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.

The rather important use of lathes by foundrymen

For 7 years now I have been thinking about all aspects of how medieval craftsmen made objects out of bronze or pewter. The method of manufacture of some objects is obvious, from the excavated stone moulds for pewter badges through to the methods of making bells, which are recorded in detail in the 12th and 16th centuries, with nothing much changing in between.

But that still leaves some items unaccounted for. Some, like small bells, are made of sheet metal or else have cores of sand and clay within a stone mould a bit like that for making bullets, but nobody has left instructions for their manufacture.

Others, like mortars and pestles, well, eventually I worked out that they were probably made the same way as bells, and lo and behold, in Biringuccio’s book it says that you make mortars, basins and other vessels which need to be hollow in the middle in the same way as bells (page 268 of the paperback Dover edition).

This means that a founder needs a lathe of sorts in order to turn the core of the mortar.

I did in fact first try to make a mortar by having a wooden pestle and a mortar made, which could then have the earth pressed around them before removing them and sealing it all together, but that proved to be harder to get right than I thought. The pestle I did produce had a lot of flash down one side because the dampl clay was not rigid enough to stay perfectly in shape when I was taking the former out, and the mortar mould has not yet been tried due to the slowness of mould manufacture and drying and issues with melting the metal.

Anyway, what did lathes look like then, of the sort I can use?

Fortunately there are pictures and descriptions, but never enough. Continue reading

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

The importance of finishing your casting off – unanswered questions about medieval bronze castings

Looking at real surviving bronze objects from the medieval period leaves me amazed at how good they are. The thinness, the smoothness and so on. I have never been able to replicate it using clay based moulds, so far.

The question is, why?

Here’s a pair of spectacle buckles I have made by casting into clay based moulds:

Two spectacle buckles unfinished

They both have, to a greater or lesser extent, a pockmarked surface.

In other objects you can see what look like real bubbles, which may well be from oxygen dissolved into the hot metal. It’s my fault for not poling the metal, that is, putting a green stick into it to burn out the oxygen, but most o the casting I have done has been very close to the the right temperature.

So that’s definitely part of it. If the mould and metal are both very hot, then it will fill the mould completely, and if the metal hasn’t much oxygen in it, then there won’t be many bubbles.

This would explain some of the poor surface finish. And I have seen medieval bells with bubbles at the surface a millimetre across, often several grouped together, so they obviously had the same problem.

Now, here are some actual medieval belt buckles, found in the remains of a real 13th century or so workshop in Dublin:

Dublin buckles unfinished long one Dublin buckles many at once Dublin buckle unfinished state

Sorry about the picture quality, the photos were taken through a glass case. What you can see, hopefully, is that there are unfinished castings with some very rough surfaces. Which immediately makes it clear that a lot of fettling goes on with the unfinished castings. This was also suggested to me by a member of the public at Chatelherault a couple of years ago. I also wonder if the state of the sprue attached to them indicates the type of mould they were cast in. Pewter objects usually have a clear, sharply defined sprue with diamond cross section, because that is how the channels are cut in moulds. These by contrast are squarer in cross section, and so I wonder if they were made in clay based moulds. It is known that buckles and such were made in multi-layered clay based moulds such as one found in London, so they would have had the same difficulties I did with the quality of final product.

Another option is that they were cast into stone moulds. These would, looking at pewter castings, give very smooth, detailed surfaces. The only slight problem there is that there’s no real evidence for it. So few moulds survive, and I’ve not come across mention of stone moulds in wills or the like. Moreover, they wouldn’t last for so many casts, because 1100C Bronze or brass is hot enough to cause major thermal shock and a lot of expansion and contraction. Besides, most moulds I’ve seen have lead plugs, which might get melted out by the heat from the cooling bronze. I’m going to be doing some experiments this year to show it one way or another.

Yet another way to ensure a good quality, smooth surfaced casting is by making the mould up using very fine clay slip around the wax original, before adding the coarser clay. I haven’t succeeded in doing that method myself, but have spoken to people who have and they say it works well, even better if you add some fine carbon in so that there is a reducing atmosphere inside the mould, which means you get a nice shiny non-oxidised surface finish.

From Biringuccio, the early 16th century founder, there’s evidence for the use of casting using sand based recipes or fine powders, but of course such stuff wouldn’t leave obvious traces in the archaeological record, unlike the tonnes of clay based moulds which came from bell and cauldron moulds. Or perhaps some archaeologists have overlooked it? I have yet to try such substances, but they might also not have been much used in Britain compared to the continent. He does mention the use of multi-layer moulds like that found in London, and his instructions for making bells are almost certainly the same as how they were made in England, so it does seem worth trusting his descriptions and recipes.

The final option is that the way I am doing all parts of the work isn’t right. Hence the experiments with different mould materials that I shall carry out.

Before that though the obvious thing to do is do a quick and dirty test clean up of one of my own castings.

So here is a buckle, cast in a clay mould from pressing the original into the damp clay.

