Monday 31 May 2010

The Belgian Influence

A couple of weeks break from the blog, as I've been off holidaying in my favourite European country (good friends, excellent beer, lovely architecture, fantastic food!) After a few recent hiccups, I'm hoping my life is getting back on a more even keel: The break has given me a chance to try and get a better perspective on my life, its value and the value of those I share it with. A new career beckons - hopefully one in which there is the chance to exercise some creativity, avoiding crushing bureaucracy and pointless process to boot, and maybe one in which the people I work with share a bond that stretches slightly beyond their own self-centered career ambitions...

Anyway, that slightly cryptic short piece of apparently self-referential indulgence out of the way, back to the news of the shack! Well, the two things ARE related, as I came back with a boot full of goodies from the stepfather of the lovely Fiona. A big SHOUT OUT (I'm so wid da kidz) to the very generous Stany! He donated me a set of Stilsons, some bolt croppers, two very useful sealable buckets (time to mix some more oil-sand methinks! The last lot is overflowing the cramped confines of a large Tupperware tub), a water pump with a mains powered electric motor which might well be the future power-plant for an air blower for our planned bigger and better butane powered furnace AND, last but not least, a very serviceable vertical mount for our drill... Lots of goodies to play with - enhanced yet further by our old pal Anthony bringing over a ridiculously cheap jigsaw from our preferred suppliers over at Northern Tool - the jigsaw might be a low-rent model but it actually cost about the same as a pint of beer down the local! Bless Anthony - and a curse upon the taxation policies of the politicians! I'm hoping the jigsaw will be just the job to wade into the manufacture of a load more messer blades...

Whilst John very kindly spent most of his time kindly helping Robson senior fit some parking sensors to his car, I cracked on and finished a new piece and to mull what I'll be doing in iron at the Bullpen next week. Pictures and musings to follow tomorrow!

Friday 14 May 2010

Art as therapy

Its been a tricky time ... I was about to say recently, but actually, its gone on for more than two years now. Here's a blog toast to my being able to talk of it in the past tense very soon!

Coping with some of life's stresses and disappointments is never easy for anyone, but its fair to say that I've had a difficult time weathering the slings and arrows of the 21st century and have had occasion to battle with visitations from the dreaded Black Dog. Working in the shack on these projects really is a sort of ongoing self-therapy!

Creating art in molten metal seems to work really well for some odd reason: its a wonderful blend of satisfying the creative urge, of problem solving, of teamwork (ya cannae pour safely on your own!), trust ('is the pour full John?' 'Please don't tip that 750oc metal down my sleeve Toby'), adrenalin (opening the kiln to see a glowing crucible full of silvery metal still makes my heart beat faster), comradeship - and, when the finished pieces are on display, of meeting people and sharing ideas. Whatever bullshit, hype or dishonesty that the 'other world' seems to want to keep chucking our way, the shack is our retreat and our therapy rolled into one - helped of course in huge measure by the ministrations of tea and enthusiasm from my Mum and Dad; our hosts and (as its their garden!) patrons.

Here's to friendship - and the joy of creation.

Rocky working on some scratch-blocks

Wednesday 12 May 2010

The Grosse Messer - passed with flying colours!

The prototype messer was taken to fight club last night and caused quite a stir of interest. Our in-house cutlery expert and fencing instructor Alan said some very kind words, including 'its the best prototype sparring sword I've seen'! Praise indeed! It also looks like it's secured at least half a dozen extra orders as a result - so a busy June beckons. I'm even hoping to cast and fabricate enough to take some up to this summers 'fight camp' - a gathering of the UKs medieval combat fraternity. Yes, I know that sounds odd, but this is a pluralistic country which celebrates eccentricity!

Anyway, dear reader, if you'd like a messer (historical background in the post below John's) drop us a line!

Monday 10 May 2010

John in project completion shocker!

Finally, after many months of toil (and indecision) my latest project is complete. Here is the (long) story of how it came to be.

The starting point was a collection of copper plumbing pipes I had joined together for practise on a course I attended.  I wanted to mount these on a base somehow to show off my soldering prowess, but I felt there ought to be something holding the pipes away from the base - partly for aesthetic reasons and partly to enable "proper" attachment (rather than wiring or gluing it on haphazardly).

