Brothers’ success is cast in bronze
Tuesday, April 16, 2002
By Jon Hahn

SULTAN—One of the best-kept
secrets in this Cascades foothills town
isn’t the bakery — everyone who
travels state Route 2 knows that’s
good – but few know about the fine
sculpture produced at the little foundry
on Main Street.  

Most folks would figure the closest
thing to sculpture hereabouts would be
a hunking piece of chain saw art
outside the local saw shop.  But
Northwest Artworks is as far from that
assumption as Main Street is off the
main drag.

Hundreds of fine cast-bronze
sculptures are produced every year
here, “but things have sort of slowed
down.  We feel the economic slowdown
just like everyone else, maybe even
worse,” lamented Todd Pettelle, co-
founding owner.

The first time I visited, the crew was
putting the finishing touches on a pair
of 7-foot bronze mermaids for a
Mexican resort, and you know
something like that isn’t going to roll off
a production line and retail for $195.

But the smaller production pieces –
incentive awards for large corporations
and professional merit-award
statuettes – are what’s keeping this
6,000-square-foot shop running, Todd
concedes.  Those, and educational
programs for teachers and students
throughout Snohomish County.  “A
large part of what we do is educate
people about the casting process,”
Todd said.  So many people, including
artists and even sculptors, don’t know
what must go into this process.”

It was all an education for Todd and
his brother Kevin, a professional artist,
when they launched the business with
their father, Edwin, a Seattle Times
marketing and promotions official, back
in the mid-1980’s.  “I wasn’t long out of
the military and in a sales job I didn’t
really like, and my brother was just
getting into sculpture and was
frustrated by no good local foundries,“
Todd said.  “So we apprenticed
ourselves at a small foundry and
studied for two years at the Pratt Fine
Arts Institute in Seattle, and we began
building this place, and the business,
from the ground up.  Dad, who died
last year, financed the whole thing.  
Our first building was only 2,000
square feet, and this is our third
expansion,” he said, moving his arm in
an arc across the newest, two-story
portion of the complex.

The original pieces can be in almost
any medium, but lost-wax bronze
sculpture requires various production
steps including, of course, a special
environmentally friendly wax, a
refractory ceramic and the bronze.  
The artists are required to be in the
foundry for on-site decisions and
approval at various stages in the
casting process, Todd said.  

His brother’s success as an artist
eventually led to his transferring his
business interest to Todd, but Kevin
and a nucleus of other Pacific
Northwest artists channel a sustaining
flow of casting work through the
foundry.  Finished works from the
Sultan shop are shipped far away as
the United Kingdom, New Zealand and

Some pieces, such as the several life-
size horses destined for a corporate
ranch in Colorado, or the Coast Guard
Memorial now at La Push (and created
by Kevin), or that pair of mermaids for
the Mexican resort, are done in
sections that must be welded,
burnished and given an “instant-aging”
patina by spraying with acids and other
chemicals before a final waxing.

The Fisherman’s Memorial at
Bellingham and the Tacoma
Firefighters Memorial are other
examples of sculptures cast at
Northwest Artworks.  For a time several
years ago, the foundry was producing
monumental and smaller production
pieces simultaneously, requiring twice
the production crew and what seemed
like around-the-clock schedules.  “We
were making money, but that’s when I
found out I didn't want to run a really
big foundry business,” Todd said.  
Even so, between the castings that
require several processes and the
various educational programs that
bring teachers and students into the
foundry and adjacent studio, the shop
is usually lighted and humming seven
days a week.  

The half-dozen workers here are all
highly trained for various aspect of the
casting, but they also are cross-
trained, Todd said, because the work
often requires many hands for many
hours.  “Once a pour is ready, it has to
go non-stop and at a very specific
rate,” Todd explained.

This foundry burns about $500 worth
of propane gas monthly as the bronze
ingots from Canada are transformed to
molten metal at 1,900 to 2,250
degrees.  Experience has taught them
what kinds of pieces require casting at
certain temperatures and pour rates,
and how to avoid production problems,
Todd said.

Even so, there is always an upward
learning curve in this centuries-old
process.  “I went back to school to
learn glass and ceramic casting, and
even when I’m teaching that to, say,
some classroom teachers, there’s
always a chance of making a mistake’
Todd said as he hefted a crazed glass
sculpture as an example.

The reward from the teaching is after
you've gone step by step with them
through the entire process, and you
see them suddenly brighten up with
the realization of what they've been
able to create and now they
understand the process.  That makes
me appreciate what I do even more.”
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