UCA sculpture Professor Bryan Massey and Sculpture Club President senior Sylvia Hardin led an iron pouring at Laurel Park as part of the 2018 Conway Eco + Arts Fest Fest Oct. 6.
It wasn’t an exclusive event. Massey said, “It’s open to anybody who wants to learn.”
To melt iron, a large melting device called a cupola is used. UCA’s cupola, named “Beulah,” was built in 1995 by Massey. It has a 15-inch diameter and has been recently restored. Hardin said it is the only university-owned cupola in all of Arkansas.
For a small fee visitors could create a sand mold that would be filled with the fiery iron by the workers. The resulting ornament is a small, square slab of steel that will last a lifetime. It is even more impressive when you see the work that goes into it.
Melting iron in a cupola is a long and complex process, much more complicated than melting aluminum or bronze. Melting iron requires a reaction to reach the required temperature for melting. This is why coke — a carbon-based fuel that is much more efficient than coal — is used.
Air is blasted into the cupola which then reacts with the carbon from the coke to produce carbon monoxide, which burns further to create carbon dioxide. These reactions create the necessary heat to exceed the 2,800-degree Fahrenheit melting point of iron.
Once the furnace is up to temperature, iron is added. The iron is in the form of dorito-shaped fragments of bathtubs, skillets and other cast-iron objects. Coke and iron are placed into the top of the furnace in alternating rows. As the iron melts, it collects at the bottom of the furnace near the tap. On Massey’s call the tap is opened and the iron flows into a large, preheated ladle. The ladle is then brought to either the silica sand or ceramic shell molds to fill them.
Creating ceramic molds is an accomplishment in its own right. The ceramic shell mold is made from putting wax parts into a ceramic slurry. It is then coated with a fine ceramic sand. After drying, this process is repeated again and again, using progressively coarser grades of ceramic material until the shell is at desired thickness. It is fired in a kiln to solidify its shape.
On the day of the iron-pouring the mold must be heated up before it is ready for the pour. If it wasn’t heated, pouring iron into the cast would cause an explosion from the energy differential.
The entire iron melting process takes about three to four hours from beginning to end, but once tapping starts — meaning the iron is ready to be transferred from the furnace to the molds — iron can be extracted once every five minutes.
The pouring relies on coordination and precision. Participants were decked out in protective material. They were in suits made of cowhide, sleeves of kevlar, steel-toe boots and mesh face protectors.
“Safety is the biggest key,” Massey said.
Hardin directed the pouring, telling workers where to go, how fast to pour and when to stop.
Roles were rotated throughout the day, giving participants experience in multiple areas. Hardin said assigning jobs is very organic.
Hardin functioned during the pour as the president of The FEmale Foundry (a play on iron’s symbol in the periodic table: Fe), a nonprofit she is starting focused on bringing the metal arts to Arkansas and making connections with other universities with active metal programs such as University of Wisconsin and University of Kentucky.
Students came from Texas, Kentucky and Wisconsin to participate in the pouring. One visiting student said they traveled more than 10 hours to attend the event. No matter where they were from, participants came together as a team to partake in the pouring.
“It’s a really great experience of sharing knowledge and the iron-casting community is very welcoming,” Hardin said.
This was the third iron pouring led by Massey this year. UCA has more iron pourings planned for the coming spring. It is certainly a hot attraction.
Photo by Lauren Swaim