Acquiring mold making, casting and life casting skills is downright exciting. In this easy-to-follow guide, you can develop your ability to duplicate most inanimate objects, as well as learn the art form of casting the human body.
Mold making and casting is an artistic skill. Though purists will argue that simply reproducing something isn’t an art form at all. Perhaps surprisingly, I would agree with them. Simple reproduction isn’t an art. It is a skill. The art is in how you reproduce and finish the casting. If it is created with imagination and flair, it certainly can be raised to the level of fine art as you will see from the many examples shown in this book. You too can do this. In our studio workshops, we have taken pure novices and helped them develop their skills, that through practice, have led them to become accomplished three-dimensional artists. That is because none of the techniques described here are difficult to master once you know how to use its powers for your own creativity.
But there is a greater goal than simply explaining how to reproduce things to hang on your wall, display them on your bookshelf or to even recreate a missing part or antique drawer pull. It is my hope that you will open a whole new world of other possibilities for you as you build your mold making and casting skills. Because it was designed to provide you with easy-to-follow information on how to reproduce almost anything for fun or profit.
This article explains the wide variety of mold making techniques which can be used for almost any application – both traditional as well as modern techniques employed by experienced mold makers. It is not enough to discuss mold making and casting methods without understanding what materials are involved, as well as how to choose and use the correct mold making and casting products.
By following the explanations, the reader will learn how to create molds to reproduce candles, soaps, latex masks, decorative garden pieces, fishing lures and figurines, as well as many other fascinating items that they can resell. In addition to creating molds of inanimate objects, the life casting section provides instruction on establishing a life casting business, where clients can commission the artist to create salable life casting services. This article further instructs the user on the various methods used to create molds to replicate missing parts for antiques and hardware, along with how to encase and preserve treasured keepsakes, the making of prototypes, and for hobbyists, detailed garage models, trains, autos, rockets, airplanes and their accessories.
Mold Making the Oldest Profession?
The title of the “oldest profession” could have originated from the first ancient female leaning against a rock one evening and winking at a fellow Neanderthal returning from a hunt, suggesting the first exchange of favors. It is a historic possibility, as such an event must have taken place sometime in the ancient past. That first transaction was most likely the basis for the clichéd “oldest profession” phrase and perhaps occurred 200,000 years ago. But if you allow for a bit of poetic license, the “oldest profession” began some 230 million years ago when dinosaurs first roamed the earth.
Of course, an explanation is to remove any of your incredulity from a time-honored belief. In 1935, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, the first fossils of dinosaur footprints to be scientifically described were found preserved in sandstone. Since then, numerous ancient imprints have been discovered around the world. Of particular interest was the Moab, Utah find in 2009, where over 200 well-preserved tracks completely intact were found left in mud that had hardened into rock. Along with those tracks, were other impressions of at least a dozen different animals. Among them, as far as the scientists can tell, was an ancient crocodile that left behind its dragging tail markings and a three-toed meat-eater like the ferocious Utah raptor. Such imprints or impressions are ancient molds.
To confirm this conclusion, Webster’s dictionary defines a mold as, “A hollow form or matrix for shaping a fluid or plastic substance.” So, footprints seem to qualify. Cast with a shaping fluid, such as plaster or latex, as any self-respecting paleontologist would do, in modern times upon discovery, and “Viola!” a mold has been utilized to create a positive casting.
Thus, a 200-million-year-old animal track casting has been produced from a dinosaur track mold and can be preserved for future study. With this revelation, today’s modern mold makers can stick out their chests, place their thumbs in their suspenders (if they wear them), and proudly trace the art of mold making back to those ancient finds. With such evidence they can boast that mold making is indeed the oldest profession. Oh, one may quibble that such molds were not created by actual human hands, but none the less, we should all be aware that the art of mold making could be not only ancient, but prehistoric.
Today mold making has reached its zenith. Without molds, there would be no modern technology as we know it. For example, there would be no iPhones, PCs, Apple watches, self-parking automobiles, smart appliances and so on. For the art of mold making allows us to reproduce identical multiples of the same object.
So, when one holds an iPhone in their hand it should be noted that a connection can be made to the molds used in the casting piece parts to those ancient molds left behind by the dinosaurs millions of years ago. So, is mold making the oldest profession? We’ll leave that conclusion up to the reader. But a case can still be made (if the imagination can be stretched,) for the first Neanderthal working and pressing clay found on a riverbank into a rock depression to create the first sort of vessel suitable for trade, before he was old enough to receive his first “wink” and offer his mold-made clay pot in exchange.
