Oh, Mistaken Modern Citizen


So I just had an epiphany that is energizing and humbling at the same time. Recycling my own e-waste turned me on to the beauty that’s ending up in landfills, never to be seen again. From time to time you hear about the value of metal, but inevitably this focuses on the scrap value of it – i.e., it’s worth nothing to me, but Person X will give me pennies on the dollar to make something more valuable. This implies there’s millions of dollars of specialized equipment involved in making things with metal.


Metallurgy is more arcane art than repeatable science, with metal properties dependent on everything from exact alloy percentages to cooling rates, and the best metallurgists keep to secrecy which would make espionage seem like child’s play. That said, based on some cursory research, it requires almost no capital investment. I’m sure my first experiments will fail miserably, spectacularly. In fact, if I burn my eyebrows off I promise to post pictures!

The bare minimum for handling metal, it seems, goes like this:

  • Hardwood charcoal (fuel) (Free – already have a bag of mesquite charcoal I don’t particularly like, and was carefully mixing with good stuff to avoid waste)
  • Charcoal chimney for focused heat and efficient use of fuel. (Free – already own)
  • Crucible made of a material with a higher melting point than the metal you’re melting. A mental inventory of objects in my position reminds me I have a cast iron skillet I never use, which coincidentally is a VERY GOOD crucible and mold material (Again, free)  As it turns out, I don’t have it anymore, but even if I have to buy it brand-new, it’s all of $20. Thrift stores just got added to my shopping list tomorrow!
  • Some form of mold. One-off castings seem to be done using plaster-of-paris or clay, but typically they will either shatter in the casting process itself, or require shattering to remove the metal. Semi mass-production or instances where you need exact repeatability (gears, motor parts, etc) require what is called a “permanent” mold, again typically made out of cast iron. (I need to get some resin for another project. I’ll pick up some plaster or clay mix while I’m there. Approximately $5-10)
  • Welding gloves to handle the material safely, particularly when handling/pouring the crucible.

For some reason, I was envisioning some sort of specialized furnance equipment, lots of capital expense. Then I realized: DUMBASS, nearly everyone in pre-20th century society needed to melt and cast metal on a regular basis, particularly lead for bullets and the like. Why is it this is such a lost art that I didn’t even realize this without doing research?

So, wow, I’m super excited. I plan on dumpster diving for aluminum soon and seeing how hot I can get a fire. The art will take practice, i know, since I’ve always been incredibly weak in three-dimensions, but suddenly ideas I thought were years of saving and penny-pinching way are tantalizingly close.

More to the point, I feel like fans of technology are so incredibly misled by all the buzz around 3D printing for thousands of dollars (highly limited application, questionable durability since it’s just ABS plastic) when metal — FUCKING METAL — is all of $50 of equipment to try, and a lifetime of experimentation to master.


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