Smoking hot in Whitewater: Makerspace mesmerizes crowd with iron pour

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Sunday, April 10, 2016

WHITEWATER—The founding process has been around for about 3,000 years, and it's just another commonplace manufacturing process, right?


But when you actually see this molten metal syrup pouring out of a furnace at 3,200 degrees, it's mesmerizing.

On Saturday, Wisconsin Makers offered an iron pour at its community "makerspace," 200 E. Clay St., Whitewater. For UW-Whitewater students, it was a chance to cast their own statues and experience the old art first-hand. For the public, it was a chance to create something and then watch it being cast.

For nonstudents, the process involved scratching a design into a square made of a material similar in texture to hardened sand.

Lisa Spangler of Milwaukee created a square to honor her mother's life. It included symbols of her mother's interests, such as a length of yarn for knitting, a flower for gardening and a helping hand to represent her mother's kindness.

Lettering had to be done in mirror image because the casting process would reverse it.

Meghan Griffin, a high school student from East Troy, made a horseshoe. Griffin is on the East Troy Equestrian Team.

As they watched the furnace heat up, Meghan's father, Tim Griffin, described molten iron as “art in motion.”

Others seemed to feel that way, too.

The crowd around the barriers was fairly quiet, watching the furnace being filled alternatively with coke, which is a highly refined form of coal, and chunks of iron.

A heat haze shimmered around the furnace and its platform. The students and their instructors wore rough leather chaps, jackets and gloves, and construction-style hats with visors that covered their faces.

The vents sprayed a stream of sparks and heat each time they were opened.

The furnace had been burning coke throughout the morning. Propane-powered weed burners were used to bring the coke up to temperature.

For the final burst of heat and energy, a modified leaf blower was attached to the furnace.

As the layers of coke and iron were heated, the liquid iron settled to the bottom.

When the furnace vent was opened, liquid iron cascaded out into a crucible, a metal bucket attached to long handles. Moving quickly, instructors poured the iron onto or into the molds.

Once it cooled, the iron would be rock solid.

Teresa Lind, a UW-Whitewater visiting lecturer and artist, said the founding process hadn't changed much in 3,000 years.

She acknowledged that there was something about it that still held people spellbound.

“It is kind of a spectacle,” Lind said.

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