Preserving Colonial History and Style through Bronze Casting
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.