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Behind the Design

Lost Wax, Paradise Found

Because we commission fine artists like the British sculptor Jon Bickley to create our museum-worthy pen stands and bookends exclusively for our customers, you'll find these only at Levenger. These functional collectibles are created using the ancient yet still lovingly practiced art of lost-wax casting to capture the artist's vision in vivid detail. Each is a member of a limited production run, whether or not it is numbered.

During a visit to our foundry in the Guang Dong province of China, Levenger founder Steve Leveen and his Mandarin-speaking son Cal spent time with the craftspeople who bring these pieces to life. They took these photos and worked with the factory managers and our merchandising team to develop the captions and descriptions you'll find below. Our goal was to provide an unusual behind-the-scenes look into the lost-wax casting method as it is practiced in the early 21st century. We hope it will enhance your appreciation for the Levenger art you enjoy in your office and home.

Lost wax is a technique that's been in use for millenia, believed to have originated in the Far East, with historical citations dating back to the cultures of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and India. Believed to be the earliest lost-wax sculpture is a bronze figurine known as The Dancing Girl, excavated in 1926 from the ruins of the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley of what is now Pakistan. The figure, which dates back to 3000-1500 BC, now resides in the collection of the National Museum of India in New Delhi.

Coming full circle, with many foundries located in China and India, contemporary lost-wax or investment casting has gained some technical advances while retaining the same basic methodology. Today, the factory where our pieces are cast is immaculate, spacious and well-ventilated. Safety is paramount. And today's lost-wax crafters recycle and reuse many of the materials involved in the process; in particular, reusing the wax several times—so today's "lost wax" isn't really lost at all, it's collected and used again.

Our Reading Bear Bookend in cast iron
Our Reading Bear Bookend in cast iron

The lost-wax process captures the essence of a one-of-a-kind sculpture with remarkable accuracy, from forms as varied as the smoothly flowing curves of our Elephant Pen Holder to the intricacies of our Captain Flint's Pen Perch and Reading Bear Bookend. It's a rather slow, six-step process, requiring patience, diligence and skill. The steps are outlined below.

Wax mold of Reading Bear Bookend
Wax mold of our Reading Bear Bookend

Step 1:
The artist creates a model, often in an oil-based modeling clay that doesn't harden, so that further detail can be added up until the last minute. This is the maquette (the French word for model), the foundational image that our artisans will transform into a bronze, brass or cast iron sculpture.

A wax mold being checked by factory worker to see if it is solidified
Checking a silicone mold to see if the wax has solidified

Step 2:
The clay maquette is then covered with silicone rubber to create a negative 3-D image of the sculpture, preserving all the surface details of the original model. (Before modern silicone rubber was available, plaster was used.) The rubber is then covered with a plaster of Paris jacket, which will support the sculpture and keep the mold from changing shape when the hot wax is poured inside. Once the plaster jacket hardens, it--along with the rubber mold--is removed, sometimes in two or more sections, depending on the intricacy of the sculpture. The clay maquette is then removed and preserved, and the mold reassembled. (This silicone mold can be used again and again to create more of the item later on, unless, of course, the artist decides to "break the mold.")

Parrot molds in separate pieces
Some designs require the molds to be made in separate pieces like the parrot pen perch

Step 3:
Now liquid wax is poured into the silicone mold in layers that are allowed to set before additional wax is poured. Like the maquette, this is a positive image of the sculpture, but this wax version is hollow. Depending on the piece, the wax mold may be separated into pieces (as with our parrot pen perch) that will be cast separately then put back together. When the wax is thick enough, and has cooled and hardened, the mold will be taken apart again and the wax sculpture carefully removed. Finally, the gating system, the channeling system where the molten metal will flow and enter the mold cavity, is attached. The system comprises multiple gates that are connected to the wax patterns and horizontal runners that are attached to the vertical sprues (openings where the molten metal will enter). Extensions to the gating system called vents are added to provide a path for built-up gases to escape.

Worker holding up ceramic investment coated with powdered silica.
Coating with powdered silica to create ceramic investment

Step 4:
Now the wax mold is carefully bathed in a layer of heat-resistant ceramic to create what is called the investment. This is achieved by dipping the wax mold into successive powdered silica mixtures (called slurries) and allowing it to dry after each submersion. For the initial coatings, only the finest grade of silica sand is used to render the likeness faithfully, then slurries with coarser sand are used for the additional layers. Each coat can take up to two days to dry, depending on the size of the piece. Once the final silica coating has hardened around the wax, it's put into a kiln for firing. The wax mold is "lost" during this step, melting away to leave only the ceramic mold investment. The lost wax is then collected to be reused for the next batch. The investment will be the mold in which molten bronze, brass or iron will be poured to create the final piece.

Wax molds of the parrot have just been removed from their silicone molds
Wax molds of the parrot have just been removed from their silicone molds

Step 5:
The kiln-fired ceramic mold is heated, then molten metal is poured into the sprue and gating system described earlier to create the final sculpture. After the metal cools, the ceramic mold is broken away to reveal the beauty beneath.

AD6530 Captain Flint's Pen Perch
Captain Flint's Pen Perch in bronze, with hand-painted details

Step 6:
Our sculpture is now ready for final cleanup. The remains of the ceramic are sandblasted off the surface, and parts of the gating system are blowtorched away or machined off to be melted down and reused. If the sculpture was created in separate pieces, these are now welded together (our parrot was welded onto its perch, for example). Finally, the sculpture is painted, glazed and decorated by hand, then refired, polished and packed carefully for shipment.

The process can take up to a week or more for each sculpture, but each is meant to be enjoyed for many lifetimes. Indeed, your Levenger sculpture may, like its historic ancestors, last another 5,000 years.