The preamble/inspiration: So, every spring, a group that I'm involved with (The Aquarian Tabernacle Church of Wicca) put on a festival that recreates the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece, called Spring Mysteries. I was a member of the cast that puts on the ritual theatre, performing the role of Athena and working with this archetype. Normally all of the cast members receive a token, usually made out of fimo. They're nice enough, but in the two prior years I was on cast, I always thought -- we can totally do better than this!!
So as I was researching Athena, I discovered that she's also the patron of fine metalworking. Knowing people in the SCA who do things like cast their own buttons, I thought it would be really neat to try to cast our cast token. So I did some research online, and found the basics of this, and went to town! First the photos, then below I've described how I did this!
A close-up of the pendants that really shows the detail.
Another close-up that shows three different molds, if you look closely -- the tops of the pomegranate are a bit different on each, as is the wheat shaft. Although we don't know much about the Mysteries of Eleusis, we DO know that they involved Demeter, Persephone, and her descent into the underworld, so these two symbols represent that.
To give you an idea of the quantity that I was making... There were 85 cast, staff, and crew, so I ended up making around 120-130, and rejecting quite a few to go back into the melting pot. That's not counting the ones I rejected immediately after casting them....
This shot shows a close-up of an owl pendant that I made for myself. At the festival, people come and speak with the individuals working with the archetypes of the dieties. They seek advice, counsel, and inspiration -- many people dedicate themselves to working with a diety for a year and a day. For the individuals who chose to devote themselves to working with Athena and one of her many aspects, I made tokens like this pendant -- no top, just like a coin. Something for them to take with them, to remind them of her attributes of seeing all parts of a situation, being just, fair, etc. It's modeled after the silver coins that circulated in Athens, with Her owl and the olive branch on the top corner. Unfortunately, I gave all the actual tokens away, so this is just the pendant I made for myself.
This photo also shows a tiny little pentacle I cast as well.
It also shows the back of the pendants, so you can see that it's not nearly as shiny as the front, and can sometimes be a bit rough.
I chose to start off easy -- you can make two part molds for pendants, (and three part molds for things like buttons!) but you have to be very very patient and meticulous when making it that the two sections match up. So I started with an even surface, and just poured the melted pewter into the molds.
So, to start casting pewter, you need very little!
wax (tealight candle is perfect)
old stainless steel spoons of different sizes to use jsut for this -- tbsp, tsp, smaller
old stainless steel pot to use just for this
stove top/camp stove
First, you need soap stone. This is what was often used back in the middle ages to cast simple items. If you've ever felt a soapstone carving, did you notice how it has a little sheen to it? Like, when you rub it, something almost comes off on your fingers? That is what allows this to be used as a mold with no release agents. I bought some chunks of it at the local art supply store, each chunk of it was only $2-4, it's sold by the lb, and that was enough for two-three flat surfaces to carve into. It comes looking like a rock usually -- but as it's extremely soft, all you need to cut it is a hacksaw! Cut it into slices, about one inch thick is fine, if you're not carving very deep. Do this outside, with a dusk mask, or with a ventilator inside (soapstone powder/dust contains silica, which can cause cancer if inhaled and it settles in your lungs). I did this outside just to make sure that no dust settled anywhere else to resurface later.
I used a linoleum cutter to carve into the soapstone. It definitely dulled the blades, and one blade has a little hole in it now. I've heard that people use things like dental tools and so on to carve -- I didn't see anything at the art store that would allow me to achieve the detail I wanted, and didn't want to spend the money and time to track down and purchase better tools for this test run, so went with what I had on hand. It was nice to have the five different blade options, especially the wide round and the tiny V one.
Next, carve your design! I started with carving a circle, and the top bit, and then carved the design even deeper, so that it stands out on the final cast. I found this easier than carving the background deeper so that the design sinks in, as my designs were pretty detailed. You can use a brush if needed to ensure all the dust is removed from the mold. Take the tealight, and burn it until the wax is melted, and pour into the mold. Be PATIENT while the wax sets, as if you try to remove it too soon, it will make a mess and get all over. Once it's set on the outside, turn the mold upside down, and it should fall out on it's own, releasing from the mold, once it's set. I would suggest doing this twice at least -- there will be bits of dust in the wax mold, so you may not get an accurate test until a few in.
This shot shows the main molds I used. You can see that I fit three individual molds onto the surface. The bottom isn't even on either of them -- I prefer to simply hold them in my hand as I'm casting, so I can just hold them level as I pour, and this minimizes the amount of time that the pewter in the spoon is away from the heat.
This shows the different sizes, and you can kind of see the thing at the top for stringing the twine onto to hold the necklace. I did some test runs, and the pewter hardens too fast to be really finicky with the top, so I simply made an indentation, with the outside edge carved as deep as the pendant face, and the centre not carved as deep. Once they were cast, I took a drill and did all the holes manually with that. If I'd done a two piece mold, I could have put this at the bottom, and it would have filled first and I could have saved myself that task, but this was my first time! I just used a regular bit, the pewter sets hard enough to not scratch from daily wear, but will still drill easily.
The final mold I used for the pomegranate and wheat pendants. As you can see, there USED to be three on the one face, but I dropped it, luckily after I'd done them all. Soapstone is delicate! The disadvantage of placing the three on the same face, was that when I'd be casting them all at once, is that the mold gets hot fairly quickly.
Once you have a mold you're happy with, the next step is procure pewter. I purchased mine by the pound from a local place here in Surrey, BC called Purity Alloys. They ship from their website. There are probably places near to you -- look around, maybe check on a local SCA group and see if anyone there knows of anything. You can melt down pewter items from the thrift store-- BUT be very aware of what you're melting. Much of it may contain lead, which will be very very bad to work with indoors. If you cannot find any lead-free pewter where you live, and have to use thrift store stuff melted down, be certain to check the labels, and if there's a possibility that it might contain lead, use a camp stove and melt the pewter outside. On the plus side, your item may be a bit more durable if it does contain some lead (although I didn't have any problems with mine!).
Start with a stainless steel pot (cheap at thrift store), and put the pewter in it. It looks kind of neat as it melts -- see below
I put the pot on medium on the stove -- that's all the heat this needs! Wait 10-20 minutes for it to melt entirely. It will smell a tiny bit like burning as it melts, especially when you're melting the pewter for the first time, as there will be lots of spots where nothing is touching the pot, and thus the pan will get really hot there until it has some melted pewter to touch it! Once molten, it looks kind of like how I imagine liquid mercury to look. I'm not sure what the term is, how water beads and doesn't just flatten out -- this occurs much more dramatically with pewter!
As it melts, some dull scummy stuff will gather on the top, this is the impurities in the metal coming out.
You can see it in this picture -- you need to take a spoon and skim it off the top, either taking it out entirely, or just push it to the side like I do. You do NOT want to take the pewter out of the pot when there's scummy stuff on it. Use the back of the spoon to just push it out of the way.
As the pewter melts, take your spoons and bend them at the base of the spoon. The best kind of spoon I found had a wooden handle, that kept it from getting too hot. Ideally, you want a spoon that holds about how much pewter is needed for your mold. There's a lot of room for variation here -- the pewter can hold itself several MM at least on top of the spoon, since the edge of the pewter holds together so well (Damnit, what's the term for that?!)
Once your pewter has melted, you're ready to cast some! Have a sturdy empty plate or hotpad or over mid standing by to put your VERY HOT finished items into.
Take your mold in your hand, in the oven mitt, and take one of the spoons. Skim the top, take some pewter into the spoon, and gently pour it into the mold, being careful not to splash! I got blisters from tiny splashes on my hands...
As you've done a few, you'll see that if you pour too much pewter into the mold, it will overflow on the edges (You can see what I mean by looking at the photo above with the three side by side - the one on the left has a bit of pewter on the top left that shouldn't really be there, that "spilled" over the edge of the mold.) The "surface tension" will usually keep the edges round, so I find that it's better to fill a little bit less than your mold (You can see how the back becomes rounded on the photo with the owl pendant, on the backs). If you've got a "thing" at the top, I find that it works best to pour the pewter at the top of the circle, so that it can fill the top first and then flow down into the mold.
Almost as soon as the pewter hits the mold, it will start cooling. You will see this effect, the pewter goes from super shiny molten to a bit duller. You will tend to see the cooling move towards the centre, and the centre will sometimes be a bit rough where it cools, depending on how many impurities are in your pewter, and if you skimmed the top before taking the pewter into the spoon to pour.
As soon as the back turns slightly duller, flip the mold upside down onto the plate/oven mitt, and it should fall right out. DON'T pick it up! It's super hot! Use a spoon to flip it over and take a look. You've cast pewter!! You'll probably want to cast some more -- I cast more than I need, and then choose which ones I want to keep. Gently put the rejects back into the pot (remember, splashing molten metal isn't good! It WILL blister!), and melt them down for future projects.
Once the soapstone gets really hot (ie, if you've cast quite a few), the pewter pieces may become cloudy and not as shiny on the good side. This means that your mold is too hot. Take a break and let it cool down before continuing.
If the front looks awesome, but the back is a bit rough, take some sandpaper and sand down the rough spots. I think I started with around 110, then 220, then finer, especially if it'll be next to your skin.
Feel free to ask any questions and I'll try to answer them! I don't claim to be an expert, just wanted to share my experience with this great do-at-home activity!