Where Bronze Statues Are Made

A sculptor’s foundry—where they make bronze statues—is like no other place you’ve ever been. MUC-Bavaria_head-and-armScene of interior of the metal foundry in Munich where a colossal figure, Bavaria, was cast, showing the head and left arm castings (public domain photo)

If there is a yard in front of the factory building, you might already get your first glimpse of a giant statue peeking over the wall while you ring the bell at the gate. A colossal green horse might look down on you: a funny kind of welcome. Then as you are led through that patio-yard you will see finished statues all pushed together just any way to make room for more, some hiding in the ivy and with their backs to you so that they are partly unintelligible—a haranguing politician is that?, a soldier with lifted sword, a dictator looking benevolent—all of them frozen in action.

And inside the big hall of the works men will sit at long tables with little figures in their hands, like elves in a fairy-tale or helpers in Santa’s workshop. They work with miniature tools—fairy tools, they might be. Some hold little red wax figures stuck through with pins, like voodoo dolls. By their side are bunsen burners with a flame dancing, and from time to time the men hold a spatula to the flame and then touch it to the wax figure which goes shiny where the wax melts it. Some put varnishes and liquids onto plaster molds with mysterious markings and seams. You won’t ever have smelled such smells as fill the halls: hot wax, hot metal, stearine, fish glues, acids, plaster, sands.

Bronze casting at  Jos Custers Foundry in Grathem, LimburgBronze casting at Jos Custers Foundry in Grathem, Limburg. At the far right, Berti Bierenbroodspot looks on with concern. The bronze being poured into those molds will become her statue ( photo by Fong Leng published with the kind permission of Bierenbroodspot

Careful: you must move out of the way of an eerie, slow procession, like a funeral procession, of men carrying an orange-hot cauldron of bronze, hanging from long poles.

And the director’s office is full of sculptural goodies. On his desk and all along the walls are shelves chock-full of things that just holler to be picked up and looked at and talked about (“What a beautiful horse! Who made it? What kind of patina is that? Is that one of Pablo Serrano’s things?”); but there is no time—there’s never time. It’s simply impossible to keep your eyes off all the figures in bronze and wax and clay and plaster, in all styles, by all kinds of sculptors; even while the director asks you unexpected questions about how your own humble creation is to look. You never knew there were so many options, so many treatments. On your tour of the foundry he will introduce you to the foreman and to some of the men: the elves at the tables, the welders, the burr-removers, the chisellers, the men or women who put on the patinas. They heat up the naked-bronze figures with a torch and spray on the acids. There are one or two sculptors about. They smile and shake your hand. Welcome to the club. Foundries are a good place to meet real sculptors. They all go there, though most don’t stick around.

Some people believe that a sculptor “works in bronze”—that just as he chips and polishes a block of stone to create a marble statue, he somehow hammers and twists and welds metal to produce a bronze statue. Not so. A bronze statue is only a reproduction of some figure he has made in another material. It is as hollow as a bell and is made in the same way: by filling a mold with liquid metal.

Casting, as the making of that bell/statue is called, is a technical affair in which at least four or five different specialists take part: and most sculptors usually leave it all up to them—they don’t even watch while their bronze statue is being made.

bierenbroodspot at workGerti Bierenbroodspot at work on her figure of a Babylonian priest-king. Unlike many sculptors, she stays at the foundry to supervise the casting of her bronze statues and works on each stage of their elaboration. (Phot0 byFong Leng ceded with kind permission of the sculptor)

If you’ve read Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography you will remember how complex and exciting the casting of his big bronze Perseus was; things went wrong at the critical moment and he almost lost the statue. And earlier in the book, when he wrote of his stay in France, he tells how the French foundrymen ruined a bronze of his through incompetence. Michelangelo had to model his twelve-foot statue of Pope Julius a second time because the foundry technicians botched the first version. It was and still is a very complex thing to cast a figure in bronze, even a small one; and the sculptor, though he must know how to work in many materials and with all kinds of instruments, has traditionally drawn the line here. He takes his plaster model to the foundry and turns it over to the specialists. He gives a few orders about the base it is to have (wood or marble) and the color of the patina, and goes home until they call him to come and pick it up.

Yet learning to use the fine chisels and other instruments necessary to clean and “repair” your bronze after it has been freed from the mold is well worthwhile. It is the only way to control the appearance and quality you require.

See this video on the casting of a small bronze statue by the lost wax method ..

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