For this Upcycling project, my inspiration came from the Anthillart.com video on making anthill art from molten aluminum. The fixtures created and sold on the website contained approximately 18 pounds of aluminum. After facing difficulty locating an empty anthill near Boulder, I decided to try a different approach. The YouTube artist “The Backyard Scientist” used water polymer beads in order to form his molten aluminum fixtures. This approach was much more feasible to attempt for this project.
Game Plan and Expectations
My friend Vincent Staverosky and I had been collecting aluminum cans and had acquired roughly three large garbage bags full of these cans. Vincent had made his own metal foundry as inspired from Grant Thompson’s “The King of Random” YouTube channel. Using this foundry the plan was to melt all the cans, or at least until the foundry was nearly full of molten aluminum. The water polymer beads were ordered through Amazon.com and were originally smaller than a BB pellet. When placed in a tub of water, these beads could absorb 200 times their size in water within four hours. The hydrated beads would be placed in a 5 gallon Home Depot bucket where the molten aluminum would then be poured over the beads and allowed ample space to form within the bucket.
After completion, the plan was to use the figure/figures in a fish tank or as a centerpiece/decoration. It was hoped that the figure/figures produced would be large with very complex and abstract designs. The estimated time to create the molten aluminum sculpture was 1 to 2 hours. However, the actual time was 9 hours.
The Actual Process
The biggest time suck was melting all those cans. Each individual can took roughly one minute to melt down before the next can could be stacked on top and pushed into the foundry.
The next significant time suck/complication was getting the charcoal to burn and waiting for it to generate enough heat to melt the aluminum (1,221 degrees F or 660.3 degrees C). That process took roughly one hour.
Finally, once the foundry was hot enough and had melted almost an entire bag of the cans, I wanted to test the formation and pour the aluminum into the polymer bead bucket. With Vincent’s help, we pulled the steel foundry crucible out and attempted to pour the aluminum. Unfortunately, there was a thick film of impurities preventing the aluminum from pouring out of the crucible. This was credited to the liquid residue in the cans and from the thin chemical coating called comestible polymeric coating inside the cans to prevent the liquid from reacting with the aluminum can. An additional factor was also leading to the formation of this layer of gunk which will be discussed later.
It was decided to try to melt this film and scrape it off once it was at a high enough temperature to accomplish this. The crucible was returned to the foundry and allowed to heat up to this point. After the entire crucible was glowing orange we attempted to take it out of the foundry. With much difficulty we forced the crucible out only to find all the aluminum had leaked out from some portion of the crucible and formed a solid block at the base of the foundry. The extra “gunk” inside the foundry was charcoal ash that was being blown in through the leak in the crucible by the hair dryer. The block can be seen in the image below.
Re-evaluation and Second Go
After much frustration, we decided to take a break and figure out how to fix the problem the next day. We attempted to locate another crucible (which was just an empty steel fire extinguisher with the top cut off and bolts attached to the sides). Unfortunately, a steel fire extinguisher could not be acquired within a reasonable amount of time for a reasonable price so it was decided to attempt to make the current one work.
To overcome this challenge, we reheated the crucible in order to heat the gunk up enough to melt/turn to ash and dump out of the foundry. After roughly thirty minutes we were good to go and ready to take on the next part of the challenge, the leak. We had previously made aluminum “muffins” using a muffin pan to cast the molten aluminum last semester when the foundry was first made. We decided to heat the foundry to the necessary temperature and test the heat by throwing small compact aluminum pieces into the foundry before adding the solid aluminum muffins. After we achieved our desired heat, we added two muffins and as soon as they had completely melted we pulled the crucible out and poured it immediately into the polymer bead bucket before any aluminum could escape through the leak. The resulting piece can also be seen in the image below.
We were so thrilled with the result that we returned the crucible to the foundry and put the other three muffins into the foundry and proceeded with the same steps.
End Result vs. Vision
We were particularly thrilled because we had aluminum to cast that didn’t all leak out of the crucible and that the entire process itself was extremely successful in creating a unique abstract piece of molten aluminum. Ideally, I would have preferred to make a single large figure of aluminum rather than four smaller figures, but given the circumstances I was very happy to have what we created. The figures the “Backyard Scientist” was able to create are shown below on the left, and ours on the right.
The vision behind these figures was to create a unique piece of art that would not only be aesthetically pleasing but would also have an exciting story to go with it. The story meaning the process used to create it. As far as the function, I wanted a beautiful abstract piece with elaborate designs that I could use in a fish tank or as a display piece in my room/house. I definitely feel like these pieces embrace those goals.
Current and Future Plans
Vincent and I plan on purchasing a real crucible from ebay in the near future in order to continue our molten aluminum endeavors and create larger and more intricate figures from the aluminum. For now, the figures are being used in my fish tank.
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This art turned out beautiful. I would have never thought those beads could withstand the temperatures of molten aluminum.
