Lost-wax casting, sometimes called by the French name of cire perdue, is the process by which a bronze is cast from an artist's sculpture; in industrial uses the modern process is called investment casting. An ancient practice, the process today varies from foundry to foundry, but the steps which are usually used in casting small bronze sculptures in a modern bronze foundry are generally quite standardized.
- Sculpting. An artist creates an original artwork from wax, clay, or another material. Wax and oil-based clay are often preferred because these materials retain their softness.
- Moldmaking. A mold is made of the original sculpture. Most molds are at least two pieces, and a shim with keys is placed between the two halves during construction so that the mold can be put back together accurately. Most molds of small sculptures are made from plaster, but can also be made of fiberglass or other materials. To preserve the fine details on the original artwork's surface, there is usually an inner mold made of latex, vinyl, or silicone which is supported by the plaster part of the mold. Usually, the original artwork is destroyed during the making and initial deconstruction of the plaster mold. This is because the originals are solid, and do not easily bend as the plaster mold is removed. Often long, thin pieces are cut off of the original and molded separately. Sometimes many molds are needed to recreate the original sculpture, especially large ones. (If only one cast will be made and the sculpture is made of wax or another low-melting-point material, this step may be skipped.)
- Wax. Once the plaster-and-latex mold is finished, molten wax is poured into it and swished around until an even coating, usually about 1/8 inch thick, covers the inner surface of the mold. This is repeated until the desired thickness is reached.
- Removal of wax. This hollow wax copy of the artwork is removed from the mold. The artist may reuse the mold to make more wax copies, but wear and tear on the mold limit their number. For small bronze artworks, a common number of copies is around 25.
- Chasing. Each hollow wax copy is then "chased": a heated metal tool is used to rub out the marks that show the "parting line" or "flashing" where the pieces of the mold came together. The wax is "dressed" to hide any imperfections. The wax now looks like the finished bronze. Wax pieces that were molded separately can be heated and attached; foundries often use "registration marks" to indicate exactly where they go.
- Spruing. The wax copy is "sprued" with a treelike structure of wax that will eventually provide paths for molten bronze to flow and air to escape. The carefully planned spruing usually begins at the top with a wax "cup," which is attached by wax cylinders to various points on the wax copy.
- Slurry. A "sprued" wax copy is dipped into a slurry of liquid silica, then into a sand-like "stucco", or dry crystalline silica of a controlled grain size. The slurry and grit combination is called "ceramic shell" mold material, although it is not literally made of ceramic. This shell is allowed to dry, and the process is repeated until at least a half-inch coating covers the entire piece. The bigger the piece, the thicker the shell needs to be. Only the inside of the cup is not coated, and the cup's flat top serves as the base upon which the piece stands during this process.
- Burnout. The ceramic shell-coated piece is placed cup-down in a kiln, whose heat hardens the silica coatings into a shell, and the wax melts and runs out. The melted wax can be recovered and reused, although often it is simply burned up. Now all that remains of the original artwork is the negative space, formerly occupied by the wax, inside the hardened ceramic shell. The feeder and vent tubes and cup are also hollow.
- Testing. The ceramic shell is allowed to cool, then is tested to see if water will flow through the feeder and vent tubes as necessary. Cracks or leaks can be patched with thick refractory paste. To test the thickness, holes can be drilled into the shell, then patched.
- Pouring. The shell is reheated in the kiln to harden the patches, then placed cup-upwards into a tub filled with sand. Bronze is melted in a crucible in a furnace, then poured carefully into the shell. If the shell were not hot, the temperature difference would shatter it. The bronze-filled shells are allowed to cool.
- Release.The shell is hammered or sand-blasted away, releasing the rough bronze. The spruing, which are also faithfully recreated in metal, are cut off, to be reused in another casting.
- Metal-chasing. Just as the wax copies were "chased," the bronze copies are worked until the telltale signs of casting are removed, and the sculptures again look like the original artwork. Pits left by air bubbles in the molten bronze are filled, and the stubs of spruing filed down and polished.
- Patinating. The bronze is colored to the artist's preference, using chemicals applied to heated or cooled metal. Using heat is probably the most predictable method, and allows the artist to have the most control over the process. This coloring is called patina, and is often green, black, white or brownish to simulate the surfaces of ancient bronze sculptures. (Ancient bronzes gained their patinas from oxidisation and other effects of being on Earth for many years.) Many recent U.S. artists prefer brighter, more stylized patinas. Patinas can replicate marble or stone. Depending on whether the metal is sandblasted or polished, the finish can be opaque or transparent. After the patina is applied, a sealer is generally applied — traditionally a coating of wax, but sometimes lacquer over more unstable patinas. This helps protect the piece from ultraviolet rays, and can slow the discoloration of patinas by oxidation.
Casting jewellery and small parts
The methods used for small parts and jewellery vary a bit from those used for sculpture. A wax is obtained, either from injection into a rubber mold, or it is custom-made in wax. Occasionally, a custom-made wax might be molded in rubber first as insurance against the loss of the unique wax and related labor costs incurred in carving it. The wax or waxes are sprued and fused onto a rubber base, called a "sprue base". Then a metal flask, which resembles a short length of steel pipe that ranges roughly from 1.5 to six inches tall and wide, is put over the sprue base and the waxes. Most sprue bases have a circular rim which grips the standard-sized flask, holding it in place. Investment (refractory plaster) is mixed and poured into the flask, filling it. It hardens, then is burned out as outlined above. Casting is usually done straight from the kiln either by centrifugal casting or vacuum casting.
The lost-wax process can be used with any material that can burn, melt, or evaporate to leave a mold cavity. Some automobile manufacturers use a lost-foam technique to make engine blocks. The model is made of polystyrene foam, which is placed into a casting flask, consisting of a cope and drag, which is then filled with casting sand. The foam supports the sand, allowing shapes that would be impossible if the process had to rely on the sand alone. The metal is poured in, vaporizing the foam with its heat.
- Patrick V. Kipper, Patinas for Silicon Bronze, Path Publications 1996, ISBN 0-9647269-0-4
Image:Lazy Lady, Rowan Gillespie.jpg| This piece entitled Lazy Lady, by the sculptor Rowan Gillespie is created out of bronze, and cast using the lost wax process.
Image:Uncertain Situation IV, David Reekie, Jan 2004.jpg|This sculpture entitled An Uncertain Situation by the artist David Reekie, is created using the 'lost wax' process. It is cast out of coloured Glass.