My Casting Process Up Close – No It Is Not Instant!

I have been chatting with several customers lately at events, and it has become painfully obvious that some of them think that the casting process is almost instant, and that the cast pieces arrive looking as lovely as a shiny new penny.

Not really.

I was trying to figure out where they may have gotten this impression from. Maybe they watched an edition of “How It’s Made” where a giant machine spits out polished pieces, or maybe they have seen pewter casting.

So I thought about the Pewter Casting for a while. I do a little pewter casting for some of my reproduction spindle whorls. The originals were lead, and I am just NOT going to go there, so I use lead free pewter. I also make a few Pilgrim’s badges in pewter and bronze.

Cast Pewter pieces come close to looking like that new penny that we talked about, at least a lot closer than bronze or silver do when they are cast. This picture gives a nice perspective on casting simple pewter pieces. The original soapstone mold that I created for the scallop shell pilgrim’s badge (Santiago de Compostela in Spain), is on the far left. An “almost” cast ( the loop is incomplete and the “wings” on the top of the shell are not squared enough) shows what a fresh casting might look like. Above this is a row of six small spindle whorls, one of which still has it’s sprue intact. The larger spindle whorls on the right side show what flashing looks like (that wobbly bit sticking out on the edge of the spindle whorl).

pewter casting

OK, so let’s look at the process objectively. The mold is clamped, and the molten pewter is poured into the mold and allowed to cool. After three or four minutes the cast piece can be taken out of the mold. It will still be hot, especially if it has some bulk, like the spindle whorls do. Depending on the temperature of the room and workbench, a five minute wait is probably a good idea. Then I use a pair of sprue cutters to cut off the sprues. You can see where the sprues have been cut off on both the large and small spindle whorls. I then remove any flashing around the edges of the piece, either with a file, or a wet sanding machine. During this process the remains of the sprue are also removed. I then check any interior “holes”, like the interior of the loop on the scallop and the center hole on the spindle whorls for flashing, and remove it. Now the piece is ready for a quick polish. Twenty minutes in a tumbler with steel shot and burnishing compound will remove any oxides and give the pewter a nice sheen.

polished pewter

Shiny! This is what the polished pewter looks like. It is really not a complicated process, but even something as simple as pewter casting is definitely not instant.

Next Time: What Happens When We Cast Bronze

What Size Were Brooches in the Middle Ages?

I could just as easily have asked this question about any sort of common item, and because of my training I often do. I realized a couple of years ago that many people have a total misconception of the size of a lot of things that people used. Despite years of education and extensive training I am NOT completely immune to this problem. I sometimes buy small metal detector finds, and have been caught in this trap.

A little while ago I purchased a very nice annular brooch (ring brooch). It was a good looking bronze piece which had a sort of twisted rope look. There were no dimensions given for the piece and I assumed that it was at least twice the size that it actually was. I was shocked when I saw how tiny the brooch actually was. This made me wonder how common an issue this really was. So, I looked at the given dimensions for many other items that were on sale. Then I went to a couple of the museum sites and looked at the actual sizes of the finds in the museum. And yes, there were a few really magnificent huge pieces, but in general the brooches and everyday pieces were rather small – at least by modern standards.

Researching the size of the people who wore these items in England shows that women during the Middle Ages were generally about 5 foot 2 inches tall and men about 5 foot 6 inches. The article that I read said that this meant that Medieval Women were only an inch taller than modern women. I am 5 foot 9 inches tall. My grandmother, who was born in about 1890, was 5 foot 2 inches, but most of my female friends are at least 5 foot six. Now I consider myself to be a little taller than average, but not dramatically so. Is it possible that these brooches were sized smaller because the people were smaller, or were they sized smaller because of the value of the metal?

I don’t think that we can give a definitive answer to this question, but I would love to hear people’s opinions on this topic. Metal really was a valuable commodity.

Inexpensive metals like tin and lead were commonly used to make lower end pilgrim’s badges and decorative pieces. These metals both have a very low melting temperature, which means that they can be cast using a simple hearth. Pilgrim’s badges give us other important clues as well. Some tears ago I had the good fortune to meet with the curator of medieval artifacts for the Museum of London. Besides the sheer exhilaration of spending time with John in the bowels of the Museum storage looking at pilgrim’s badges, I also noticed the casual finishing of these ubiquitous items. Many of the badges had flashing left over from the manufacturing process. Modernly, we would expect those “manufacturing defects” to be removed. Casting and finishing of tin and lead are easy, so the condition of the pilgrim’s badges indicates the acceptance of a rough finish for some pieces.

Next time: Bronze brooches and other tiny things

One of my pewter brooches, a dime, and the tiny brooch that I bought.

One of my pewter brooches, a dime, and the tiny brooch that I bought.