The working of lead, particularly for heritage building work, in roofs and flashings.
|Craft category||Metal; Building crafts|
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||Roman|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||6-10|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||0|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Lead has been used since antiquity. The Romans used lead casting techniques to construct water pipes, and in England the Worshipful Company of Plumbers received its Ordinances in 1365.
Lead can be easily melted, cast, jointed and decorated which makes it suitable for a wide range of uses. Decorative plumbing leadwork was used for rainwater pipe heads, down pipes, soil, vent and waste water pipes, as well as other lead elements such as gutters, strainers and supplementary lead cellar bin labels, sculpture or plaques. After the dissolution of the monasteries, decorative leadwork was principally confined to the embellishment of country houses. In the eighteenth century leadwork was added to churches in a more reserved fashion and it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that there was a resurgence of interest in decorative architectural leadwork (P T J Rumley).
Traditional leadworking skills include: Such traditional skills include wiped soldered joints (underhand, upright, splash joints), lead pipe fabrication, gilding, wrought lead, tinning, soldering, pipe bending, repoussé work, casting (in all its forms), incised work, filigreé work etc.
Solder wiping: Solder is melted in crucible and the hot metal is ladled around the prepared joint with one hand, while a moleskin cloth is used in the other hand to work the hot solder. This technique is dying out.
Lead burning: A more modern technique, dating from circa 1900, in which a fine flame from an acetylene blowtorch is used to melt the lead and fuse the two pieces together at the same temperature. It is possible to cut out a section of the defective lead and lead burn (or weld) in a new piece.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Training issues: All training in plumbing leadwork ceased around 1950, when copper was becoming more prevalent, and today technical colleges have thrown out traditional leadworking in favour of copper and plastic installation techniques. The colleges have discarded all their traditional leadworking plumbing tools and there are no lecturers or craftsmen to teach the skills expect two or three old plumbers. The Lead Sheet Association and Lead Contractors’ Association run a ‘heritage training course’ but this concentrates on replacing new lead on historic buildings and not the training of conservation of historic leadwork and those traditional plumbing skills associated with it.
Lack of awareness: The architects, surveyors and specifiers do not understand historic leadwork as they have no training in this niche area.
Loss of skills: There traditional plumbing craft skills training associated with decorative leadwork have almost completely disappeared. The craft skill set required for the plumber is wider ranging than for lead sheet roofing.
Ageing workforce: Within another 5-10 years the senior practitioners who may have had training in traditional plumbing craft skills will have passed away and the skills lost.
The Lead Sheet Association – concerned with training in and the replacement of new sheet lead
The Lead Contractors’ Association – concerned with training in and the replacement of new sheet lead
Craftspeople currently known
Peter T J Rumley
Listed buildings are protected by law and plumbing leadwork repairs have to be done on a like for like biases. However, modern lead welding has taken over wiped points and soldering (as few people can do these skills) and this changers the character of the piece, which is technically illegal.
The basic principle of good architectural conservation is to preserve as much of the original fabric as possible by only undertaking work that is essential to a building’s survival. Where fabric has deteriorated, effective and honest repair should be the first consideration. Replacement is the last resort (P T J Rumley).
- Rumley, Peter T J, ‘Church Leadwork’
- Rumley, Peter T J, ‘An Important Heritage Initiative’, Historic House, Summer 2012
- Rumley, Peter T J, (2006) The Conservation of Decorative Leadwork, Technical Pamphlet 17 (SPAB)
- Rumley, Peter T J, Plumbing Leadwork: Joints and Pipes (SPAB)