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 of Pennsylvania Firebacks

J. Del Conner of Pennsylvania Firebacks

Three Bears, another Conner design, has the narrative quality he seeks in his designs

Three Bears, another Conner design, has the narrative quality he seeks in his designs

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.

North Star, one of Del’s designs, illustrates the rule for finding Polaris in relation to “pointer” stars

North Star, one of Del’s designs, illustrates the rule for finding Polaris in relation to “pointer” stars

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.

The Aetna Rooster design is a historical reproduction of a fireback made about 1775

The Aetna Rooster design is a historical reproduction of a fireback made about 1775

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.

Pennsylvania Firebacks
(888) 349-3002 or (215) 699-0805
2237 Bethel Road, Lansdale, PA 19446
fireback.com