First Steps in Metalsmithing: How I Learned the Art of Water Casting
When I think of metalsmithing, my mind conjures up Hephaestus himself surrounded by blazing flames, glowing rods, forging hammers, and showering sparks. At the same time, I visualize the results of this dramatic process: beautiful works of art ranging from delicate silver earrings to the massive, wrought-iron gates of a forbidding castle.
ABOVE: Wonderfully organic shapes result when molten metal is dropped into water. There are no “wrong” designs with this beginner-friendly, freeform metalsmithing technique.
The ability to manipulate metal is truly an astounding achievement. It takes experience and skill. It requires specific equipment. And it’s just a little bit scary.
Recently, I had the exciting opportunity to try water casting. While working on a blog post about New Year’s traditions, Marketing Manager Hollie Goodman and I were warmly welcomed into the jewelry studio at Colorado State University to give it a try.
As a beginner in metalworking, I was feeling pretty happy about participating in this freeform type of casting, because there are no “wrong” designs. Hollie, who has a degree in jewelry and metalsmithing, made it look easy — but the water casting process was a hot, blazing whirlwind for me.
In the Studio: Water Casting
Haley Bates, associate professor of metalsmithing and jewelry, met us as soon as we walked into the classroom studio. I cast my eyes around, taking in the jeweler’s benches, firing stations with tripods and pumice-filled annealing pans, rolling mills, enamel samples, flex shafts, and rectifiers for etching in salt water.
Yet another room — Hollie’s favorite — was filled with anvils, vises, long tapering stakes, and tree trunks with impressions for dapping.
In preparation, we had purchased a pound of bronze casting grain from Rio Grande. With my limited metal experience, I have to admit I was shocked at how small a pound of bronze actually was, but it was more than enough for our purposes.
Professor Bates gave us a demonstration first. After donning a leather apron and safety glasses, she lit the torch, which was connected to the biggest oxyacetylene tank I had ever seen. Luckily, she warned us beforehand that it might make a loud popping noise. She then proceeded to preheat the crucible from all sides to prepare it for the metal. Obviously, the initial preheating takes the longest.
Hollie then used a metal scoop to pour a small amount of bronze casting grain into the crucible. At this point, Professor Bates directed the flame onto the metal itself, making small circles within the crucible to heat the grains. Slowly, the grains began to melt together until they suddenly conglomerated into an iridescent bubble that seemed to float around the inside of the crucible. It was ready.
From Casting Grain to Organic Shapes
Keeping the flame on the liquefied metal, she poured it into the prepared bucket of cold water. A Pyrex bowl sat submerged at the bottom for extra protection (but not enough, as we later discovered).
Once the torch was off, we all eagerly peered into the bucket to see a mass of tiny organic shapes. Retrieving them, we immediately saw recognizable figures in the irregular formations, similar to cloud watching. We saw a bat, a tiny chicken (or is it a stomach?), a dove, and lots of mottled, ruffled pieces that appeared to be overgrown with moss and lichen.
Next up was Hollie. She expertly lit the torch, reheated the crucible briefly, and then melted a new batch of bronze. Into the bucket it went, resulting in a new collection of little figures — a hermit crab perhaps, and a two-headed snake, a realistic heart with veins, a dragonfly, a southbound Canadian goose.
Come along with us on our water casting adventure with the video below!
Water Casting: An Aggressive Flame?
When it was my turn, I was content to let Hollie light the torch and adjust the flame for me. “A nice, aggressive flame!” praised the professor. With thoughts of “I’m not ready for an aggressive flame” running through my head, I gripped the torch in my left hand and the crucible arm in my right. I began to heat the receptacle, very aware of the heat, the noise, and even the weight. While neither apparatus was particularly heavy, both become noticeably more so the longer I held them. Eventually, though, the bronze acquiesced to my demands and melted all at once into a puddle.
As I moved to pour the bronze into the bucket, I momentarily let the crucible out of the flame’s blazing path. The metal instantly solidified in a glob at the side of the crucible, stubbornly refusing to be ousted. Back to heating!
This time, the metal melted fairly quickly, and I made sure to keep the flame on it as I maneuvered toward the bucket. I was not about to let the bronze congeal a second time. With a quick flick, I dumped the contents into the bucket. Proud and relieved, I handed off the torch and went to fish for my treasures.
My quick-pour job resulted in some nice shapes, including a really good one that looked like a dinosaur or a dragon. (Can you find him in the photo at the top of this post?) After fishing out the last few little pieces, we noticed the hot metal had created a small chip in the Pyrex bowl. Undaunted, we went for one more water casting adventure.
Hollie took the helm again, melting a good amount of bronze and pouring it fast and low into the bucket. This time when we looked into the bucket, we saw that the Pyrex bowl had shattered, rather beautifully, with a mass of metal sitting gracefully atop the cracks. We carefully removed the bronze, which came out in two large, intricate pieces. Success! (Just not for the bowl.)
We left CSU very content, bronze treasures in hand, admiring the display cases of student work. A huge thank you to Haley Bates and the jewelry department at CSU!
Beginner Metalsmithing Resources
If you’re a beginner like me, you’ll find tons of helpful tips in these blog posts:
Go be creative!
— Tamara Kula
Producer, Bead & Jewelry Group