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A visit to the Sons of Vulcan

I visited the (Daughters and*) Sons of Vulcan for the first time with five other Red Mountain Makers members on a Thursday evening twelve days ago.
I had _no_idea_ that there was a foundry complex so close to our location in Woodlawn. It’s all of 200 yards around the corner and up a block – at most, a five minute walk.

I’d heard of the Sons of Vulcan off and on over the previous couple of years. When I hadn’t been able to attend an earlier December kickoff party at their new facility, I contacted them to find out if it would be possible to come for a visit in the new year. The answer was yes!

Seeing an illuminated warehouse door from a night-darkened parking lot.After meeting at the space (and checking to ensure that we were dressed appropriately and had personal protective equipment), we walked over to the Sons of Vulcan workshop at the corner of 55th Street and 1st Avenue South. Currently, they don’t have signage up — so you have to know which of the many doors to several buildings is the right one.

When you enter the foundry, you walk into a large, open, industrial shed. A walkway leads you past several portable forges and a metal working area. To your right is an enclosed office and a large metal work table. There are racks of metal rod, raw stock and molds. Ahead is a small glowing furnace and the roaring sound of a propane feed. Off in the distance darkness is a rolling hook and bucket lift system.

We were met by Lee McKee, the metal artist who organized the coop.
Lee has the solid build and musculature of a working blacksmith, with thick hands and seriously strong forearms. He’s run workshops at the Alabama Folk School, Sloss Furnace and at UAB.

There has been a foundry at this location since the 1930s. Lee told us that during World War II, the complex had been used to make grenades. He showed us the enclosure which he said was used to do quality assurance. “The workers threw the grenade in and closed the door. If it detonated, that batch was good to go and the shipment was sent out.” All this within a few hundred feet of homes on the south side of 1st Avenue South.

Greensand molds, ready for carving.

Lee and his fellow artists were gracious enough to give us a beginner’s introduction to casting.

We were given 6″ x 6″ greensand molds, which were held together by a polymer resin. We carved designs into the molds using a mixture of clay and dental carving tools. Sandforms_R2We wore safety classes, and were instructed to brush away, not blow away, the loose sand that we generated. One Sandforms_readyToCastother student was working his designs with a Dremel carving tool. Here are some of the designs we created. (pictures) The pictures that follow came from two separate pours.

LeeMcKee__opening furnace2While we worked, Lee and his associates melted the aluminum that would be cast into our molds. They also work with iron, bronze, pewter and silver. The work requires patience – and attention to detail. One wrong move with hot metal can cause serious injury — or death. PuttingonProtectiveGear3To reduce the risks, all people working the pour must wear insulated leather protective clothing (pictures), safety boots, and head and face protection. They must also train, rehearse their moves, pay attention to what others on the team are doing and not do anything unexpected. Shop safety is extremely important.

PuttingonProtectiveGear_BootsPourCrewnFurnace3When we were finished carving our designs, and the liquid metal was ready, the artists lifted the lid off of the furnace. (pictures)

Carefully, they lifted the glowing flask out of the furnace. Then, they transferred it to a long handled clamp. RedHotPotAnother team member skimmed impurities off the surface of the liquid metal. 2ndPour_3Two people took the handles and carried the flask over to the waiting molds. They tipped the flask and liquid aluminum poured out with the consistency of a hot thick soup.

LearningtoworkironWhile our casts cooled, we watched another young man work with bar iron on the anvil. He was learning to work metal and was practicing his punches.

The Sons of Vulcan offers metal casting and metal working classes for beginners and more advanced students. For more information, please visit their Facebook page.

If you’d like more information about metal casting, and artistic metal processes, please see the link list below: