Monday, December 5, 2016

Duretta and O'Kast: The Look of Wood for Less


I have long been fascinated by old building technologies; in particular, some of the materials and designed that were developed during the early 20th century. A few months ago, I discussed magnesite stucco, and this time we’ll take a look at a synthetic stand-in for traditional carved woodwork known as Duretta.

Aside from design, one of the foremost properties considered by architects and builders was the ability to be fireproof. This is precisely why stucco, concrete and brick were so popular, and why asbestos was so common in stucco mix, shingles, siding, flooring and other items used in construction.

The New York firm of G.E. Walter developed Duretta for use as a cast material, used to replicate carved wood and metal. It was used for carved wood paneling and wainscoting, door panels, wall friezes, grilles, fireplaces, rails and even exterior half-timber work. Company literature only describes it as a “plastic, fibrous, composition material” – though its exact formula is not known, the fact that it was clearly described as being fireproof would lead one to think that asbestos and perhaps some gypsum may have made up at least part of the mix.

Finishes for Duretta varied; most items were finished to look like wood, and the company claimed that when so finished, it was practically indistinguishable from the real think. Other pieces were finished to look like hammered metal, and still others were provided a special, more durable finish for exterior work.

G.E. Walter was not the only manufacturer to follow this route – other companies like Cleveland’s Fischer & Jirousch (still in business) also developed similar products, like O’Kast (“oak cast”) which also mimicked the look of carved wood. Some of these old wood panel designs are still available, though I do not believe the O’Kast material is still being used in production.

It is amazing to think that there were once a large number of firms designing and producing cast interior and exterior ornament for buildings in the United States. Today there are only a handful, and most of the currently-available designs are based on classical themes rather than the medieval and tudor styles that were so popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One wonders what happened to some of the old proprietary formulas used for these products, as well as the fate of the molds that were used in their manufacture.
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