Casting is a method for creating one or more copies of an original piece of sculptural (three-dimensional) artwork. It is also used extensively in the manufacture industry, such as the vacuum-forming of plastics and in the lost core process.
The Lost Wax bronze-casting process is an ancient practice that is still in widespread use today. The steps which are usually used in casting small bronze sculptures in a modern bronze foundry are as follows:
- An artist creates an original artwork from wax, clay, or another material. Wax and oil-based clay are often preferred because these materials retain their softness.
- A mould is made of the original sculpture. Most moulds are at least two pieces, and a shim with keys is placed between the two halves during construction so that the mould can be put back together accurately. Most moulds of small sculptures are made from plaster, but can also be made of fiberglass or other materials. To preserve the fine details on the original artwork's surface, there is usually an inner mould made of latex or vinyl, which is supported by the plaster part of the mould.
- Usually, the original artwork is destroyed during the making and initial deconstruction of the plaster mould. This is because the originals are solid, and do not easily bend as the plaster mould is removed. Often long, thin pieces are cut off of the original and moulded separately. Sometimes, especially in the case of large original (such as life-size) sculptures, many moulds are needed to recreate the original sculpture.
- Once the plaster and latex mould is finished, molten wax is poured into it and swished around until an even coating, usually about 1/4 inches think, covers the entire inner surface of the mould. This may be done in several layers.
- This new, hollow wax copy of the original artwork is removed from the mould. As many copies as the artist desires may be produced this way, although normal wear and tear may limit the lifespan of any given mould. A common number of copies of small bronze artworks today is around 25.
- Each hollow wax copy is then "chased," or all the marks which show the "parting line" (also known as "flashing") where the pieces of the mould came together are rubbed out using a heated metal tool. Any copies of pieces which were cut off and moulded separately can be reattached using heat to weld the wax pieces together just as they were in the original artwork. "Registration marks" are often used to help know where exactly to reattach pieces.
- Once a wax copy is perfected in this way so it now looks just as the original artwork did, it is "sprued" onto a treelike structure, also made of wax. This structure usually consists of a wax cup, from which feeder tubes of solid wax attached to the bottom connect to the wax copy, and smaller vent tubes attach the uppermost parts of the sculpture back to the top of the cup. Much thought is required to design these structures, as will be explained further in step 10.
- A completely "sprued" wax copy is then dipped into a ceramic slurry, and this wet object is further dipped into a mixture of powdered clay and sand. This is allowed to dry, and the process is repeated until a half-inch thick or thicker surface covers the entire piece. Only the inside of the cup is not coated. The flat top of the cup serves, coincidentally, as the base upon which the piece stands during this process.
- Once several of these ceramic-coated sprued wax copies are dry, they are placed cup-down in a kiln and the wax inside them melts out. This is why the method is known as the Lost Wax process! Kiln-heating serves the dual purpose of hardening the ceramic coatings into a hard shell. Often, the melted "reclaimed" wax is collected and reused again and again. Now all that remains of the original artwork is the negative space, formerly occupied by the wax, inside the hardened ceramic shell. The feeder and vent tubes and cup are now hollow, also.
- The ceramic shells are allowed to cool and are tested to see if water will flow through the feeder and vent tubes in the way that was predicted when the wax copy was being "sprued." Holes are sometimes drilled into the shell to test the thickness, and are patched over with thick ceramic paste. Any cracks or leaks in the ceramic shells are also patched.
- The ceramic shells are reheated in the kiln, which hardens the ceramic patches. At the same time, bronze is being smelted in a crucible in a very hot furnace. When the bronze has reached the appropriate temperature, the ceramic shells are removed from the kiln and placed cup-upwards into a tub filled with sand, or stood upright in some other manner. Of course, workers involved in this part of the process must wear layers of protective gear against the potential of being burned. Carefully, the crucible filled with liquid bronze is lifted from its furnace and the metal is poured into the ceramic shells. It is important that the shells are also highly heated during the pouring, or the difference in temperatures would shatter the shells. The bronze-filled shells are allowed to cool.
- Now the ceramic shell is "lost" as well as it is hammered and/or sand-blasted off of the bronze. The cup and sprue system, which are also faithfully recreated in bronze, are cut off. They will be remelted and become part of the next series of bronzes.
- In a similar manner as the wax copies were "chased," the bronze copies are also worked on until the tell-tale signs of the casting process are removed, and the sculptures again look like the original artwork. Metal-chasing usually consists of filling any pits, which were air bubbles in the molten bronze, and recreating the original surfaces where feeder or vent tubes had to be attached.
- When the bronze copies have been perfected, they are coloured to the artist's preference using heat and chemicals which change colour when they are painted onto the surface of the reheated bronze. This colouring is called patina, and is often green, black, white or brownish to simulate the surfaces of ancient bronze sculptures. (Ancient bronzes gained their patinas from oxidisation and other effects of being on Earth for many years. Yes, this may include chemical changes from pigeon droppings.) However, many artists perfer that their bronzes have brighter, paint-like colours. Today, these effects, too, can be achieved through the application of patina chemicals rather than painting the bronze. Patinas are less opaque, generally, than paint, and this allows the lustre of the metal to show through. After the patina is applied, a coating of wax is usually applied to protect the surface. Some patinas change colour over time because of oxidisation, and the wax layer slows this down somewhat.
Sand-casting is mainly used for casting flat, relief-like sculptures. Aluminum is one material which is commonly used in sand-casting. The process starts with a tub filled with sand. The sand is wetted, and an object is pressed into the wet sand, or the sculptor uses his hands or tools to make the desired design in the sand. Molten aluminum is carefully poured into the depression and left to cool. Then the artist may choose to continue refining the object by "chasing" it or leave it with the roughened surface that is characteristic of sand-cast objects.
Paper-casting is a method whereby paper slurry is couched onto a plaster or other porous surface from a screen where the paper fibers are caught. The plaster absorbs the water remaining in the paper fibers, and when dry, the paper retains the shape of the plaster object over which it was formed.