"What better to hold something than a hand" I thought - hence the idea for the joining piece "Fist".  "Fist" was made by first constructing a master from casting wax.  Using my own hand as a guide (but reducing the scale somewhat), I simply fiddled around with lumps of the wax until I got the slightly naive shape I wanted (it was never my intention to make a perfect replica of a hand or I would have made a mould of one).  Next was to pack it in sand (with the usual hardening agent added) and to burn out the wax in our bespoke burn-out oven (crafted by our tame master craftsman/handy-man Bryn).  This process is SUPPOSED to leave a perfect (negative) replica of the wax master in a rock-hard sand shell, however due to circumstances entirely within my control, (i.e. I messed up the sand mix), I was left with an almost-perfect-but-rapidly-disintegrating negative in somewhat soft sand.  This was NOT good as the wax hand had taken me AGES to make. Anyway, with a significant number of fingers crossed and with the help of Toby's steady hands (and a roll of gaffer tape), we managed to get the sand-pie to the casting table, whereupon we filled it up with molten aluminium. The mould seemed to hold (he rhymed) - at least it looked that way from the outside, so after a minute or two to let the metal relax we cracked her open... and... we had "Fist" - complete, with no holes and fairly minimal damage - success!

With the top two parts in the bag, the time had come to think of the base. Wood? Stone? Swiss-cheese? This remained somewhat of a conundrum until a nearby bohemian (Toby) suggested making use of a concrete block he'd made recently. Not questioning the seemingly random act of construction on Toby's part, I sprang into action chiselling away like a demented (and decidedly less skilful) Michaelangelo.  Some months later I had a roughly cylindrical shaped block with a hole in it ready to accept fist.  Here's a photo of the piece at that stage:

But what now...?  The concrete looked "OK", but it didn't really have a smooth enough finish to warrant staying in this state as a finished piece.  Some weeks of mulling things over and not doing very much ensued, until one day, that familiar bohemian voice squeaked "why not clad it in lead"?  Another genius suggestion from the Robson stable I thought and so got to work hammering flat some lead roof flashing and wrapping it round the base.  As a final touch, I buffed it up on the buffing wheel using one of our older, blacker mops.  This gave a really nice dark sheen to the base and brought "Project Fist" to its conclusion.

What next?  A selection of cast cores based around a central theme methinks ;-)

Until next time.

.... And they're back (with lots of news!) part #2

So, here's a picture of the finished piece, all tidied up and ready to go off on show at The Cotswold Water Park in the cafe - .

What else has been keeping me busy? Well, one of my weekday evening pursuits has been attending what we know locally as 'Fight Club'! Here I am breaking the cardinal rule - blogging, let alone mere talking about it should be verboten, huh?! Its actually a fencing /combat session run by a bunch of people who are interested in the reality of medieval combat - they're called The Messengers. Western culture has become obsessed by the apparent brilliance of Easter martial arts - but has seemingly forgotten that similar (if not superior) forms of combat had evolved in Europe over a similar length of time. Due to the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, many of the details of western martial combats were forgotten - however, this group are drawing upon the few surviving scripts and manuals from the time to rediscover the skills and techniques which were used. We're currently training using longswords, rapiers, daggers and bucklers. Another form which people are interested in is that of the 'messer' (shortened from the German 'Grosse Messer' - or 'great knife')... Basically the messer is a falchion - that vast array of weapon types which were similar in function to swords, but usually single edged and constructed more like a knife...(read on here if you want some more background!! - wikipedia link about the messer ) We have but one in the club at the moment, which means sparring opportunities are somewhat limited! Only one messer? How difficult could it be to make one? Well, the blade for our sparring version is made out of nylon rather than steel (limbless members of the group were unable to sign their subs cheques, so steel was quickly abandoned) - and in the version our in-house Yoda, Alan brought in the other week, it had a fabricated aluminium hilt. I had a look at it... and to be honest, I was unimpressed. The hilt was too wide and awkward to grip. ... Could I CAST one, I wondered?! Well, first off, I had to acknowledge that cast rather than sheet would be more brittle - but to be honest, the hilt is not subject to too much 'hard' impact trauma. Anyway, to be extra cautious I 'beefed up' the size of the casting to be doubly sure. I made the pattern out of polystyrene, as there had to be a central channel to house the tang of the nylon blade - and I like the fact that a single evening with the wire cutter, some glue and some sand paper would leave me with a functional pattern with out any of the worries of a complex multi-part mould. Et voila:

Here are a couple of pictures by way of comparison as to what I was trying to replicate:

... I wasn't that impressed by the historical authenticity of the 'Karakal' tennis racket grip either!

