What I wanted to try and do at Kentwell this year

I was going to put this up two weeks ago, but forgot amongst all the hassle. So here it is as a taster for my next post.

It is nearly time for my annual pilgrimage to be a Tudor at Kentwell hall in Suffolk. This year, like last year, I am running the foundry. This year we have 4 of us, which is a good start, and three of us have prior experience.

So, what I want to try and cast are:

Lead spindle whorls, medieval and tudor date, with 6mm and 10mm internal holes.

Pewterbuckles and suchlike.

A bronze mortar and pestle.

Bronze seal matrices and purse bars, using the lost wax technique.

More complex but interesting things I might try include casting into tin oxide to make buckles, but also to try and make bronze moulds for making a seal matrix or bullets or suchlike. Which involves embedding the patron or sphere in the tin oxide on one half of the mould, and then casting the bronze into the other half of it in such a way that I have a lump of bronze with a shape like a seal matrix in it. Then I can bang out dozens of clean, good seal matrices.
This idea courtesy of the Historical Metallurgy society AGM and conference, where Kevin Leahy mentioned a bronze mould for casting seal matrices.

It is really nice to have actual confirmation of bronze moulds existing in the medieval period, and likely having been used for casting bronze or lead objects. I’ve been investigating casting for years but moulds really do not survive much at all.

We will also try to make a bell, since one of my co-workers is a campanologist, using sand casting and maybe using clay, it all depends on what we use as an original. I don’t have a bell, but there are some still on the foundry.

It should be quite a busy week, it all depends on the weather and how much charcoal we have.

A problem you run into when making buckles using stone moulds

I have had the ambition for years now to make good pewter buckles, of the sort in use in the 14-15th centuries for holding shoes shut. Numerous examples can be found in the Museum of London book “Dress accessories” and other books of finds.

The mould I am using is is made of soapstone, which I am using purely because I don’t have access to easily carved limestone or siltstone.

Note that I’m cramming quite a few items into one mould, which was done in the past. Good stone isn’t so cheap and easy to find, and it makes sense to use it for several objects, or use two sides for different objects, as seen in some of the Coventry moulds.

The slight problem is, how do I make sure that both sides have the correct half on them? Dan Towse (http://pbsn3.pbworks.com/w/browse/#view=ViewAllObjects), an experienced SCA caster, reckons they squared the mould sides off and measured. That would work well enough I think; being a cheapskate I don’t always use squared off moulds in order to maximise the amount of stone I can use, yet most moulds I have seen are squared off which certainly strengthens his hypothesis.

So, given the situation I was in, how should I mark either side? I tried using damp red clay in the already carved side, but it did not stick very well and rather marked one side of the stone as you can see at the bottom left:

soapstone buckle moulds in the making

Then I tried pouring wax in, hoping it would stick to the appropriate area. It did, but also spread a little beyond, so it was not as accurate as I would have liked. Still, it was a start.

Next I tried casting metal into it, hoping the white stone would be marked by it. No luck, the white soapstone remained unmarked.

When test casting into the mould though, I found that a partly complete cast could indicate the other side of the mould easily enough:

soapstone mould half done with test casts soapstone mould half done without test casts

So perhaps they did it that way? It would be nice to find some objects that are clearly half made, and that show both sides of the mould. Once you have carved the edge of the area to be carved out, you can carry on carving with the occasional test casting in order to see how you are doing:

I would expect real half-done moulds to show some evidence of this or another way of carving, although if the carver is sufficiently good and artistic they could do it virtually freehand I am sure.

What I hope to do at Kentwell 2015 next month

This year (If all goes well) I am being a foundryman at Kentwell hall, in the year 1588. This is a good opportunity to try various things out, most of which I shall blog about afterwards. So I shall be sure to take a lot of photographs.

Things I intend to do/ show:

Finish my stone pewter spoon mould

Cast pewter buckles which will be used to try and make the next items

Cast bronze and brass buckles, purse bars, scabbard chapes, and pestle and mortar

Experiment with dry powder casting as mentioned in Biringuccio

As well as helping out with attempts at making small cauldrons or a cannon or a bell.

The trick will be preparation, so the week before I shall be mixing up lots of muck for moulds and trying to finish off a couple of pewter buckle moulds. Once there I shall also be discussing foundrywork with a couple of people who know a lot about it, and trying to keep the newbies who don’t, right. And get the younger ones working the bellows.

