the bronze foundry

I have been taking a lot of photos for my practical classes at school, as often we’re in the field and taking notes is impractical, whereas pictures are generally a fairly good way to remember the highlights. Today I had two amazing classes, one a site visit of the Meridian foundry in Fitzroy, and one an introduction to basket-weaving and cord-making with natural grasses. Looking at them, I simply HAD to blog them, even though I shouldn’t really be wasting time online… I also really want to write about a few other site visits I was privy to this week. Let’s call it “consolidating notes”? I’m writing several posts as otherwise it’ll be huuuuge — another post being my wonderful night at the Museum after class.

First up, the bronze foundry. I’ve got a crappy cold and spent most of yesterday in bed, coughing and sneezing, but there was nothing that could induce me to miss this site visit. I don’t need to tell anyone what a big deal Chinese bronzes are, and I was really excited to get up close with the technology which basically remains unchanged for the last few thousand years — lost-wax casting has been dated back to 3000 BC in Central Asia!

I am a little too irritable to explain properly how lost-wax casting works, as today I had to listen whilst the owner patiently explained several times to those who had obviously not done the reading. I’ll try my best to sprinkle in some information as we go and by the end of it, you will hopefully have understood because you’re so smart. The idea is, you take the original model, cast it to create a two-piece silicone mold, paint the inside of the mold very delicately with wax to form a shell, assemble the two pieces like a Kinder Surprise, and then pour in cooler, more viscous wax. Then you slosh it around a bit to create a thicker wax shell so the overall piece has more resistance to it. Ta-daa, you have your wax model, ready to get lost.

Making the wax models: a silicone cast in the foreground, a hot cauldron of wax in the centre, and to the right, a wax cast of a pear.

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View down into the foundry.

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These guys are setting up the different sections of the piece they are working on. The plaster is cast around the wax casting (which was cast in the silicone mold, which was cast around the original piece. Got it? Perfect, now you understand lost wax casting). They are currently setting up foam tubes to serve as little tunnels for the molten bronze.

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How? well once the section is ready, it is cast inside a big drum and turned into one of these huge plaster cylinders. The foam tubing pokes out the top, and once place inside the furnace, the wax will melt, the foam will combust, and hey presto, you have a mold and a network of tiny tunnels to pour the molten bronze into. Even though I’d seen diagrams a hundred times, it was really cool to see it for real!

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Slightly better view of the wax shell. Once the shell and tubes have been properly prepared, more plaster is set inside to form a core — this saves on bronze and also makes the piece significantly lighter. When the wax is melted out, those little rods will hold the core in place so the bronze can be poured in. Once the bronze has been cast, they use high-pressure water to break down the plaster core and wash it out, leaving nothing but the bronze shell, ready to be welded to any other sections that form the overall piece.

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Here you can see the bottom half of a young lady and her shapely hollow legs (and a giant pear in the background… the pears are kind of a thing, apparently).

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Inside you can see how every detail is captured in bronze, including wax drips on the inner shell. In case you were wondering, the top half of this statue turns up later on, in the chasing room.

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These are two fabulously contrasting bronze artworks. To your left, a shiny bust of an Important White Man (there are so many in the world!). To your right, what looks just like spray-painted cardboard, but is in fact bronze with specific patinas applied. They look even more like cardboard in real life!

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A few different examples of patina effects — there are so many colours and textures to be achieved. Note this finished pear, which we saw a wax casting of earlier. The greens and browns of its patina were incredibly realistic.

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Another shot of crazy faux-cardboard pieces.

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Here’s the top of those legs, inside the chasing room, which is where the finishing happens — grinding down the seams where the different sections are assembled and making sure they are undetectable (unless the artist has requested otherwise).

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I love the woodgrain detail here. The original is of course made of wood, but to think that every detail is picked up and faithfully replicated in silicone, in wax, in plaster and finally in bronze, is pretty fabulous. Don’t worry about the ugly weld, it’s purely temporary whilst they finish assembling the sections.

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A piece still undergoing finishing, with its wood original in the background. My camera wasn’t good enough to capture how every dent and scratch in the paintwork of the wooden pieces is replicated in bronze.

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I really love this site visit. I would have happily stayed there all day watching and learning.

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