metal and look great.
Grant Knowles wrote in October 1999:
Russian Sheet Iron Boilers -- Metal preservation was a complicated metallurgic art that was practiced in the previous two centuries. In order to prevent iron from prematurely "rusting" away, the iron foundries of the 1700s and 1800s resorted to a very complex and sensitive process to "hammer" powders (graphites) into the metal's surface. This process appears to have been developed and perfected in Russia. The resulting finish is referred to by various names, the most common being Russian Iron. The final finish took on many shades varying from grey to blue. This was the material early locomotive manufactures used to cover their boilers with, hence the beautiful "blue" boiler jackets with brass fittings we see in today's museums.
Manufacture Of Russian Sheet Iron -- Engine crews regularly wiped down their charges with oily rags. Russian Iron can be several shades of grey-black or even brownish. It's the oily rags that make the difference where the resulting shine picks up the colors of the sky and the trees or what ever else that can be reflected in the boiler.
Matching the Color of Russia Iron
From several sources:
- Testor's Buffable Paints - the Jim Wilke Method. Testor's "Gunmetal" Metallizer buffable paint. It's marketed to aircraft modelers who need polished metal surfaces on their plastic kits. You airbrush it (or use the spray can version) and buff when dry to a genuine metallic finish. Then use Testor's Non Buffing Metallizer Sealer to prevent tarnishing. That's it. Three steps - paint, buff, seal.
- Humbrol Paints - The Peter Bunce Method. 'Metalcote' paint from Humbrol - they have a 'Metallic Grey' color (ref 27004) which is a 14mm tinlet at £1 (UK) each. It is very thin, dries in 30 minutes and covers well (on white it could do with a couple of coats, and the surface needs to be smooth), looks very dull black in colour till polished with a smooth cloth -- then a transformation takes place: it takes on a satiny sheen, and turns dark grey (and lives up to its name!).
- One skilled modeler uses a mix of stainless steel, loco black, and Conrail blue, with a touch of caboose red, or for a simpler solution, Floquil's Gun Metal can be used. (Grant Knowles, October 1999)
- In his book, American Locomotives: An Engineering History, 1830-1880, on page 521, Jack White recommends a passable substitute for authentic Russia Iron: "...an automotive finish that closely resembles Russia Iron is Dulux Enamel Charcoal Metallic No. 4980-DX."
Comments by Kyle Wyatt, July 22, 2008:
A lot has been published in the last several decades about Russia iron (on the web and in print) by people who have never actually seen a sample, and are basing their statements on their (uninformed) interpretations of written descriptions. User beware. Historical 19th century information is generally pretty good, but needs to be interpreted while referencing actual samples. In particular, discussions of "color" in the historic texts (such as blue, green, etc) generally refer to "highlights", not to actual solid colors. At the time the 19th Century texts were written, people were very familiar with Russia iron and what it looked like.
Be very careful about what you interpret from black and white photos. Many things can influence how the film "reads" colors. First there is the type of emulsion/film - panchromatic; orthochromatic; wet plate - each will read colors differently, emphasing some colors and "hiding" others. Think of how panchromatic film "hides" the scarlet nose on the gray Southern Pacific diesels painted in "bloody nose", but how a filter (which can mimic a different emulsion) can make it standout.
Next, localized conditions can have a dramatic effect. I have an example where a locomotive with several surfaces known to be painted the same color (tender, cab, dome, pilot, etc) all appear different from each other. I also have a photo where a Russia iron jacket appears to be different colors on different parts of the boiler. For that matter, note how much variation there is in the colors of the Russia iron samples in the four photos I sent - and that is in color - just different angles on the same samples. (I held my Russia iron sample up next to the screen images on your site, and it is closest to the second one, but is a bit darker than that - at least as my screen renders it.)
Comments (undated) by Kyle Wyatt concerning the effort to match the color of Russia Iron:
Paint in B&W photos and matching Turn of the Century paint colors
Based on Sloan's color for Russia iron, reliability here is suspect. Since he does not tell what he color matched from actual samples, and what he did from misreading 19th century black and white photos (and from other sources) I gather his color for Russia iron is photo based and demonstrates the problems with his photo analysis. I would be very careful how I would use his information.
For reference, Sloan's color match of Russia iron is as follows: "Russia Iron was the term used for a pickled sheet iron made rustproof by a mixture of metal oxides formed in the surface of the metal, analogous to gun bluing. Many shades existed, depending on the formula. It ought to be a light bluish metallic gray, my formula is 1 cc of Floquil Gunmetal, 2 cc of white and a drop of blue or jade green."
Having at least a half a dozen samples of real Russia iron in my own collection, and having seen a number more, Russia iron is a medium dark gray, with at most bluish (or reddish or brownish or greenish) highlights in the sunlight. I have never seen a sample where I would ascribe blue as a dominant, or even a strong color. The samples I have seen certainly do not have the strong bluish cast present in gun bluing that I have seen.
Also from my experience working in museum restorations, black and white photos can give hints and indications of colors (and somewhat more reliably of color separations), but trying to make an actual color match, or even close a approximation, is not much better than pure guesswork. Many factors besides the color of paint can affect the shade of gray in a black and white photo. In an article in the Journal of the West that I wrote a few years ago, I showed examples where two known very different colors produced similar or identical shades of gray, and other examples where the known same color was rendered as two obviously different shades of gray in different parts of a single locomotive photo.
Then there is the factor of emulsions and how different emulsions "see" colors. Sloan's statement that modern panchromatic film shot through a blue filter matches 19th century negatives (he doesn't specify whether wet plate or dry plate) is not exactly true. Dry plates (used from about 1881 through the 1930s) are orthochromatic, largely red dominant-blue blind when printed (reds dark, blues light). As a gross generality, this is what happens when shooting modern panchromatic film through a blue filter, but the renderings of colors into grays are only generally similar, not exactly the same. Callodian wet plate negatives (used generally from the 1850s through the early 1880s, and much later for oversized negatives by the likes of C. E. Watkins and W. H. Jackson) have an even broader spectrum of red dominant-blue blind rendition of colors, so do not exactly match the orthochromatic dry plate negatives (and later film negatives).
This is just a brief summary of the problems and limitations of trying to figure out colors based on photos. Without significant color information form non-photographic sources, figuring out a color scheme from a black and white photo is virtually impossible. (And no, computer analysis cannot solve it either, since many factors besides the actual color affect the tones of gray in the photos.)