Before treatment with files:

as cast spectacle buckle

After treatment:

filed spectacle buckle

What is immediately clear is that with a fairly small but finely cut file you can get a nice shiny smooth finish very quickly, with only a few strokes, and that will take out most of the unevenness of the as cast surface. Further work could also give each of the edges a sharp angle to it. So it is likely that some of the perfection of buckles is down simply to good fettling by whoever did it.

But as always, more experimentation and research required.

Real and possible misperceptions about medieval copper alloy castings

In the rainy season I thought I’d correct a few of the odd ideas that people have about medieval casting, but the annoying thing is I can’t really find many examples of people being wrong. This is in part because the internet is not all powerful and all containing, and searching it isn’t as easy as it used to be. Some of the errors will have been promulgated off internet, in magazines or books that I have never read. Other errors have no exact source, but are what people assume based on partical knowledge.

The most common error is certainly the idea that they used sand casting, especially for cauldrons and smaller items. Apart from the lack of dumps of metal contaminated sand at excavated foundry sites, we’ve got lots of physical evidence of what they did use to cast bells and cauldrons. Yes, clay and organic muck. It survives well in the ground. For instance, at Exeter archaeologists dug up over half a tonne of clay based mould fragments from the manufacture of cauldrons, as can be seen by the shape of the pieces.

Elsewhere in the country many fragments of bell mould have been dug up, whether in London, York or elsewhere. These correlate with areas and times when the documentary evidence shows that there were bell foundries at work, and in the texts they refer to earthen moulds, i.e. not sand, but mixes of clay and other sedimentary materials.

(I just found this report on a Lincolnshire excavation that examined bell casting debris

We also have the remains of a clay based buckle mould found in London, showing that they were using it for small items as well. Since we also have stone moulds which could be used for buckles and the like, the question is, where would sand moulds come into it? Continue reading

The origin and use of bellows, especially in medieval Europe

I’m sure most of you are familiar with bellows, through seeing small, often ornate and decorative, sets of them by fireplaces. However the shape that they are today originated comparatively recently, becoming widespread in Europe in the medieval period.

The origin of bellows is well back in the prehistoric period, but they were made differently then. The first metal smelting, around the 6th millenium BC, that is, the 5,000’s BC, was done in draft and wind furnaces, that is like they fired pottery, and at that time or shortly after they realised they could smelt using blowpipes to introduce more oxygen. (

Of course the problem is that this required lots of blowers to keep up the air rate, and the air ends up being damper and lower in oxygen because it has been through someone’s lungs. So someone invented bellows, or maybe several people invented them in different places at different times. Archaeologists have spent many backbreaking days operating bag bellows, made out of the skins of animals sewn together with a hole which can be opened and closed by movement of the fingers.

At the bottom of the bags are pipes called tuyères sticking out of the bottom, leading into the heart of the furnace. These are usually made of clay and sand or muck of some sort or another, so as to withstand the temperature of the fire, although the nozzles do tend to get fused and glassy. Finding them in an excavation is usually a good indication of a metal furnace, although a better one is finding the remains of the hearth itself, contaminated with traces of metal. People back then though did like to tidy up every little droplet of precious copper that they had.

It is a little hard to see what type of bellows are in this Old Egyptian wall painting:

They look rather pot or more concertina like.

These are more efficient and easier to use. Still backbreaking work though.

Or perhaps they were more like this sort of iron age bellows:

Scroll down to find photos of them in operation – essentially the leather sits as a lid on a pot, and has a hole in it which can be opened or closed, and the leather is pushed up and down.

As for the Greeks and Romans, it has proven remarkably hard to locate images of Hephaestus or Vulcan, the Roman equivalent. Those I can see tend to show him with a hammer and anvil, no sign of bellows.

The same fellow, Dave Budd, reckons that, pot bellows were in use at this time, and also at some point kite bellows, although it is not clear from his photos exactly what they are. The internet turns up this:

Which is a kits shaped bag bellow, which fits later descriptions apparently.

After the fall of Rome, obviously less evidence is available in Europe, but to judge by Theophilus’s work On Divers arts, the type of bellows in use in northern Europe in circa 1122 was still the comparatively primitive sort based on a bag, no different to those used in previous centuries. They were to be made this way:

“When the rams are killed, the skins should not be slit under the belly but opened from the rear and turned inside out so that they can be stripped off whole. (He tells you how to dry and cure them) Then tye should be greased and stretched againl. After this make a wooden head for the bellows to go through the neck and be tied there and make a hole in the head through which an iron pipe can go. Now, along the width of the bellows at the back, place four pieces of wood, which should be fitted to each other in pairs and tied together in the middle. Each pair should be sewn onto the bellows so that the places where they are joined are at the top and bottom of the middle [ of the opening of the skin]. At these points also two loops of the same skin should be sewn on, a smaller one at the top to hold the thumb and a larger one at the bottom for the four fingers.” (Page 83-84 of the Dover reprint)

This setup is for a small scale worker in metal. I’ve found online a 9th century AD illustration from the Stuttgart Psalter, via mention of it on a forum (f 121r):

Note that the two smiths are beavering away whilst Moses is coming down from the mountain and the others are worshipping a golden calf. It looks as if one advantage of this design of bellows is that you can operate the set with one hand whilst moving things about in the charcoal with the other.

