Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Forest Foundry, Not To Be Confused With Forest Gump

Recently Cast Buddha Statues Outside of Kohn Kaen

I have lived six of the past eight years here in Thailand, mostly in the Northeast area known as Isaan.  Having spent this amount of time in the area, I have had the opportunity to experience many unique aspects of Thai and ethnic Lao culture.

My wife is from a large family, six years ago it amounted to 23 aunts and uncles along with 96 cousins.  During the past six years there have been some deaths as well as some births so the size of the family has actually increased.

Duang's father who died a year ago was a well known entertainer in the area - singing in traditional Lao music events.  He went on to be a teacher to many of today's entertainers.  Several of his former students performed during the rituals for his death.  Duang's youngest brother maintains the family entertainment tradition by performing in local Malham Lao and Malham Sing shows.

My wife is a devout Buddhist with ties and connections with many members of the Sanga, Buddhist religious community.

Between the family ties, entertainment ties and Buddhist ties, I am kept rather well informed of unique cultural events and location in the area.

One of these opportunities was yesterday, which involved a drive south to Wat Pa Khao Suan Kwang Tat Fah outside of Kohn Kaen.  Last week, Duang had gone off to participate in a special merit making event at Wat Pa Khao Suan Kwang Tat Fah.  Her mother had told her of the event.  Duang returned with a very nice cast bronze statue of "Meditation Buddha" - Buddha in the meditation pose which is the Thai Buddha pose associated with Thursday.  Duang and I were both born on a Thursday albeit different months and some years apart. Being each born on a Thursday we share the Buddhist color of the week, orange, and the Buddha pose of "Meditation Buddha"

The statue is about 17 inches high and roughly 9 inches wide, weighing roughly 15 pounds. It is a unique statue in the aspect that Buddha has a disk above each shoulder with a down turned horn or tusk supporting the disk.  I asked Duang if the disks were lotus seed pods but she does not know what they and the horns are about.  I counted 8 raised dots on the disks, so perhaps there is some symbolism of the 8 spoked wheel of Buddhism.  Duang did tell me that this type of Buddha is only done by this Monk apparently inspired by a vision he had in a dream.

Duang's participation in the special merit making at a small Wat in the middle of no where was not by chance - it was tied to family, entertainment, and religious affiliations.  Duang's youngest brother had been a monk for two and one half years when he was a young boy.  When he was 12, he spent six months at the Wat in Tahsang Village.  When his mentor went to Wat Pa Khao Suan Kwang Tat Fah outside of Khon Kaen, Duang's brother went with him and spent two years with him there.

That special Monk was also a friend of Duang's father and enjoyed his music.  The Monk has since moved on and now stays at a Wat in Ratchaburi, southwest of Bangkok.  Some Monks are well known for various skills, abilities, powers, and accomplishments.  Some Monks are renowned for creating powerful magical tattoos.  Others are well known for the powers of the amulets that they make.  Other Monks are revered for their healing abilities. Some Monks are sought for their ability to foretell the future through numbers.  As it turns out this Monk is now known for his bronze castings.

The Monk had returned to Wat Pa Khao Suan Kwang Tat Fah to make 200 of the Buddha statues.  Apparently he travels around Thailand making these statues when there is a sufficient demand for the pieces.  He does not actually make the statues himself but has family members and devotees who travel with him to do the work.  He supervises the work, blesses the statues and empowers them.

The statues sell for 5,000 Baht each - roughly $166 USD. The Monk gave Duang one for free out of friendship.

During her first visit with the Monk, Duang saw the statues being cast.  She told the Monk about my passion for photographing things here.  Yesterday morning the Monk called Duang to tell her that he wanted me to come over and take pictures.  He and his crew were finishing up their order and were returning to their homes today.

For such an opportunity, I do not have to be invited twice.  Well we made it a family event, we brought along Duang's mother, her youngest brother, his manager, and our 5 year old grandson, Peelawat.

As the family had their reunion with the Monk I quickly immersed myself in all the activity going on outside under the shade of the trees.

Buddha Statues Awaiting Installation of Disks and Horns
Outside of the sala, underneath many large trees, several people were busy in the many steps of producing the statues.  A quick view of the area indicated that I would not be able to witness the actual casting of any statues.  I did see where Duang had seen the big fires for making the molten metal to produce the statues.  However there was plenty of other activities to witness and photograph.

From my experience working part of one summer during my college days at ITT Grinnell foundry in Cranston, Rhode Island, I recognized that the workers were using the "lost wax" or "investment casting" process to produce the bronze statues.

Items produced by the lost wax process have been dated back to over 5,700 years ago.

The first step of the lost wax process is to make a model made from rubber, clay, or some other suitable material of the desired object.  On my visit yesterday, I did not see the model for the statues that were being produced.  It is not necessary to have the model in order to produce a lost wax casting.  What is necessary is the mold for the item that you want to cast. This brings us to the second step.

The second step of the process is to produce a mold of the model or even of the original sculpture to be reproduced.  The mold is the exact negative of the model or original sculpture.  What ever is to protrude on the casting is a recess on the mold and visa versa for indentations.  There are various techniques and configurations for producing a mold.  The Monk's crew used a method that embraces modern times as well as retaining historical links.