Tricked into Mold Making
The reader may skip over this section if they wish, as it is simply an anecdote on how I got started in the mold making world, though some may find it interesting. Thirty-three years ago I was earning my living as a business consultant. Admittedly, I always had somewhat of an artistic flair, but I had little time to act on it, traveling the country working with clients and writing business plans. Then, one Friday afternoon, I found myself at the Fort Lauderdale, Florida airport waiting to catch a flight home to New York when I stopped to wonder what the man sitting in a small glass room in the middle of the airport lobby was doing. He was dressed in jeans, sneakers, a red T-shirt, and a baseball cap. He held an old-fashioned Walkman, and a metal toy airplane sat on the floor in front of him. The room had no door or any apparent means to enter or leave, and the overweight man sat very still, staring directly down at the airplane. I tapped on the glass, but he didn’t even blink. I lingered for a bit, waiting for him to give himself away with some sort of movement. But to my chagrin, that didn’t happen, so I proceeded on to my gate, mentally scratching my head as to what that man was doing there in the first place.
I didn’t think more about the incident until I was thumbing through an art magazine several weeks later and ran across an article describing the hyper-realist sculptor, Duane Hansen’s exhibition of some of his life casting work at the Departure Level of Terminal 3 in the Fort Lauderdale airport. For a moment I was stunned to discover how foolish I’d been. It was one of those hit-the-forehead with-the-palm-of-the-hand moments.
The man in the glass room looked real, and in fact, leaving him behind in the exhibit as I had, I’d been convinced he was real. It was indeed a surprise that got me thinking. I knew very little about life casting. In fact, reading the article on Hansen was the first time I’d seen that term in use. I did what we all do when we lack knowledge: I Googled “life casting” and began reading more about this rather special art form. As I did, my curiosity only grew. I told myself that this was something I really wanted to learn.
In my search I came across the Canadian sculptor Mark Prent who was now residing in Saint Albans City, Vermont. I called him and asked if he could teach me, and he graciously invited me to Vermont to spend a week with me at his Pink House Studios.
The experience left me wanting to learn more. That week we cast the full body of a local college student named Sarah. It was hard work and a big learning curve, but at the end of the week, I found myself loading Sarah’s naked life cast body, complete with mesmerizing blue glass eyes, into my car wondering how a toll collector might react upon seeing a rigid body lying down in the back seat. A bit embarrassed, I asked Mark for a blanket to cover up Sarah’s nakedness to make my return home as uneventful as possible. Years later, Sarah graces my garden, reminding me of the wonderful week I had in my first mold making class.
Over the years I spent time with many accomplished artists who were generous enough to teach me. There was the late Hiram Ball, Roy Butler, and the late, great Dave Parvin to name a few. Now I can build on what I have learned from these and other mold makers, such as Michael Kryger, Omar Sfreddo and Anthony Giordano. Before we begin with the details, you will have a much better learning experience if you understand the basic mold types and what they are used for.
Incidentally, though we might suggest a specific mold type is best used for a certain application, this is never a hard and fast rule. As you become familiar with mold types, you will settle on your favorite methods to create a specific casting, and you will often use those methods, even though there might be a better one. It is not wrong, as in the end there are a number of ways to produce the final result. Pick your favorite and hone your craft.
Mold Making Basics
We often think of a flexible rubber-like material when we think of a mold—though industrial molds are made of rigid stainless steel or aluminum. That is often the case, though there are plenty of instances where a rigid mold is preferable. But with a flexible mold comes a support issue. Since it is flexible, when it is removed from the original model, also known as a Marquette in sculpture terminology, the mold can’t support itself. So, when casting material is poured into it, it is unable to hold its shape.
A second type of mold is added to reinforce the flexible rubber. This outer mold is called a shell mold or mother mold and consists of a material like gypsum plaster, that cures to a rigid consistency. In that way, when the rubber mold (the part of the mold that imparts the detail) and the shell mold are removed from the model, the rubber impression mold can be supported by the rigid shell mold when you pour in your casting material.
Learning never ends when it comes to building your model making and mold making skills. As with any new endeavor, the approach to mold making begins by first learning the basics, which naturally progresses from learning the simplest of forms of mold making techniques, such as the single-piece block mold, to the more complex, poured, multi-piece blanket mold, and then advancing your knowledge and skill level by practicing the more advanced mold making techniques. Listed below are the mold types that will be explained in this section, sequenced from the least complex to the most complex type:
MOLD TYPES LISTED BY COMPLEXITY
- Block Mold
- Single piece
- Slush casting
- Latex masks
- Blanket Mold
- Brushed-on (glove mold)
- Sprayed on
- Poured single-piece
- Brushed multi-piece
As you can see from the list, the single piece poured block mold is the easiest mold type to create. Following the order on the list, you can see that the poured and brushed-on blanket molds are the most complex to execute and therefore would take more time to create. But the advantage of a poured blanket mold is that it takes less mold rubber than a block mold.
