After a few years outside, cast-iron urns require a new coat of paint to prevent rust. So when purchasing a vintage urn at a salvage yard or garden-ornament shop today, it's best just to find a well-proportioned one in a style you like. Don't even attempt to restore the original finish; beneath that top layer of flaky paint, there will be many, many more. "All I try to do is maintain the texture," says Israel, who knocks off chips with a wire brush and then applies a fresh coat of paint. "If you sandblast it, you lose that wonderful mottled surface, and then that lovely old piece will look like a reproduction," she adds.

Prices for garden urns vary widely, from about $150—what I paid for a used but not very old, midsize 3-footer that I turned into a fountain—to $2,500 or more for larger and highly ornamented 19th-century antiques.

An urn's versatility, particularly in the yard, can make up for a high price. In addition to using one as a water feature, you can top a single urn with glass for a custom dining table. Or for a more modern take on using cast iron to keep up with the Joneses, position a small pair at your front entry or mount them on -masonry posts at the end of your driveway to boost your home's curb appeal.
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