Yes, I am aware that having a foundry at a 16th century manor house in the countryside isn’t really accurate. It’s one of these irritating compromises that helps keep both the public, the site owner and us re-enactors happy and interested. Ideally we’d have a replica town, but that requires some millions in investment to make happen.

(And don’t say that early medieval association or group has managed it, because I’ll just laugh at you)

I’m pleased a couple of my castings look like the originals they are based on

All I did was carve the stone mould based on the period design and I made what is probably the same mistake that the original mould maker did, in that neither are quite symmetrical, simple though that is to do when you have a ruler. Maybe he didn’t have a ruler and compass and protractor.  All I used was a ruler to measure the lengths of the sides and width, but didn’t concern myself with getting the angles precisely correct, and unsurprisingly the result was not symmetrical.

Here is a photograph of the belt spangles: Continue reading

Being a blog, I can ask questions that professionals won’t go near due to lack of evidence

For instance, who made stone moulds used to cast pewter and perhaps bronze items? Having had a skim through several sources of information about stone moulds, such as the Museum of London books, the Historical Metallurgy Society journals and excavation reports, I can’t find anything about this question. Of course being a proper careful archaeologist you can’t go beyond what the artefacts tell you, and they mostly don’t come with labels or engravings saying “Made by Bob”.

Obviously carving stone is a specific skill associated with masons, but the moulds are quite small and were probably carved using small sharp tools and files. My experience of making them suggests that with a modicum of artistic ability and fine motor skills you can carve moulds reasonably well, but the complex ones for pewter badges will take quite a lot more practise and real artistic skill.

Which therefore does not mean a stone mason is required.

One suggestion, in “English Medieval Industries” (page 78 of the paperback edition) is that many of the more detailed pewter badges were cast in metal moulds, the metal being cut by seal engravers. Who would indeed have the requisite skills, but I would need more evidence that they actually used metal moulds for this sort of thing in the first place, given the stone moulds that we know of from Britain and Germany, and the fine detail you can get in any fine grained rock.

I did read somewhere that the earthen moulds for casting bells and cauldrons and suchlike in, were made by a specialist on making them, referring to some records from medieval York, but those were single use moulds and he would have made scores every year, whereas a good stone mould can make 300 or 400 pewter castings and thus last for years of use.

Certainly engraving metal moulds would be harder for foundrymen to learn and do than simply outsourcing the work to someone else, but on the other hand they might, especially in smaller towns, encompass engraving within their skill set, as it is in a way related to the finishing of small items.

Turning to “A History of British Pewter”, we find mention of moulds in wills, but unfortunately it does not say what the moulds are made of. Some will be bronze, for plates and the like, and maybe they all are, or maybe some are stone. The authors write that metal moulds were widespread in England in the 15th century, attested to by references in the London Pewterer’s records, in Welch, i, 14-15, 105, 120, 175, 179. Welch is “History of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers of the City of London, 2 vols, 1902. (Note to self, the NLS and St Andrews and Glasgow have it) They also assume that the pewterer would make his own moulds. It would be comparatively simple for a pewterer to cast their own moulds (Or got a foundry to do it, but in smaller towns they were often both the same person and workplace), and spend time finishing them off. It would certainly negate the need for an engraver.

In fact, having been spurred on by this question to read more, I have an answer in the book “Pilgrim souvenirs and secular badges” by Brian Spencer, one of the Museum of London books. It says in the introduction that “Little is known about the men who made the moulds, an operation that called for skill in small-scale precision work as well as a degree of artistry and iconographical knowledge.” It seems some records in York and Cneterbury mention mouldmakers, i.e. people who carved the moulds, whether stone or also, as is shown in the book, cuttlefish bone, but it is not always clear in the records whether they made their own mould or hired them. The introduction also mentions the use of seal engravers in mould cutting and goldsmiths and that bronze moulds for casting pilgrim souvenirs are also described.

So we have more of an answer than at the start of this post. With any luck there is more information available; I shall certainly be chasing up the excavation reports of the moulds mentioned in the book. Cuttlefish bone is one substance I haven’t really looked at, but will surely be the subject of a blog post in the future.

Finishing the casting off so it is nice and shiny

A quick foreward to this post – I originally did some “lets see what happens when I try some methods of finishing castings off that I think they might have used” last year, about 5 minutes worth. That convinced me that using files and stones was possible. Then of course I realised it would be a good idea to do some research as well, using my well stocked library. Hence this post, which follows on nicely from the previous one.

