Courtney Gray describes each piece of cast jewelry as a “small sculpture”, and you don’t have to engage her in conversation very long to know that she loves her work. In addition to creating beautiful custom jewelry, Courtney wanted to teach and mentor other jewelers so she established Creative Side.
Creative Side offers a number of opportunities for students – of all ages and skill levels – to work and learn techniques for creating jewelry using wax. The classes involve a variety tools, techniques and types of wax.
Lost wax casting is a technique that has been used to make objects – small and large – for centuries. The process involves transforming a two dimensional concept (a drawing) into a three dimensional piece. One of the most famous lost wax cast is Degas’ Little Dancer.
[photo of Degas’ dancer – photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art]
Casting Jewelry: From Start to Finish
Have you ever wondered why that piece of custom jewelry you covet is so expensive? It is because creating original pieces takes talent, time, materials, equipment and a lot of skill. Many pieces of custom jewelry are made using lost wax casting, and this technique has played an important role in the work of Courtney Gray – founder and owner of Creative Side Jewelry Academy. Let’s walk you through our process.
Making a carved wax model involves creating a design and transferring a two dimensional rendering to a wax block, then carving and shaping the wax into a three dimensional model. This is all done with tools specifically designed to be used only with wax because even the smallest amount of metal mixed in with a wax model can contaminate your final piece. Our favorite tools and wax are Kate Wolf’s Wolf Tools® and Wolf Wax™ by Ferris®. Kate is known as the “female MacGyver” because she has created tools and carvers that make carving an efficient process.
Wax wire is another way to create models for casting. It is just what it sounds like, wax that is thin and narrow and comes in gauges that correspond roughly to metal wire.
To make a setting for a faceted stone you begin by constructing a basket to fit the underside of the stone, then add embellishments and prongs. This is done by “welding” the pieces together using a wax pen.
While the approach to assembling a wax wire piece is somewhat analogous to fabrication – working with wax is nothing like working with metal. The wax is soft, and delicate, but sometimes more familiar to everyone because we have all played with clay or playdough at one point in our life. This makes this a good entry point for beginners.
Spruing and Casting
Spruing is the process of connecting each piece to a wax stem (the sprue) that will create a pathway for the molten metal to flow into the void in the casting flask that is left when the wax burns away. This is why the process is called “lost wax” – when the flask is fired in a kiln, the wax is lost, and a one-time mold is left for the metal.
For a small piece of jewelry, it doesn’t take a lot of metal – usually just a few grams – about enough to cover the bottom of a small Dixie cup. [casting grain photo]
The metal is heated in a crucible until it is molten (liquefied) then it is poured into the casting flask. To ensure the metal is distributed evenly and fills the entire mold, it is either spun in a centrifuge or placed in a vacuum. Once it has cooled, the investment is placed in water and the cast metal is taken out. [process photos]
Finishing Cast pieces
When the metal is cooled and removed from the investment it starts to look like jewelry – but there is still a lot of work to do. [photo of an unfinished cast piece]
To finish a piece of cast jewelry, the excess metal needs to be removed, and the surface of the piece needs to be refined and polished. This is all done with tools used specifically for metal.
The first step is to smooth the surface with metal files – moving from coarse to fine. After the files comes sandpaper, again moving from a coarse grit to one so fine you almost can’t feel anything on the sandpaper. Finally, machines – both handheld and bench mounted – are used to remove any remaining surface scratches or marks.
LINKS TO UPCOMING CASTING CLASSES