The most interesting part of your project, to me, was the hydrophilic material you used to create your aluminum structures. I had heard of the material before, and of molten aluminum structures, but never of the material being used to create such structures: a beautifully creative solution.
I already commented on your presentation, but since this was my favorite project thus far, I decided to revisit this project for my weekly comment.
This technique of molding aluminum turned out great results. From all the projects thus far, this is the best example of art for art’s sake. Its purely abstract form doesn’t suggest any function other than evoking the imagination. Which has huge value in its own right.
I could image a slight twist to the project using a semi-controlled method to create specific objects. For example you could create the base to a glass table, a picture frame, or maybe even household fixtures.
I’d be curious to see these sculptures could be anodized with color. I could imagine several of these in different colors creating a psychedelic landscape.
I wonder if the same technique could be used with glass…
I liked that you didn’t’ destroy an ant farm in order to create this art. How would you try to reinforce/improve upon the more fragile parts of the piece. I liked that you have these in a fish tank.
Your friend has a metal foundry? That’s awesome! What kind of casts do you want to do in the future?
Your friends have a foundry? I got half a bike frame to melt down.
Amazing that you can get a similar intricate tunnel affect using just silicone balls. I wonder if there is a way to make the aluminum stronger so the figures would be able to support themselves better.
I have seen this before on YouTube, but I didn’t realize that it was something that you could actually do at home. It would be really cool to experiment with make molds in sand, and casting the aluminum to specific shapes. Nice work with this project, I would love to try it out myself!
I like the inspiration. I also like how the aluminum is casted. Can you add support features with smaller aluminum pieces?
I like the randomness that you got. I think there might be a way to hang things from the branches. Could make a cool accessory on top of a dresser or something.
Really cool looking! Great use of the art piece in the fish talk! Have you thought about trying to use other metals besides aluminum (copper/brass)?
I am glad you did not kill any ants, nice finding an alternative and the piece looks really nice specially up close, nice work.
This looks so neat and I think creates its own aesthetic. How much can you influence the shapes?
This is really cool. This is very involved and I really like seeing the randomness of the final product.
The gel balls are really cool! I like how you can create intricate designs that are not machinable and the little balls simply evaporate out. Looks really cool in your tank!
This is a really interesting idea and a cool twist on the anthill art that some people make. Is it safe for the fish tanks?
Great outcome, heavier than I imagine, can see how it would look good in a fish tank, interesting the beads stayed in the finished product.
Pretty neat! Would be neat to see if you could control the fluid pattern during the cooling process.
So cool! The pattern on these is really interesting. Good work!
I like how erratic the piece looks. How did you get the color out of the cans?
Crazy idea! Very abstract thinking and it turned out great nice work!
I saw this on youtube a little bit ago and it looked awesome! Your pieces came out looking great!
These look sort of like a coral reef, so it seems like a cool thing for the fish tank.
That’s such a cool way to recycle old beer and soda cans! I’d love to see a video of the whole process.
That looks super cool. If you had an anthill around, wold you have used an anthill. I am also impressed at how detailed the sculptures came out. Would you cut off pieces of aluminum in order to get a specific type of shape?
Nice, I’ve always liked the aesthetic of molten metal art. Could your foundry be used to create sculptures with different colored metals for a different aesthetic?
Good idea using the beads as the cast. I like the simple idea but the complex shapes that come out of it make this project pop.
What were the biggest challenges with making the models? Is it possible to aim for a specific shape, or is it more random than anything?
These are really intriguing pieces. As an idea–you could make underwater scenes, using the molten pieces as “coral” and adding fishes or what not.
I think your project turned out really well! I think they would look great in a fish tank. I am impressed with your design and your use of cans.
Good use of old material, and it looks really good!
All of these pieces look really cool. I’m surprised the beads could hold up to the molten aluminum.
I’ve seen videos like this on youtube and always wondered about it. That’s real cool that you actually tried and completed a project using this method. It is so intricate and looks great!
Really neat addition to the fish tank, looks very interesting and stylish.
This is such a cool design! I haven’t seen this before and I love the materials, like the beads, you used and the natural aesthetic you created. This is a clean design as well. I was going to suggest it should be in an aquarium so its cool you are using it in that way. Great job!
Wow these look really cool! I love the home engineering project you did and that you incorporated it in your fish tank.
Wonderful forms. Very unique process. Save the ants!
damn those look cool, I could stare at that for hours.
This is great! I like how it turned out. I’ve had a backyard foundry for a while now, but all my attempts at pouring parts have failed. It’s really cool that you and your friend were able to pour some art. Hopefully your fish is enjoying his new decorations; that’s a great use for the sculptures!
This looks so dope! I really hope you do something with molten metal for your final project. I would love to help out. It would so awesome to make cast parts in sand like “The King of Random.”