Derwentcote Steel Furnace

History of Derwentcote Steel Furnace

This rare furnace played a crucial role in the British steel industry for around 150 years. Built in the 1730s, it was used for cementation, a process that converted wrought iron into steel. 

Derwentcote furnace chimney
View of the conical chimney

The cementation process

It is one of the few complete examples of this type of furnace, and is the last surviving piece of evidence of cementation steelmaking in the north-east.

The conical chimney houses two sandstone chests, into which iron bars were packed, alternating with layers of charcoal powder.

When the fire was lit and the chests sealed, flames and heat travelled up through flues and chimneys around them, and temperatures reached 1,100°C. This heat enabled the carbon from the charcoal to diffuse into the iron.

Each cementation cycle, or ‘heat’, took three weeks, producing about 10 tons of steel. The firing took 6–10 days and the furnace was then allowed to cool for a week, before the bars could be extracted.

Interior view of Derwent Steel Furnace
The interior of the furnace, showing the entrance into the main firing chamber

Forging the steel

These bars of ‘blister steel’ were taken to the nearby water-powered forge, to be made into items such as cutting tools and springs. The steel had remarkable flexibility and strength, and was said to be of excellent quality.

The Derwent Valley was the centre of the British steel industry in the early 18th century, as it had all the natural resources needed for the cementation process. It had plentiful supplies of charcoal, coal, clay and sandstone, and easy access to the North Sea for the import of Swedish iron.

Derwentcote furnace went out of use by 1891 and subsequently fell into disrepair. It was restored by English Heritage in 1990.

This iron plate door comes from the 18th-century furnace cone and provided access to the heating chamber.
This iron plate door comes from the 18th-century furnace cone and provided access to the heating chamber. It was found during excavations in the late 1980s. A modern replica can be seen on site

Further Reading

Cranstone, D, Derwentcote Steel Furnace (London, English Heritage, 1992)

Cranstone, D, ‘Derwentcote Steel Furnace: an industrial monument in County Durham’, Lancaster: Lancaster University Archaeological Unit, Lancaster Imprints 6 (1997)

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