Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Aaron Spelling all have one thing in common – they own a one-of-a-kind sculpture from Brian Russell Studio in Arlington, Tennessee. Six years ago, Russell added the lost wax glass crucible casting method to his already flourishing metal sculpture business. He is now one of fewer than 20 artists worldwide using this art form in which glass is melted in crucibles and then poured into molds to create colored glass shapes. By combining the lost wax glass casting method with metal forging and fabricating, Russell is able to produce sculptures that capture light in a dynamic fashion – both reflected light from the metal and transmitted light from the angular, lead crystal glass.
Russell had been utilizing a competitive brand of MIG welding equipment when he was commissioned to create six, ten-foot aluminum sculptures called The Virtues for Church Health Center in Memphis. But welding the aluminum proved to be difficult.
“I was just fed up,” said Russell. “It took me four hours to lay down one foot of weld bead because of all the wire tangling I was experiencing with the soft aluminum wire. I had to pull out the wire to untangle it at least 18 times. I also was getting an excessive amount of weld spatter.” Seeking a better solution, Russell contacted his local Linde® distributor, who recommended the Power MIG® 300 (recently replaced with the Power MIG 350MP) from The Lincoln Electric Company for his aluminum work.
The Power MIG 300 allowed Russell to take advantage of Lincoln’s Pulse-on-Pulse™ MIG process, a Lincoln Nextweld® innovation. Pulse-on-Pulse offers lower heat input for the thin aluminum material, thus greatly reducing the chances of material burnthrough as well as spatter. By adding the complementing Python® push-pull gun, the earlier feeding problems with the aluminum virtually disappeared.
“Right away, the unit made beautiful welds,” noted Russell. “The machine provided tremendous control over the arc, which is vital especially for a more conductive material such as aluminum. The unit paid for itself in time savings on the very first job.”
The Power MIG features Lincoln’s Nextweld™ Waveform Control Technology™, which includes welding waveform programs specifically designed for carbon steel, stainless aluminum and nickel alloys. It is operated with one-knob synergic control, automatically adjusting voltage for a selected wire feed speed. It is also adaptive; meaning it constantly monitors the changing characteristics of the arc.
“The Power MIG is so easy to use, it’s like having your own welding expert with you in the shop to always set the machine accurately,” commented Russell. “You just tell the machine the material you are welding, as well as the size and type of wire, and the pre-loaded waveform programs will adjust the machine for that particular application.”
Although the unit contains a number of welding waveform programs when purchased, a new job for Russell required the use of a silicon bronze material. This prompted a call to his local Lincoln technical sales representative, Jennifer Knauf, for a specially designed waveform to weld this metal. By working with the Lincoln engineers at Lincoln’s Cleveland headquarters, Knauf obtained a waveform specifically designed for silicon bronze applications and was able to download it directly into Russell’s Power MIG via her laptop computer.
“If I had to TIG weld the silicon bronze it would have taken me three hours to do what I was able to accomplish in 20 minutes with MIG. Plus, the Power MIG created great welds on this material without spatter and burnthrough,” explained Russell. He has also used the Power MIG for aluminum bronze and copper work.
The crucible casting method that he currently uses calls for a highly technical skill and requires more equipment than some of the more widely used cast glass processes. To make a lost wax glass casting, Russell starts by carving and forming a wax blank to fit the finished specifications of the sculpture. Plaster then is used to make a mold around the blank, leaving vents for trapped air to escape and sprues for pouring in the glass. The wax is removed from the inside of the mold by melting it with steam. The mold is left to dry for several days and afterward, placed in a kiln for 24 hours.
Raw colored glass is melted in crucibles and poured into the hot mold using the sprues. During this process, different colors of glass can be used to produce a swirl effect. Depending on the size of the mold, it may take three to four hours to completely fill the mold.
The mold is then cooled and annealed in a precise fashion over the span of a week or more. Taking extreme care not to damage the glass, Russell removes the mold by scraping and brushing the plaster away. Any spurs or fins left on the glass are then removed and the sprues are cut from the mold. Hand sanding with diamond pads refines the finish of the piece.
To create the metal portions of the sculptures, Russell forms and forges hot materials such as steel, aluminum or silicon bronze. The metal is then worked with a power hammer, English wheel, hammer and anvil, and various dies and bending forks until it achieves the desired look.
According to Russell, finding the best way for the glass and metal to come together is one of the most difficult parts of the creative process. To do this, a slot, dovetail or socket is created in the metal to hold the glass.
For the metal portions of his sculptures, Russell relies on welding to either randomly connect metal components to produce unique patterns or to add thickness and interesting edges to his pieces. One of his favorite techniques is to use weld metal to build up two sides of a sculpture and then grind a sharp transition edge to give the appearance of another piece protruding from the artwork. “All of my artwork involves shapes, so we’re not talking about simple, straight edge pieces that are clamped down and welded. Most of the time, I am dealing with imperfect fit-up on one-of-a-kind compound curves,” noted Russell.
Each year, Russell creates more than 100 sculptures in his shop. “With the Power MIG, I don’t have to spend time thinking about the welding, I can concentrate on the art and be confident that I have the technology to put it together,” said Russell. “In art, the welds are purely for looks – I’m very critical and this machine lays down excellent welds.”
Lincoln Electric is the world leader in the design, development and manufacture of arc welding products, robotic arc-welding systems, plasma and oxyfuel cutting equipment.
For more information on Brian Russell and his work, visit his web site at brianrussellstudio.com