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  • Writer's pictureHamed Fardsoltany

Welding vs. Casting: A Comparative Study of Metal Art Techniques

What I personally love about sculpture is how the artist envisions his/her creation in a three dimensional space - a process of constant change and growth as his/her work of art unfolds. This process be it using carving, modelling, moulding, casting, constructing, or other techniques will depend on his/her materials of choice, such as clay, wax, stone, metal, fabric, glass, wood, plaster, rubber, and random "found" objects.


But for this blog, I wanted to highlight two of the most popular techniques used in metal art creation: welding and casting. Though each method has its own unique characteristics, they are both incredibly versatile, allowing for the creation of diverse and intricate designs.



Welding


Let’s start with welding - a process which involves the joining of separate metal pieces through the application of intense heat. This heat causes the metal parts to melt and fuse together, solidifying once cooled to form a single structure. Previously welding was primarily used in the construction industry and metal sculptures were either cast or forged. But as time passed, we would witness the development of current welding technology and can put the date on welded sculptures as being dated back to the 20th century. It's believed that the first welded sculptures were credited to the Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin, who created his first piece of art in 1913. Tatlin was an important figure in the Russian Constructivist movement, which influenced the use of industrial materials in forms they had not yet been used in.


Other notable sculptors who developed welding in sculpture include the Catalan artist Julio González who came from a line of metalsmith workers; his grandfather was a goldsmith and his father, Concordio González, who owned a workshop would teach him the techniques of gold, silver, and iron metalwork.


'Daphné" by Julio González, 140 x 66 x 29 cm. 1937, Institut Valencià d'Art Modern.

Courtesy of Joanbanjo - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0


Welding was increasingly used in sculpture from the 1930s onwards and the welded sculptures continued to evolve. Artists now had access to different materials, techniques, and technology and as welding joints were more likely to have a more finished appearance the result was more aesthetic pieces. Additionally, welding can also accommodate a wide range of metals such as stainless steel, aluminium, and bronze, making it an adaptable and flexible technique.


'Agricola IX' by David Smith

© Estate of David Smith /VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2023


By the 1950s and 1960s, large-scale industrial materials such as steel beams and large plates were utilised to construct monumental sculptures much larger than previously. And as welding joints provided a great deal of strength, they would become ideal for projects requiring heavier materials. Artists such as David Smith, Anthony Caro and Richard Serra were among the first group of artists to create these large-scale sculptures. Smith was one such artist who found many of the tools and disused machinery parts for his Agricola series lying around near his home in upstate New York. All the sculptures in the series were made by welding. He incorporated qualities of abstraction and symmetry, while connecting to the materials and ethos of industrialised America.


Casting


Conversely, casting is something quite different and involves a process where liquid metal is poured into a pre-designed mould. Once the metal cools, it hardens and takes the shape of the mould. Casting materials are usually metals or various time-setting materials that cure after mixing two or more components together, such as epoxy, concrete, plaster, and clay creating an exact replica of the design. This technique is ideal for making multiple identical pieces or creating complex, detailed designs that may be challenging to execute via welding.


There are several types of casting processes, including sand casting, plaster casting, shell moulding, wax casting, die casting, and investment casting. Despite the unique challenges and process enhancements of each, all techniques retain the same basic steps.


  1. Patternmaking which involves making a replica of the product to be cast, and then used to shape the mould cavity and provide accurate dimensions and characteristics. Patterns can be made from a variety of materials such as wood, metal, plastic, or plaster. Dimensional accuracy and design are extremely important here, as the pattern determines the form the casting will take.

  2. Coremaking: In some cases, a pattern may require a core to be placed inside the mould to create hollow areas or cavities in the final casting. Cores can be made from sand, metal, or other materials.

  3. Moulding: The pattern is then used to create the mould cavity. The mould is created by packing the material around the pattern, and then removing the pattern to leave a cavity in the shape of the desired part.

  4. Melting and pouring: The casting material is melted in a furnace and then poured into the mould cavity. The material is allowed to cool and solidify, taking on the shape of the mould.

  5. Finishing: Once the casting has cooled and solidified, it is removed from the mould and any excess material is removed. The casting may then undergo additional finishing processes such as sanding, grinding, or polishing to achieve the desired surface finish.


'The Burghers of Calais' by Auguste Rodin, 1884-1895


Auguste Rodin is regarded as the central figure at the beginning of modern sculpture. He focused on stripping away many of the narrative references to the classical myth that were still attached to academic sculpture in the late 19th century. Instead he would focus on capturing the dignity of simple human moments with his figures taking on modern attitudes of love, thought, and proud physicality. The results were rough, unfinished surfaces, which better expressed restlessness, corporeality, and movement.


One of the best known Rodin's sculptures, 'The Burghers of Calais' commemorates an event during the Hundred Years' War, when Calais, a French port on the English Channel, was under siege by Edward III. It depicts the burghers going towards the city gate to meet their fate, capturing a poignant mix of defeat, heroic self-sacrifice, and willingness to face imminent death. Today, there are twelve original castings of the sculpture.


'The Spirit of Detroit' by Marshall Fredericks

The Detroit City/County Building - Courtesy Stevan Gaskill CC BY-SA 3.0


Another iconic example of the casting technique is "The Spirit of Detroit," a large bronze statue by Marshall Fredericks, depicting a seated man holding a gilded sphere in one hand and a family in the other.

Unlike welding, casting allows for the creation of intricate, delicate, and precise designs that would be challenging to produce with welding. However, it doesn't provide the same level of adaptability as welding because alterations after casting are relatively limited. The types of metals used in casting are also more restrictive, with bronze and aluminium being the most commonly used due to their excellent casting properties.


It is important to note that the choice between welding and casting doesn't have to be binary; both techniques can be combined in a single artwork. An exceptional example of this combination is "La Pasionaria" in Glasgow. This sculpture, by artist Arthur Dooley, was created through a mix of welding and casting techniques, demonstrating how these methods can complement each other beautifully.


"La Pasionaria" by Arthur Dooley in Glasgow

Image courtesy of Dolores Ibarruri licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


So as you can see, both welding and casting have unique attributes that make them suitable for different kinds of metal art sculptures. Welding allows for more control and adaptability in the creation process and enables the construction of large, sturdy structures. While, casting is ideal for creating intricate, detailed designs and allows for mass production of identical pieces. Both techniques, when mastered, can yield impressive works of art that captivate audiences and able to stand the test of time.

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