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From Clay to Bronze: The First Pour

By Theo Mayer
Chief Technologist, United States World War One Centennial Commission and The Doughboy Foundation

January 19, 2021 was a significant day for the new National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C.

On this date, the 58-foot long, 38-figure Memorial centerpiece sculpture titled "A Soldier's Journey" reached a new milestone on its journey, as the sculpture's first elements were cast into bronze in a "First Pour." It was very exciting for members of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission staff, the American Battle Monuments Commission staff, Sabin Howard Studios, and the Doughboy Foundation who were privileged to take a virtual field trip to Pangolin Editions Foundry in the United Kingdom to witness the milestone event.

“This first pour was one more step toward fulfillment of a vision that was planted more than a decade ago," said Edwin Fountain, General Counsel at the American Battle Monuments Commission, and former Vice Chair of the WWI Centennial Commission. "By memorializing them in figurative bronze, we will honor America’s World War I servicemen and women in a noble and timeless medium that is fitting to their service.”

Sculptor Sabin Howard, after observing the first pour, declared that "With the clay sculpture now being cast in bronze, the sculpture will now outlast us all. This memorial will play forward the sacredness and importance of WWI; it is made for the visitors coming to Washington to see this country’s history."

Describing the Action:

Click on the image above to play the 5 minute video of the first pour. You will see a volume of molten bronze transferred into a big metal container called the crucible. According to the experts, it is usually made of graphite or silicon carbide, which can handle the extreme temperatures of the molten metal.

As you watch them fill the crucible, you will see the "Lead Pour", the person in charge of the operation, toss little nuggets of something into the crucible. It turn out that those are pieces of Silicon which helps the bronze flow better, makes it less brittle and reduces metal contraction as it cools. More than simply a large mechanical process, there is a a great deal of craft and art in the process.

After the crucible is filled, they skim impurities off the top. The crane operator moves the crucible filled with the molten bronze over to the molds where the "Lead Pour" assisted by someone apparently often referred to as the "Dead Man" carefully maneuver the crucible over the mould and pour the metal into them. Each metal structure, called a "Sand Box", is in fact the mold for a piece or element of the sculpture.

Tom from the foundry explained to us about the part where some metal leaked from the side of the sand box. That happened when some of the metal escaped after the mold was full. The assistants quickly dropped sand onto the spilled metal to contain it.

A second piece was also cast on this first pour.

The monumental sculptural undertaking launched 5 years ago in January of 2016 when the team of Joe Weishaar and Sabin Howard were announced as the winners of the international design competition for the National WWI Memorial. Though the physical memorial will open to the public in April of 2021, the sculpture creation will continue for another 2 years.

It has been an amazing process to watch as the vision turned into sketches; the sketches turned into the miniature scaled maquettes; the maquettes turned into life-size armatures; the armatures were crafted into the clay art; and on January 19, 2021 began the transformation from clay into metallic permanence.

"We've remembered our Doughboys across the years and are on the verge of honoring them in a very special way," concluded Daniel Dayton, Executive Director of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission.


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