Celebrating his company’s 35th year, Del Conner of Pennsylvania Firebacks created the thriving revival of the historical and decorative cast-iron back plates that protected early American fireplaces. —by Mary Ellen Polson
J. Del Conner is nothing if not a Renaissance man. A historian, artist, inventor, and amateur astronomer, he combined many of these talents when he founded Pennsylvania Firebacks in 1979.
Firebacks are cast-iron plates that sit at the back of a fireplace to protect the masonry from intense heat. Often highly decorative, historic ones date to colonial times and can last for hundreds of years. Conner was working as a graphic designer in Philadelphia when a chimneysweep friend told him about the cast-iron plates he had been discovering in old fireplaces. Immediately interested, Conner began exploring historic fireback designs at nearby museums. By 1987, Pennsylvania Firebacks was offering a series of fine cast-iron reproductions that included a collection from Winterthur Museum. Early on, Conner invented Saf-T-Boots, a support system to hold the fireback in the correct position relative to the hearth floor and back wall.
Conner offers half a dozen historical reproductions and more than 30 of his own designs based on traditional forms. Each new design requires many months and many steps to perfect. Beginning with a sketch transferred to a wood surface, Conner then designs and sculpts the three-dimensional pattern in beeswax, employing trompe l’oeil techniques to create depth of field. A plaster mold is made from the sculpture and used to make an aluminum casting, which is further refined by sanding and filing. The casting then goes to a foundry, where it becomes the basis for a mold. Finally, molten iron is poured into the mold to make the fireback. Most designs sell for $300 to $350, which includes shipping.
Del will present a short history of the practical and decorative aspects of cast-iron firebacks at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, March 2, at the Designer Craftsmen and Historic Home Shows at the Valley Forge Casino Resort Convention Center, King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
(888) 349-3002 or (215) 699-0805
2237 Bethel Road, Lansdale, PA 19446