HISTORY OF LOST-WAX CASTING

Investment casting is among the most ancient of metal-crafting arts. Conversely, it is also among the most modern. Its origins date back many thousands of years. The sculptors of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the artisans of the Han Dynasty in China, the Aztecs goldsmiths of pre-Columbian Mexico, and the craftsmen of the Benin civilization in modern day Nigeria used this method of casting to produce their intricately detailed artwork of gold, copper and bronze.

The first description of the investment casting process was written by an Italian monk some 900 years ago who adapted it to craft large statues. The monk’s process was very similar to those used in investment casting today; the original model was sculpted in wax then coated with successive layers of plaster. After the plaster hardened, the wax was melted out and molten metal was cast into the void. A short time later, after the metal cooled and hardened, the plaster was broken away and there stood the statue; an exact replica of the original wax sculpture.

This process was rediscovered in Europe in the 16th century by artists and jewelers, who perfected their techniques over the following three hundred years. It was then, during the late 19th Century, investment castings found a new market as dentists began to adapt the process to manufacture dental fillings and inlays.

The manufacturing industry realized the need for investment castings at the beginning of World War II with the sudden increase in demand for large quantities of intricately machined armament and aircraft parts. Manufacturers found that the “lost wax” process of casting these parts virtually eliminated all but the closest machining operations; thereby increasing their ability to produce critical items such as turbine blades and gun parts at the fraction of their original costs. Knowledge gained from the dental trade was combined with the permanent die techniques perfected by jewelers to produce critical items in unbelievable quantities.

PROCESS

Casts can be made of the wax model itself, the direct method, or of a wax copy of a model that need not be of wax, the indirect method. These are the steps for the indirect process:

Model-making. An artist or mould-maker creates an original model from wax, clay, or another material. Wax and oil-based clay are often preferred because these materials retain their softness.

Mouldmaking. A mould is made of the original model or sculpture. The rigid outer moulds contain the softer inner mould, which is the exact negative of the original model. Inner moulds are usually made of latex, polyurethane rubber or silicone, which is supported by the outer mould. The outer mould can be made from plaster, but can also be made of fiberglass or other materials. Most moulds are made of at least two pieces, and a shim with keys is placed between the parts during construction so that the mould can be put back together accurately. If there are long, thin pieces extending out of the model, they are often cut off of the original and moulded separately. Sometimes many moulds are needed to recreate the original model, especially for large models.

Wax. Once the mould 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 mould. This is repeated until the desired thickness is reached. Another method is to fill the entire mould with molten wax and let it cool until a desired thickness has set on the surface of the mould. After this the rest of the wax is poured out again, the mould 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 mould. The model-maker may reuse the mould to make multiple copies, limited only by the durability of the mould.

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 mould came together. The wax is dressed to hide any imperfections. The wax now looks like the finished piece. Wax pieces that were moulded separately can now 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 the molten casting material to flow and for 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. The spruing does not 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 mould 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 it is often 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, vent tubes and cup are also now hollow.

Testing. The ceramic shell is allowed to cool, then is tested to see if water will flow freely through the feeder and vent tubes. 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. The shell has to be hot because otherwise the temperature difference would shatter it. The filled shells are then 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, the material 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, so that the casting now looks like the original model. Pits left by air bubbles in the casting and the stubs of the spruing are filed down and polished.

Prior to silica-based casting moulds, these moulds were made of a variety of other fire-proof materials, the most common being plaster based, with added grout, and clay based. Prior to rubber moulds gelatine was used.

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