Naturally there might be differences in technology between the UK and Germany, but really, given what was available and the communications of the period I think it unlikely that the UK was any more advanced in terms of bellows than Germany.

The earliest illustration of what we know of as bellows that I have found mention of is the Hylestad church carvings:

The church was estimated to have been built in the late 12th to early 13th century, and the illustration clearly shows a pair of single action bellows being used to run a smith’s forge. Note two tuyeres, one from each bellows, running into it.

So we have the modern sort in the late 12th/ early 13th century, compared to bag bellows circa 1122, which narrows it down nicely to about a century in which it seems the modern bellows were invented and spread about Europe. Perhaps rather rapidly as well, since illustrations abound from mid to late 13th century onwards:

from 1250, courtesy of the Larsdatter links page. The problem there of course is that these are just the small set of handheld bellows you use at home. But at least next time you are blowing on a fire you can think of how old the design is, over 700 years.

This circa 1326 illustration is the oldest one Larsdatter has of the use of bellows on a forge:

which makes it clear that the same design as for domestic use was in industrial use by this time.

Later illustrations are usually a bit clearer, and show better working too. For instance, the Holkham bible, English, circa 1327-1335, showing the same sort of bellows as we expect, so they were in use across Germany, France and England:

You can clearly see that the illustrator has tried to draw a tiller to raise the bellows up and down alternately, but hasn’t succeeded. At least he drew the rope connecting the sticky out bits of the bellows to the pivoting piece of wood, and shows what are two rocks on top of the bellows, presumably to press them down and get a good blast of air out of them.

(As an aside, an ex-member of my re-enactment group had some bellows made, but didn’t have such handle like extensions on the end, claiming there was no evidence for them. Oddly enough most illustrations I have ever seen do show them, and without them it is much harder to operate the bellows, so I don’t know where he got his ideas from)

Also a couple of decent pictures here:

A 15th century German illustration from the Mendel Hausbuch showing only one set, but that is often how they are badly drawn:

The advantage of using two sets of bellows is obvious. Arranged the way they are, one deflates whilst the other inflates, leading to a steady stream of air through the fire.

Several modern re-enactors have made such systems, such as this seen at Tatton:

Tatton 2007 pair of bellows and frame

And this at Kentwell, copying Bringucio’s “De Pyrotechnia”:

better rear view of Kentwell bellows

My own bronze casting setup at events is like this:

melting furnace Lanark 2010

I still need to make the proper rocking setup to make using them easier, and make a good strong stand for the bellows.

Meanwhile, domestic bellows continued to vary in shape, e.g. this 1520’s set:;jsessionid=F5E05BD40C4638C7904E80D6DBF78848?trs=3&mi=0&qvq=q%3Abucket%3Blc%3AODLodl~14~14%2CODLodl~1~1%2CODLodl~23~23%2CODLodl~24~24%2CODLodl~6~6%2CODLodl~7~7%2CODLodl~8~8

is distinctly rounder in shape than some earlier ones appear to be. But that was probably a matter of personal preference.

Another mystery to me at the moment is when double action action bellows were invented. They are the ones you can still see in historic blacksmiths. They have two sections, a top and bottom, with a hole between and a valve in it. The rope pulls up the bottom, which pushes air into the top section, which is pressed down upon by a weight. The advantage of these is the constant flow of air and the fact you can pump them up more than the older type, leaving them to deliver air for long enough that you can guddle about in the fire.

The earliest illustration I have seen so far is perhaps this:

Which dates from 1689.

Unfortunately you see them all the time at re-enactment events, even in the medieval period. But I can find no information on them before the 17th century, the problem being compounded by some potential confusion on wikipedia between double action piston and accordion bellows. I have certainly seen piston bellows in a late medieval picture:

And vertical accordion bellows seem to be a continental thing of the late medieval period, as you can see on the far left of this engraving:

But no sign of double action bellows, not in Biringuccio, (1540), Ercker (1580) mentions a pair of bellows, so obviously not single one, and I don’t have any more sources for later than that.

You can get instructions online to build them, and if you wanted a hand blown furnace I would make them.

On the other hand it is much easier to use this:

melting furnace with two airbed pumps

At the right you can see two small black air pumps powered by two 12v batteries, which deliver enough air to melt two or three hundred grams of metal in ten minutes. The photograph shows the furnace actually at 1100C in the hot part, but you can’t see the white hot area because the charcoal is in the way. It acts as insulation, helping keep the heat in.

Another option is a hairdryer, which would move much greater volumes of air, and they are frequently recomended in books about home foundry work, the problem being they need a 240v supply and you have to be wanting to melt a lot of metal, since if you put too much air through the charcoal you won’t get the best reactions and will blow some of the heat out.

Previous posts on foundry related topics

Here are some links to previous posts on my now alchemy oriented blog:

A fair bit of reading for anyone who is interested.