Tom Corbin

The Inevitable Artist

“Touring the Foundry, Blinded by the Light”

By Beverly Bellinger

The foundry is where art meets industry, but takes an atavistic step backwards. Here, even the most contemporary of pieces is subjected to a process that is centuries old. Every part of the process is highly painstaking and labor intensive, a marked contrast to today’s mass-production mentality.

The craftsmen at work in the foundry would probably not refer to themselves as artisans, though each in his own special way embodies the very essence of that title.

Foundry craftsman Chuck demonstrates a sand-casting mold that will be used to replicate the legs of a bronze table. The “sand” feels more like granular clay, moist and readily compressed when pinched. Tamping the sand down with a crude-looking wooden tool, he draws his own comparisons to ancient methods. “Not much has changed,” he explains. “Instead of being in a building, we might be doing this by the river where this sand mix was dug out. And instead of a tank of compressed air, I’d be using manual bellows.”

Chuck had just returned from a seminar where he’d learned about man-made casting materials used as an alternative to natural sand. He’s intrigued but somewhat skeptical, preferring to rely on his own instinctive feel of the clay to know when its moisture content is perfect.

He promises to show an actual pour—the molten metal going into the mold—as soon as the liquid bronze reaches the desirable temperature—around 1900°.

The ceramic room looks like it would be more at home in an industrial baking institution. Deep troughs hold an off-white material resembling flour, used to create ceramic molds that will cover a wax model of an original clay sculpture. This is part of the “lost wax” process that is generally used for larger sculpted pieces, such as figures.

In the finishing area, opaque barriers shield the eyes from welding torch sparks. This is where pieces are meticulously matched to the original, and any deviations are carefully reworked to reconcile the finished piece to the artist’s initial intent. In this way, every piece, even in a series, is truly an original. Jay is smoothing welded areas where a table leg meets its base, replicating Tom’s original scoring surface pattern. How did he learn to do this? “As a welder in the Navy,” Jay explains. He scoffs at the question of whether he, too, is an artist. “Nah,” he laughs, but adds softly,  “I have ideas in my head, but they don’t come out through my hands.” His precise work speaks otherwise.

In a nearby chamber, isolated by thick hanging strips of plastic, a patineurexplains the process of applying a desired finish to a completed table. Left to time and nature, the table would eventually acquire a natural change in coloring. Here, that transformation is accelerated. While the table revolves on a rotating stand, he sprays a chemical mixture that turns the shiny metal to a dull black. The desired patina will appear after a rigorous application of paste wax.

Back in the casting area, Chuck deems the molten bronze hot enough to pour into the prepared mold. He and an assistant carefully remove the crucible of molten metal from the furnace and approach the mold. Looking at the fiery liquid glowing yellow-white is like staring at the sun. One instinctively takes a cautious step back to watch. The liquid flows through the offset hole of the mold and into the prepared channel where it will harden into a table leg precisely as Tom sculpted it.

Continue to The Process of Bronze – Patina