Playing With Pewter

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pewter

 

I should really call this post “Pewter for Dummies.”  This is less of a real craft or diy, and more a cataloging of my pewter experiments.

 

I’ve always been so interested in metal smithing.  I’m a silver, stainless steel, and wrought iron junky.  From furniture and trinkets to jewelry, I love metal.  That is why, when I stumbled upon something that listed the boiling points of certain metals, and saw that you basically heat pewter as high as the temperature you bake a cake, I was so excited I spent the next few months researching all of the possibilities.  The melting point of pewter is 338-446 degrees F.  You can melt it on your stove or in your oven!  Seriously!

 

Disclaimer:  I use the term “playing,” but, just for liability’s sake, don’t actually “play” with pewter or any molten metal.  It can melt your skin and cause severe burns. Wear protective gear!  Never handle it without heavy gloves, such as welding gloves.  Also, be sure to wear protective goggles and burn-proof clothes or layers.  Take EVERY precaution.  Also, some pewters may contain led.  Try to find led-free pewter (more common in today’s pewter than older pewter).  Pewter is a mix of tin, copper, antimony, bismuth, and sometimes led, but the percentages of each metal vary.  It is also better to be cautious and melt your pewter outdoors.  You can use a grill or a camp stove.  This way, you can minimize toxic fume inhalation.

 

Okay, now that the warnings are over, we can get down to business.  The first step is to pick your pewter.  You can buy pellets, bricks, beads, ignots, online or at certain hobby stores.  Or, you can do it the cheap and, in my opinion, more fun way.  You can hit up your local thrift store or garage sale.  Here you’ll find an array of pewter trinkets from chalices, to plates, to serving trays.  The bottom of the piece will generally say pewter, or fine pewter, and sometimes “led free pewter.”  You can buy these things for anywhere from $0.25 to $3, and they give you a lot more to work with.  This is what my friend Meg and I did.  We bought a chalice from our thrift store for $2.

 

The next step is deciding what to do with your pewter.  Meg and I know we want to eventually make jewelry out of it, but we wanted to experiment a little with casting, and finding what helps the pewter hold the best textures.  We used a few different casting methods.  First, we used a kind of “lost wax” casting with plaster.  We carved things in wax, then pressed it into plaster.  Then we baked the plaster to melt the wax, and dumped the wax out, leaving a mold for our pewter.  Simultaneously, we decided to try out another idea I had.  We drew some things with a fine-tipped hot glue gun on wax paper, then peeled it off and pressed it into the plaster.  It was very easy to move from the plaster once it cured, leaving a mold for our pewter.  We also tried another method.  We took the same kind of hot glue designs, and pressed them into silicone putty and used a pop bottle lid to make a kind of bowl.  Once it cured, we removed the glue and had our design on a mold for our pewter.

 

So, just to clarify, our three mold types were:

1. lost wax in plaster

2. hot glue in plaster

3. hot glue in silicone.

 

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So now, the only step left, is to melt your pewter.  We bought an old pot from the thrift store also, something aluminum that we knew would withstand the heat pewter would melt at.  Pewter melts very quickly, and we put ours on medium heat.  You may want to cover it so it heats faster.  Once it is melted, there may be a layer of residue at  the top.  This is the impurities of the pewter, sometimes the coating on the piece or dirt or other non-pewter stuff.  Use a spoon to scrape this off and throw it away (put it in a paper cup first, so it doesn’t melt through your garbage bag).

 

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Then, use your spoon to spoon pewter into your molds, one at a time.  Be sure once you do this you tap the mold on a hard surface several times.  You will see bubbles rise to the top, so you want to keep tapping until these bubbles disappear.  This is working the pewter down into the areas of the mold, and eliminating the air.  If you do not do this, your cast will look like Swiss cheese.

 

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Watch out because your molds will become VERY hot just upon touching the pewter.  Wait until it cools, then in the case of the silicone, just pop it our, or in the case of the plaster, shatter the plaster (we used a hammer, which worked okay).  There you have it, you’ve cast your first piece of pewter.

 

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Moving forward, I think the best results came from the silicone mold.  The lost wax method didn’t allow us to be as detailed as we would have liked, and the wax was hard to carve and messy.  This would be great for larger pieces, but not ideal for anything with small details.  The hot glue in plaster worked wonderfully, it is just a one-time mold, so it is a lot of work for a hit or miss project.  I think I would go with the silicone again, because it can be reused, and it allowed for a lot of detail.  We could have gone with silicone caulk to make our own putty (the way I showed in a previous post), and that is probably what we will do next time to save some money (silicone putty you buy at craft stores is quite expensive).  So, for some first tries, we were pretty pleased with the results.

 

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Also, the beauty of working with this material, is that when something goes wrong, and it doesn’t work, you can just throw the piece back in the pot and melt it again to reuse.  Our first three tries will probably be going back in the pot, but at least we have a pretty good idea of what we are doing now.

 

Let me know in the comments if you’ve tried this before, or have any other great ideas for cheap/easy casting for inexperienced metal enthusiasts.

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