So, the tradeoff is time versus money. Both mold categories, that is a blanket and block mold, require some type of ridged containment. Poured blanket molds require construction of a “mold shell” or “mother mold,” while poured block molds require a containment area often referred to as a “mold box” or “matrix.” The construction of shell molds takes practice, while the construction of a mold containment box can be rather simple. Blanket molds require less mold rubber to construct but usually require more time and experience. We continue with an explanation of the various types of blanket molds available to the mold maker, followed by an explanation of the types and uses of block molds.
The Blanket Mold
A blanket mold is most often used to reproduce a model such as “bas relief,” where the back of the model is not reproduced by the mold. As the name implies, a blanket mold is a type that lays down a coating of impression material or mold rubber over the entire surface of the model to be reproduced. The rubber is applied to a thickness of about ¼-inch to ½-inch by either brushing, pouring, or spraying onto the mold material. However, for small to mid-size models, the most common application is brushing. The result is a thin “blanket” covering the entire model—thus, the name.
However, pouring a blanket mold is also an option. But it is a bit more complicated for beginning mold makers, as it requires many more steps to create a support shell around the model, including sprue holes to release air. This will be the subject of further explanation. For the beginner, the brush or spray-on approach is the way to go until experience has been gained.
Since the rubber is flexible and would not hold its shape once removed from the model for casting, a second mold material is added on top of the rubber. This application is called a “shell mold” or “mother mold” and consists of a material that sets to a rigid consistency like gypsum plaster.
So, when the impression mold and the shell mold are removed together from the model, the impression mold can be firmly supported by the shell for casting. Having explained that, I must backtrack. It is possible, and in many situations more feasible, to pour mold rubber thick enough so that it can support itself without needing a secondary shell. If the walls of the mold are at least ¾-inches thick, then the mold maker can skip the shell mold step. But here is the consideration you must think about: mold rubber is generally far more expensive than the lesser expensive shell mold materials, such as plaster. So if cost is a major consideration, then pouring a thicker mold is more expensive than pouring a thin mold and adding a support shell. But if time is more of an issue than cost, you may consider pouring a self-supporting rubber mold and eliminating the time it takes to make the secondary outer mold.
Blanket Mold Construction
Glove Mold, or “sock” mold as it is sometimes called, is constructed in one piece. The model is coated with the mold material, often latex mold rubber. It gets its name from how the mold is removed from the model, in that it is peeled off as one would remove a glove from a hand. This type of mold is best suited for models in low relief. Removal is helped using mold releases such a silicone release, soapy water, or talc powder. We discuss mold release in more detail a little further on in the materials section.
Cut Blanket Mold. This type of mold material is applied in a similar fashion as you would with the glove mold. The difference is, instead of peeling it off, one side of the mold is partially slit up the side to aid in its removal. When creating the mold, the mold maker plans on where the slice shall be made so that the area may be built up with a thicker coating of mold material to prevent tearing when the slit is made. The cut is made with a mold knife or key knife in a zigzag (saw tooth) fashion, so that the edges will register against each other when the model is later removed. This type of mold is used when the entire model needs to be covered, and it has low relief and few undercuts.
Two-piece or Complex Blanket Mold. In this method, a mold is made in two or more sections, completing one section before creating the next one. This type of mold method is used when the entire model needs to be reproduced, but because of undercuts and high relief, a glove or cut mold would not work in this circumstance.
More About the Shell Mold
Shell molds often require a bit more engineering than blanket molds. That is because unlike the material used in blanket molds that is stretchable and flexible, a shell mold is made of a rigid material such as plaster, plaster gauze bandages, fiberglass, or specially formulated polyurethane resin applications. Therefore, a rigid shell must be made in sections so that it can be removed from the blanket mold. These multi-sections are held together with mold straps or bolts, washers, and wing nuts. As an example, if you were making a blanket mold of a head in the round, the flexible inner material can fully cover the head. Removal would be accomplished by slicing the rubber skin up the back of the head, and it would come off much like you would remove an ordinary mask. The shell on the other hand would have to be made in two parts – the front half and the rear half. To create the shell, a line is drawn from shoulder to shoulder across the top of the head. Each half of the shell is created to align with the line called a parting line. Therefore, before beginning each project, care must be taken to plan out how the shell will be created and where the parting line or lines will be made.
Life Mold Making and Casting
Now just a word about life casting. Life casting is the art of taking a mold directly from the living body. This blog contains a number of articles on the comprehensive instruction of the use of materials and techniques for casting the smallest body parts – such as a baby’s hand, the face, feet, torso and appendages, and it also includes how to cast the entire body. We also offer suggestions for finishing your work in a variety of styles. In addition, we have included a life casting model release, which we recommend using for the mutual safety of both artist and model. Before we elaborate further on these mold making techniques, it is best for you to understand the types of materials you have at your disposal for you to construct your molds and create your castings. We will do that in a further article. In the meantime, you might want to obtain the late David Parvin’s book, The Casting of Angels, which provides excellent tips and methods on body casting.