At the University of Maryland's metal class, the furnace can get up to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the type of metal students are working with.
Steve Jones’ office is hot. Really hot. Like melt your face off hot.
Jones is a sculptor and adjunct professor at University of Maryland, where he runs the metal casting program. The furnace Jones uses to heat up the metals burns at more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s hotter than a burning candle, a smoldering cigarette, even molten lava. Needless to say Jones’ job makes him a little bit sweaty.
“We always start with aluminum because it melts at a lower temperature,” he says. “Then we’ll put in the bronze crucible. Pull away the aluminum molds, bring out the bronze molds, and pour the bronze,” Jones explains. “Bronze melts around 1,800. We probably pour it around 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Aluminum melts at around 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. We pour at 1,500 or 1,600 degrees.”
Jones has been teaching metal casting at Maryland for more than a decade. The class takes students through the process of creating a variety of molds, pouring the metals and shining up the final pieces.
“Today is our last pour,” Jones says. “We’ll be pouring aluminum and bronze after melting the metal in a furnace. Then we’ll be using a crane and some other tools to lift the molten metal out of the furnace and pour them into the molds. And inside each mold is a cavity that was created by the students by either making a pattern or carving into the sand to accept the metal.”
The molds the students have come up with span the sculptural spectrum. There’s a relief of a face, an antique gun, even baby flip-flops.
The metal shop is buzzing with drills, wire brushes and the sound of the furnace rumbling awake in the next room. The furnace is a special part of the sculpture department, Jones says. Not many university art programs have them anymore.
“So the furnace has been here at University of Maryland in excess of 20 years, probably longer. It melts 125 pounds of aluminum, 475 pounds of bronze, which is a lot of aluminum, a lot of bronze,” he says. “It uses propane and air as the fuel. We have a fairly large and robust foundry and sculpture equipment area.”
Jones says 50 years ago, junior high school students would have had the chance to do aluminum casting, and then go into engineering based on their hands-on experiences.
“Now the art department is kind of the last venue of making in that way,” Jones says. “So now we’re getting the architects and the engineering students that come to us to learn how to weld and learn how to cast and learn some of the hands-on ways of making.”
The process of heating up the metals begins with propane, which creates a little tornado of fire around the crucible. The crucible is the vessel that holds the metal within the furnace. As the heat rises around the crucible, the metal will start to melt. More metal is added until there is enough to fill all the molds.
At full blast, the furnace spews a vibrant green flame from a hole in the top. It’s so loud, it sounds like you’re standing inside a jet engine. The heat is nearly unbearable. Imagine standing inches from a towering, white-hot bonfire. This is the type of heat the furnace throws off.
While the metal melts, the students put on protective leather jackets, aprons and safety glasses. Those who will be doing the pouring wear helmets with face shields, thick leather gloves and heavy leather spats.
When the aluminum is ready, Jones gives the students orders with military precision.
The crucible with the molten aluminum glows bright red as the students tip it to pour the metal into the molds. When the molds are full, the rest of the aluminum is poured into forms that look like bread loaf pans. Those will be reheated and used in a future pour.
“Guys, great pour, great class,” Jones says to his students. “You did a wonderful job. You made some nice pieces. Great pouring to the four teams. Now we’re just going to let these cool then bust them open.”
Jones wipes the sweat from his brow as he says this. Then he encourages his students to drink lots of water to stay hydrated. As if they needed any more reminders of just how scorching this work can be.
[Music: "Too Darn Hot" by Ella Fitzgerald from The Very Best of Ella Fitzgerald]
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