Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | November 30, 2009

From Woodcarving to Bronze

One thing that I have never been able to figure out is why an art collector will pay more for a bronze reproduction than he or she will pay for an original woodcarving.  But, whatever the answer, such is the case.

I first had a few of my woodcarvings duplicated in bronze in the mid-90’s.  One thing that I learned quickly is that bronze castings are expensive.  Not only is the casting expensive but one must have a mold that is usually priced equally to the cost of a casting.  So, a casting cost of $500.00 usually means that a mold for the same piece will also be $500.00.  So, a first piece will cost double the $500.00 at $1000.00.  Then, we need to add a nice base of marble or a combination of wood and marble that will cost in the neighborhood of $200.00.  I have been advised by more than one knowledgeable person that an artist should price his or her piece at 4 times the cost of the bronze.  This is partially factored on the fact that a gallery will take 50%, assuming you place your work in a gallery.  Art shows generally take a lot less but then you have travel expenses and may never be home during the art show season.

So, let’s see if we have this correct… I spend 25 hours on a carving, I pay $500.00 for a mold, I pay $500.00 for a casting, I pay $200.00 for a fine base, so I should establish a retail price of $4800.00.  Of course, it is a spectacular piece and it does sell so I give the gallery owner $2400.00.  I get $2400.00 as well but I have $1200.00 in expenses so I make $1200.00 on a piece that sells for $4800.00 and that I have spent 25 hours on plus the time of negotiating with foundries and galleries and the expenses related.  Hmmm!

The picture that I have painted may not sound so good but lets say that we have a run of 25 pieces and we sell out the run.  I have had only one mold cost so my out of pocket expense have been reduced by $500.00 for all 24 castings beyond the first.  I’ll let you do the math but after the sale of 25 pieces, I have done pretty well with a single woodcarving.  Of course if profit is your motive, its all in the numbers… “more” is better.

I strongly suggest that you visit a bronze foundry and take a tour of the facility.  It is an interesting process and you will soon come to understand why the cost of bronze casting is so expensive.  It is not an easy nor simple process.

My 1990’s bronzes were done by a foundry in Kalispell, MT.  While they did a good job on the casting work, my experience with the foundry itself was not as good and I think they have since gone out of business.  Just recently, I decided to give the bronze thing another try.  This time, I visited Joseph and nearby Enterprise, Oregon where there are 4 foundries that cater to artists.  It is clearly the bronze foundry mecca of the Northwest.  It is also located in the Wellowa Mountains and the area is drop dead gorgeous.  I interviewed each foundry, looked around, spoke to gallery owners in Joseph and in the end selected Parks Bronze Foundry, located in Enterprise, OR.  This foundry is owned and managed by an artist, was found to be  clean, appeared to be well managed, produces fine work, is competitively priced, and has a “crackerjack” front office.

The Bronze Process…

Parks Bronze Foundry

It all starts with original work

Most original sculptures destined for bronze reproductions are created in wax or clay.  Woodcarvings are much less common.  I happen to believe a bronze that has the appearance of being hand hewn is a real plus.  I would also argue that a good woodcarving is much more difficult to do than a clay sculpture.  If you mess up a clay sculpture, you rip off your mistake, slap on new clay and you are off and running.  As wood carvers, you know this is not the case with a woodcarving.  Woodcarving demands more care and fixing a mistake has many restrictions associated with it.  Anyway, it is with creating an original work that the process of turning this original into a limited edition bronze begins.  There are really no size limitations to bronzes.  My work is generally table top sized but many bronzes are monumental in size such as with a herd of horses, etc.

Next, a mold has to be made

The first mold, referred to as the “mother mold,” is made directly from the original sculpture, using coats of liquid latex rubber or silicon backed with plaster or fiberglass.  Woodcarvings must be slathered with Vaseline or a similar substance to ensure that the latex rubber does not stick to the wood.  I chose a foundry that uses fibreglass as the exterior mold as it will last many times longer than plaster.  A waxed paper surface of the soft drink cups is placed between the two haves of a mold to allow the mold to later be separated.  The mother mold encased in fibreglass is held together with bolts for strength.

Making Wax Copies

Hot wax is poured into the latex rubber mother mold and allowed to cool. The wax is then poured out of the mold, producing a hollow wax copy of the original sculpture. The latex mold can be used repeatedly to make numerous wax copies.

Chasing the Wax

The wax pattern is carefully removed from the latex mold, inspected, and any flaws are carefully removed, or “chased” by hand.  It is here that artists signatures and run numbers are applied to the copy such as 02/25… meaning No. 2 of 25.

Wax Chasing and Adding Sprues

Attaching the Sprues

A wax pouring cup and wax shafts (known as “sprues”) are attached to each part of the sculpture. These will ultimately serve as channels for the molten bronze to flow through after the wax has been melted out of the ceramic shell mold.

Now, the ceramic shell mold

The second mold, a rigid ceramic shell, is formed by dipping the wax duplicate repeatedly in a vat containing liquid slurry and then coating it with silica sand. This process takes several days. This shell is then fired in a kiln to melt out the wax, and also to harden the ceramic shell mold in preparation for receiving the molten bronze.

Creating Ceramic Shell Mold

Wax melt out

Once the ceramic shell has dried, it is hardened by firing in a kiln. The heat causes the wax to melt, leaving the mold hollow to receive the molten bronze that will be poured into it in the next step of the casting process.

Pouring the bronze

Molten bronze is poured into the cup of the ceramic shell mold, into the space left behind by the “lost wax.” The bronze will be allowed to cool, and then the ceramic shell will be broken off to reveal the bronze sculpture within.

Pouring Molten Bronze

Bronze finishing… now it’s getting exciting

In this step, the imperfections and any weld lines are “chased” out, and the texture is restored for final finish through careful grinding.

Applying the patina

The last step in the foundry is the coloration of the bronze sculpture through the application of heat and different chemicals. This produces a permanent colored finish called “patina,” and completes the transformation of the sculpture into a piece of lasting fine art.

Eagle by Steve Parks

Finally, selecting and affixing a base

Placing your finished piece on an attractive base will greatly enhance its appearance and value.

As you can see, bronzing is a long and careful process.  Be sure and select a foundry that will support your talents and produce a quality reproduction of your work.  The entire process takes approximately 12 weeks.  It is not for anyone into instant gratification.

During the patina process, I plan on being present at the foundry with the patina artisan and jointly select a complimentary patina finish.

My pieces entered the process just two weeks ago so it will be a good 2 and ½ months before I can share any outcome.  I admit that as exciting as it is to have begun this process, I am not looking forward to dealing with galleries.

Please visit my website at: .

In the meantime stay sharp and always be carveful.

All pictures of Parks Bronze Foundry and Steve Parks work are used by permission.


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