The Lost-wax Casting Process
The Lost Wax Casting Process
Lost-wax casting (also called by its French name, cire perdue, from the Latin cera perduta) is the process by which a metal (such as silver, gold, brass or bronze) sculpture is cast from an artist‘s sculpture. Intricate works can be achieved by this method, primarily depending on the carver’s skills. In industrial uses, the modern process is called investment casting. An ancient practice, the process today varies from foundry to foundry, but the steps which are usually used in casting small bronze sculptures in a modern bronze foundry are generally quite standardized. The oldest archaeological and literary evidence of Lost-wax casting can be found in India, dating back nearly 5,000 years to the Harappan period.
- Sculpting. The artist creates the sculpture using an oil-based clay. Phillip uses a Chavant clay, which is oil-based and never dries out.
- Moldmaking. A mold is made of the original model or sculpture. The rigid outer molds contain the softer inner mold, which is the exact negative of the original model. Inner molds are usually made of latex, polyurethane rubber or silicone, which is supported by the outer mold. The outer mold can be made from plaster, but can also be made of fiberglass or other materials. Most molds are at least two pieces, and a shim with keys is placed between the two halves during construction so that the mold can be put back together accurately. In case there are long, thin pieces sticking out of the model, these are often cut off of the original and molded separately. Sometimes many molds are needed to recreate the original model, especially for large models.
- Wax. Once the mold is finished, molten wax is poured into it and swished around until an even coating, usually about 1⁄8 inch (3 mm) thick, covers the inner surface of the mold. This is repeated until the desired thickness is reached. Another method is filling the entire mold with molten wax, and letting it cool, until a desired thickness has set on the surface of the mold. After this the rest of the wax is poured out again, the mold is turned upside down and the wax layer is left to cool and harden. With this method it is more difficult to control the overall thickness of the wax layer.
- Removal of wax. This hollow wax copy of the original model is removed from the mold. The model-maker may reuse the mold to make multiple copies, limited only by the durability of the mold.
- Chasing. Each hollow wax copy is then “chased”: a heated metal tool is used to rub out the marks that show the parting line or flashing where the pieces of the mold came together. The wax is dressed to hide any imperfections. The wax now looks like the finished piece. Wax pieces that were molded separately can be heated and attached; foundries often use registration marks to indicate exactly where they go.
- Spruing. The wax copy is sprued with a treelike structure of wax that will eventually provide paths for molten casting material to flow and air to escape. The carefully planned spruing usually begins at the top with a wax “cup,” which is attached by wax cylinders to various points on the wax copy. This spruing doesn’t have to be hollow, as it will be melted out later in the process.
- Slurry. A sprued wax copy is dipped into a slurry of silica, then into a sand-like stucco, or dry crystalline silica of a controlled grain size. The slurry and grit combination is called ceramic shell mold material, although it is not literally made of ceramic. This shell is allowed to dry, and the process is repeated until at least a half-inch coating covers the entire piece. The bigger the piece, the thicker the shell needs to be. Only the inside of the cup is not coated, and the cup’s flat top serves as the base upon which the piece stands during this process.
- Burnout. The ceramic shell-coated piece is placed cup-down in a kiln, whose heat hardens the silica coatings into a shell, and the wax melts and runs out. The melted wax can be recovered and reused, although often it is simply burned up. 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 also hollow.
- Testing. The ceramic shell is allowed to cool, then is tested to see if water will flow through the feeder and vent tubes as necessary. Cracks or leaks can be patched with thick refractory paste. To test the thickness, holes can be drilled into the shell, then patched.
- Pouring. The shell is reheated in the kiln to harden the patches and remove all traces of moisture, then placed cup-upwards into a tub filled with sand. Metal is melted in a crucible in a furnace, then poured carefully into the shell. If the shell were not hot, the temperature difference would shatter it. The filled shells are allowed to cool.
- Release. The shell is hammered or sand-blasted away, releasing the rough casting. The sprues, which are also faithfully recreated in metal, are cut off, to be reused in another casting.
- Metal-chasing. Just as the wax copies were chased, the casting is worked until the telltale signs of the casting process are removed, and the casting now looks like the original model. Pits left by air bubbles in the casting, and the stubs of spruing are filed down and polished.