So! That was my challenge.... First off, I managed to get hold of a big sheet of nylon sheet  from a local supplier - the stuffs almost identical to what the white plastic chopping boards are made from. I cut a replica blade (though mine is slightly deeper to compensate for the fact that it wasn't quite as thick)

... so, here's my pattern attached to a very complex series of sprues - with FOUR pour ins (one at the pommel end, farthest away) and three up at the cross-piece end of the hilt. Once the glue dried (hence the pot of paints weighing it all down!) I added three drinking straw vents to the sprue, and carved two HUGE pour cups as I wanted to ensure a maximum weight of metal to ensure that it squirted down and through the thinnest sections of the hilt - which on the hand grip was down to only a couple of millimeters.

Behind is one of my trusty sand flasks which this monstrosity was transferred into before sand/sodium silicate was packed round and gassed... The furnace was heated and the crucible loaded with some of my best quality ingots.... A period of trepidation followed! John and I carefully worked out our pouring order and to make sure that the metal went in very fast - again, another reason for such wide pour-cups. When it came to the crunch we liberally sloshed metal into both ends and were gratified to see a rewarding spurt of metal blowing out from all three vents. Hurrah!!! Another off-shoot of this was that excess metal ran of the pouring bench and into the bucket of 'Elf an' Safety' water. Before it melted a hole in it, it solidified into some exquisite shapes. More (and this time deliberate!) experiments into pouring metal into water to follow ladies and gentlemen!

The results were VERY pleasing... There were a couple of holes in the handle where the metal hadn't quite met up over the thinnest parts - but as this wasn't a structural part of the sword and would be hidden under the leather grip, I wasn't at all bothered - all easily plugged with the same aluminium filler I was using to glue the tang of the nylon blade into the hilt anyway.

After an evening's furious dremel sanding, the sword is basically finished. Its currently up at my mate Rocky's place awaiting a final bit of planing on the blade... pictures to follow shortly!

.... And they're back (with lots of news!) part #1

Well, the last few visits to the casting shack have resulted in a plethora of work and some frenzied mould making, plinth carving and general fettling!

First off, the complex skeleton piece mentioned below is cast, fettled, polished and resting on a nice piece of honey coloured bath stone (cheers Bryn!). That was the complex polystyrene piece which featured in an earlier posting. The skeletal pieces I've cast before were produced in individual pieces which were cast separately and then threaded together along a piece of threaded bar which ran down the spine. This time however, I glued the vertebrae together with the ribs, creating a single piece. This was a bit unusual, but as it was a smaller piece, I thought I'd avoid the faff of lots of tiny elements - though with other attendant risks. I've noticed in a couple of pieces recently (notably the sword hilt - more to follow) that there is a natural weakness along the line of where separate pieces of polystyrene are glued together - and 'gaps' in the glue allow sand into the joint which then creates a stress-line and potential fracture point in the cast...

I attempted something entirely new with the casting of this piece. As usual, I'm running low on casting sand - so in attempt to get what remains to run a bit further, I used some lumps off of old moulds to act as 'plumbs'. Its something I picked up from building site work - to make concrete go further, workers would often tip/mix large lumps of hardcore into the concrete mix (if this is totally against building regs, don't blame me!!!). In the case of the mould for 'Shelleton' it saved an inordinate amount of sand - PLUS by having a solid core (which I shaped to math the pattern), it reduced the amount of warping/deformation of the polystyrene whilst I packed the sand around it... I'll post some pictures, and hopefully this'll illustrate the point...

Here we go - shaping a bit of an old mould to fit underneath the polystyrene..

... and adding some 'plumbs'...!

... and packing in and around with sand. I did this in two layers - one up to mid way and a final one 'over the top' with pour-ins and vents to act as a cap...

... as I said, a fairly complex mould - but one which poured nearly perfectly. The two cylinders are the pours (glad there was two - only one worked properly!!) - and the drinking straws are the vents) The only imperfection was that slight distortion of one of the ribs - caused by the packing process and the tendency of the polystyrene to flex...