So, now you have a nice cast object. It is still discoloured and a bit rough from the casting process. What do you do?
To answer this I turn to the usual two printed sources that bracket my period of interest, Theophilus and Biringuccio.

The 12th century monk Theophilus describes the use of files to finish a cast silver chalice off before engraving it.
More interestingly, he writes, page 175 (Of the Dover paperback edition), after casting a bell and bracing it on the lathe, “…the bell can be turned and smoothed all over with a sandstone.” Which is surely good evidence for the use of a natural and often freely available precursor to sandpaper! You can get different types of sandstone too, some fine, some coarse, which would give you great ability to smooth it out properly.

Earlier, he writes of the making of burnishers, which are for finishing the work, they are like scrapoers but more rounded. They are still in use today for smoothing out the surface of a metal object by plastic deformation.

You should also, (page 93) have files made out of pure steel, hardened with a form of carburisation. Large, medium sized, four cornered, three cornered and round. The descriptions are not so clear, but he does refer to making finer files “.. work whic h has previously been filed with other coarser files should be smoothed.”

Obviously I need to expand my toolkit, get some more files and burnishers as well as different grades of sandstone.

Biringuccio writes on page 377, regarding the finishing of flasks, saltcellars etc, “With rasps and scrapers and other cutting tools they are smoothed, polished and made beautiful.” I get the impression that the finishing of metal items is so well known about and widespread that he doesn’t see any need to go into details, whereas the art of casting in bronze and such is tricky and difficult and he wants you to know all about it (And that he knows all about it).

I have an interesting book on English pewter, called “A history of British Pewter” by John Hatcher and T. C Barker, published in 1974. It has an outline of the manufacturing process, and it is clear that you used the lathe for it as told by the period sources, with several types of iron tools similar to those used by wood carvers for burnishing the surface. Interestingly though you also hammered some types of wares, like plates.
But it obviously only covers pewter.

Another source is the treatises of Benvenuto Cellini, of the mid or later 16th century. Page 57 of the edition I have talks about finishing a work of art, some sort of cast and soldered together object, and he wrote “I took some four or five hard pointed stones, which are sharp at the ends and thicken upwards in the manner and I used them with some well powedered pumice stone. The object of using these stones is to take out the markes of the steel tools, the punches, chisels, files and suchlike and to give it a fine uniform surface; and last, but not least, a brilliancy of colour which would not be so easy if the marks of the steel tools (And the skin they make) were not obliterated.”

Page 94 tells us about the cleaning up of a large silver statue. He used pumice to clean and smooth it, then heated it to red hot and put it in a blanching solution of water with tartar and salt. Then it was scrubbed and when the silver started going white it was put in another vessel with clean water, to wash the blanching solution off. After that it was ready and clean for gilding.

Between them all that gives me enough information to improve my displays and production processes. But as usual, practise is required.

For contrast, here’s a photo of a later medieval bronze cooking cauldron from Dublin. Note that it isn’t really well finished off and clearly shows the flashing line where the outer mould was split in half to enable it to be taken off the mould it was shaped on.

Dublin late medieval cauldron

How not to make a stone mould for pewter spoons

Four years ago at Kentwell Hall I spent ages trying to make a stone mould for casting spoons in. It failed in a somewhat spectacular manner – I accidentally carved one side of the mould at the wrong angle, so the pewter ran out the bottom. An understanding of the shape required to make a spoon should make it clear why this would happen. soapstone spoon mould both sides Here are the two parts, on the left the male, the right the female with the indent for the bowl of the spoon. The male side has to fill the bowl, whilst leaving enough space for the metal to run between both sides. But I couldn’t see how to get both sides to match up perfectly when I was carving, and the result was as said. The white stuff in the photos is plaster, put there to try and block up the gap, but it didn’t work. This view from end on should make it clearer, the white plaster being on the right hand side: soapstone mould top view of male part You can see that the metal enters from the top of the bowl, and there are clear grooves cut to allow air out of the mould.

What I have just realised now, a few years too late, is that looking at the medieval stone mould pictured in this book:

, the bowl is sunk somewhat into the stone, i.e. the rim of the spoon is below the level of the upper face of the mould. This will firstly help give a good seal when the two parts are pressed together, and secondly might also allow room for manouvre in carving the bowl. Of course without the other half it is harder to be certain, but I think that indenting the female part and raising the male part above the level of the joining plane would perhaps make carving it a little easier. Ahh well. At least there is enough stone to spare that I can try to remake the mould and this time make a better job of it.