Bronze Casting in Antigua Guatemala
The hot bronze is tipped from the crucible into the opening of the mold.
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Bronze Casting in Antigua Guatemala

Preserving Colonial History and Style through Bronze Casting

Bronze Casting in Antigua Guatemala
The furnace is set into the concrete floor. When the metal reaches 1000 C, the crucible is lifted out with giant tongs. Here the men are lifting the 120 lbs. of molten bronze out of the furnace.

The fact that UNESCO designation helps support trades adds immeasurably to the charm and feeling of authenticity found in La Antigua Guatemala by creating a living museum rather than a set piece. There is artistic beauty in the doorknobs, locks, knockers, hinges and wrought iron made by skilled artisans whose work is vital to the preservation of Antigua’s colonial style.

Alex Rodríguez and his sons are one such family, filling architectural and artistic needs through their workshop, La Union, Talleres Bronces, which engages in bronze casting, using sand molds. My friend, Harvey Pengelly, and I were recently invited to view and document a project at Mr. Rodríguez’s foundry.

The crucible, glowing with heat, is set into the cradle with the tongs.

To start the process, a special casting sand is mixed with water and other earth elements to form a soft, pliable material similar to wet beach sand. This is packed into steel frames, into which is inserted a model, a full-size prototype that will be reused many times.

When removed, the sand retains the impression of the prototype and thus produces the mold into which molten brass is poured. The model can be inserted many times into the frame, and connected with a sprue, a channel made so that the flow of molten metal can reach all the individual molds. In this way many small items may be cast with a single pour. After use the sand is broken down to a fine state and reused. Mr. Rodríguez told me his sand has seen use for many years.

Bronze Casting in Antigua Guatemala
Here are some of the molds being pre heated for the pour. You can see many impressions in each frame, in order to utilize materials most efficiently.

The brass is heated to approximately 1,000 degrees C, in a ceramic vessel, a crucible, that is set into the concrete floor onto a burner fueled by propane and an air blower. With this simple technology many beautiful objects can be made, and in this pour, door bosses and sign lettering were being produced.

The crucible, once heated, is removed with a giant pair of tongs, set down into an iron hoop attached to a pair of long handles of iron, and picked up with this cradle. One end of this cradle has a set of handles like bicycle handlebars, which are used to tilt the crucible and control the flow of molten bronze into the sand molds. The molds are lined up so that they can be reached efficiently, and the 120 pounds of bronze smelted in the crucible takes perhaps 15 minutes to pour.

Bronze Casting in Antigua Guatemala
After the first pass the men go back and top up the pour to ensure proper penetration of the bronze into the mold. They are then left to cool for several hours.

The molds cool for a few hours and then they are opened. The finished castings need to be cleaned up of flash, edges developed in the parting line, and then polished to the luster we associate with bronze cast work. The broken castings are pushed through sieves to capture trace bronze, and the clean sand returned to the pile for the next pour.

Mr. Rodríguez works with his sons, Jean Pablo and Venencio, and with his nephew, Carlos Ernesto Azurdia. A family business to be sure. The passing on of family tradecraft helps ensure the ongoing wellbeing of the business. They produce many plaques, signs, lettering and door hardware, as well as fine art pieces at the workshop. Last month the workshop was moved to Panorama, Sector D, No. 3 where the family will continue the traditions and the business of smelting and casting bronze.

Bronze Casting in Antigua Guatemala
After cooling the sand casts are opened and the items removed from the molds. The pieces are cut apart cleaned up and polished to the bright luster we associate with bronze. All filings and off cut pieces are saved and are used for the next project.

The next time you stroll down the streets of Antigua, stop and look closely at that lantern, sign, or ironwork grill. UNESCO’s effort to preserve the world’s cul-tural heritage comes with an important side benefit—it also supports 21st-century skilled crafts-men.

REVUE article – text and photos by Richard Wardell.

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