I did not see the molds for the large Buddha statue during my visit, but I was able to witness and photograph much of the process for a smaller statue of a revered Monk of more modern times.

Nowadays, molds are typically consist of a softer inner mold and a rigid outer mold which supports the inner mold.  Inner molds are typically made out of rubber, latex, or silicone.  The outer mold is made from fiberglass, plaster or some other appropriate material.  The purpose of this mold is to create a hollow wax reproduction of the model or original sculpture.  The Monks crew had a split silicone model for their statue.  There were protrusions on one half of the mold which matched up to recesses on the other half of the mold to ensure alignment and orientation.

Worker Applies Molten Wax To Inside of Split Silicone Mold
The next step is create a wax replica of the item to be cast.  The wax replica included protrusions from the surface that would later assist in the flow of metal and escape of gasses during the casting process. The monk's crew created the wax replica without the use of an outer mold.  Instead of pouring wax into a mold to create a replica, they brushed molten wax on to the interior of their silicon molds.  The wax was melted and kept at the proper temperature in a large recycled rectangular metal container, similar to the ones used for selling crackers or cookies, set over a small charcoal fire.  As a layer of wax cooled on the silicone mold, another layer was quickly added to build up to the desired metal thickness of the statue.

Once the two halves of the replica were completed and cooled, they were carefully aligned and joined using hot wax.  The workers then carefully and painstakingly detailed the wax replica - ensuring that the seam where they were joined did not show, and all surface irregularities were removed through the skillful use of a knife or a brush filled with hot wax.

Adding Hot Wax With A Brush

Detailing A Hollow Wax Replica

Looks Just About Right!
Once the hollow wax replicas are acceptable, they are read for the next step.  The replicas outer surface is quickly and carefully coated by hand with a layer of plaster.

Making A Batch of Plaster

Wax Replicas Being Coated With Plaster
After the wax molds covered in plaster dry sufficiently they are carried the very short distance where two men added rolled cylinders to the wax pins protruding from the mold.  These cylinders will create avenues for the molten metal to properly access all points of the wax mold and for air and gases to escape thereby eliminating pockets in the cast metal. 

The wax molds with protruding wax cylinders are then covered in a fairly thick mud that appeared to be a mixture of clay and grout.

After the clay and grout based mud is a certain thickness, additional wax structures and cylinders were added to create a tree like structure - this process is called spruing.  The wax branches of the tree like structure tie into a large plug of wax at the top of the mold.  This plug is the cup where the molten metal will eventually be poured.

Encasing the Sprued Mold With Additional Mud
The sprued mold was then encased with additional layers of the clay-grout mud.  When the mud dried, two of the workers worked to encase the mold in a lattice work of small diameter steel wire.  The workers trussed up the molds using pre-measured coiled lengths of the picture hanging type wire.  They took particular care to ensure that the loops around the mold were tight and embedded into the still not completely set mud.  I suspect that this wire reinforcement survived two purposes just like rebar in reinforced concrete construction.  The first purpose is to bear tensile forces developed in the casting process similar to the hoops of a barrel and the second purpose is to distribute the heat of hydration as the mud cures. Distributing the heat equally helps to prevent cracking of the mud.

This was the last step of the casting process that I was able to witness during our visit.  However there was plenty of work going on with previously cast statues.  Many cast statues were set on the ground awaiting the installation of the unique disks and downturned horns.

Brazing Station

The disk and downturned horn assemblies, two to a statue, are too delicate to be cast as part of the main statue.  They are cast separately and brazed to the main statue using oxy-acetylene torch and bronze rods .  One worker wearing common sunglasses sat amongst several industrial gas bottles of oxygen and acetylene.  He would take a disk-horn assembly from a common metal food serving tray, place it in the proper location on the back of the statue, heats the statue and disk assembly at the connection point along with the bronze rod to complete the connection.

Brazing Disk Assembly to Statues

Grinding and Buffing Statue
The statues then go to a nearby station for grinding, buffing, and polishing.  Sitting on extremely low stools, workers used electric grinders with various wheels to eliminate all surface defects.  Cast statues had been inspected and marked up with a blue magic marker to identify areas that require remedial work as well as the obvious disk to statue brazed connections.

After the surfaces of the statues are made acceptable they are carried up the steps of the sala and set on wood tables to be painted.

Statues Getting A First of Four Coats of Paint

The statues receive four coats of paint to transform the dull bronze surface into a shiny brilliant "gold" surface.  On our visit I was only able to witness the application of the first coat.

I rejoined the family inside the sala where they were visiting their friend the Monk.  As they continued their visit, Peelawat and I went around taking photographs.  Since it was around 4:00 PM, the light inside the sala needed some supplementation.  I decided to use an off camera flash attached to my camera with a coiled cord.  Peelawat is five years old now and for a long time has been interested in my photography efforts.  I decided to give him some responsibility and gave him the flash to hold.  I was able to position him and orientate the flash with very little effort.  It was quite a thrill for me to see his face when I showed him the photos that he had assisted to make.  Soon he was pointing at things for me to photograph with his assistance.  Peelawat did a very good job and I will have him assist again. He would be even more help if he were taller, but I doubt he will get to be anywhere close to 9 or 10 feet tall like stationary light stands.  No matter the case he is much more entertaining.

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