Serving Snohomish and Island counties
Monday, June 18, 1990
By Robin Stanton
Artisan brothers update work in bronze
Foundry also a teaching tool
SULTAN—The magic of alchemy lives on
in a steel building behind the Sultan park
and ride lot.
There, Kevin and Todd Pettelle heat
bronze to glowing white liquid and create
works of art that can survive 10,000 years
The brothers have worked for three years
establishing a foundry, Northwest
Artworks, to cast pieces for area sculptors.
The foundry is a family partnership, born
out of Kevin Pettelle’s frustration in finding
someone to cast his own sculptures and
aided by an investment from their artist
father, Ed Pettelle.
The brothers, complement each other,
they say. Todd Pettelle has the business
and carpentry skills, while Kevin Pettelle is
the artist and technician.
“Everything’s fallen into place for us,”
Todd Pettelle said on a recent Saturday
afternoon. “Whenever we've tried to push
things along too fast, it hasn't worked
out. But as we let things happen in their
own time, everything falls into place.”
On this particular Saturday, the brothers
were working on a special project. Three
classes from Canyon Creek Elementary
had made tiny sculptures under the
guidance of volunteer art teacher Stacey
Mayer. The Pettelles were preparing to
cast the 70 pieces.
Mayer and her 8-year-old daughter,
Shannon, who created one of the
sculptures, came to watch the pour.
Out the back door, misty hills pucker out
of the Skykomish River flatlands. It was
gray and cold as the rain beat down, but
inside a crucible of bronze glowed white
The brothers designed the shop with
disaster in mind, Kevin Pettelle said, and
have avoided it so far. The furnace and
the tray that holds the molds sit on a
mesh steel deck about 2 ½ feet above the
cement floor. If any molten metal spills
during a pour, it drips to a safe distance
Bronze is the oldest alloy known. Artisans
first started working the blend of copper
and tin about 3500 B.C. Those were the
times when alchemists claimed to be able
to turn base metals into gold and smelters
were in secret places.
The bronze is heated to between 1,950
and 2,150 degrees Fahrenheit. The
hotter the metal, the more fluid it is, which
allows it to flow into the tiny crevices of
the molds. Fifty degrees can make a
difference, Kevin Petttelle said.
As the bronze melted, Todd Pettelle
added scrapes from earlier projects.
Dressed in leather protective clothing and
wearing a helmet, he used tongs to place
the scrapes atop the furnace first, to let
them dry and heat. Adding cold bronze to
the fiery pieces on the verge of melting
could mean an explosion.
They've worked with other foundries,
particularly Pratt Fine Arts Center in
Seattle, to learn the skills, Kevin Pettelle
said. But they've had to develop their
won techniques for their operation.
You can follow someone else’s directions
step by step, doing everything right, and
nine times out of 10 it won’t work, Todd
Pettelle said. Even the moisture content
in the air will affect a pour.
As time for the pour approached, he
probed the bronze with a long metal
thermometer. The molds sat in sand in a
metal tray in the center of the steel deck.
They were preheated to about 1,600
degrees, which helps keep the bronze hot
enough to capture detail work.
When the bronze reached the right
temperature, the two brothers used long
tongs to grasp either side of the 90-
pound crucible. They lifted it out of the
furnace and poured a stream of glowing
white liquid into each mold. Working
quickly, with few words, they topped each
one, scraping the bottom of the barrel into
bar-shaped molds on the side of the tray.
The molds themselves glowed pinkish
orange. The brothers tossed the molds
into a wheelbarrow and rolled them
outside to cool. Kevin Pettelle blew a
stream of cold air into the nooks and
crannies of the mold, to ensure they
cooled evenly. Raindrops hissed into
steam as they hit the molds.
“Some times we roast hot dogs or
marshmallows over them,: Kevin Pettelle
As they cooled, the molds began to
crack. Within about 10 minutes, Kevin
Pettelle hammered at a mold to uncover
the sculptures within.
Out leaped a turtle, a snake, a space
shuttle and a horse’s head.
As each group was uncovered, the
Pettelles and the Mayers clustered round,
examining each tiny figure. Shannon’s
eyes glowed as she spotted her tiny
It was an almost perfect pour. Details of
leaves and feathers, letters and lines
were captured in bronze for many
A few days later, Mayer brought the
sculptures back to the artists at Canyon
Creek Elementary. She worked with
Susan Kurokawa’s second-grad class,
and Dennis Hamburg’s fifth/sixth-grade
The children were excited and impatient
to see their work
“I made this slug just to stick on my mom's
glass,” said Matthew Oaks, a student in
But Mayer had a more lasting impression
“I want this to plant a seed in your brain,
so you know that if you want to do
something, you can,” she told the
students. “Don’t lose these, don’t throw
them away, but keep them to feed your
Making molds not quick process
SULTAN – Preparing a sculpture for
casting into bronze can take anywhere
from six weeks to three months, say Kevin
and Todd Pettelle of Northwest Artworks.
From a wax or clay figure, the brothers
make a reusable master mold that
includes a flexible inner mold and a rigid
outer mold to hold it steady.
A wax pattern is made from the master
mold and attached to a central core along
with special devices that direct the way
the metal will enter and fill the molds.
A secondary ceramic mold is made round
the wax patter. It is flashed-fired, plunged
into a 1,700-degree Fahrenheit furnace
for 20 minutes to one and a half hours.
This hardens the ceramic shell and burns
out the wax. The ceramic molds are then
ready to be filled with molten bronze.
For casting, large sculptures must be cut
into smaller pieces that are later welded
together. Body parts sit on storage
shelves around the Northwest Artworks
shop – rows of legs, rows of torsos with
heads. The finished pieces show no
seams where they've been welded.
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