The Lost-Wax Casting Technique in Antiquity

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will discover the secrets behind the lost-wax casting technique used to create ancient sculpture. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Bronze Sculpture

Compare a paper airplane to one of those remote-controlled helicopters. Which one is more prestigious? The helicopter! But why? They both fly, don't they? The helicopter is made of more expensive parts, it takes much more skill to create, and costs more to buy. So, it's more prestigious.

This basic concept is true of art as well. A wooden statue is neat. A marble statue is much more prestigious. But a bronze statue takes the cake. The ancient Greeks were prolific sculptors, carving masterpieces out of many materials, and bronze was by far the most prestigious. Metal is expensive, takes great skill to work with, and creates a strong, durable work of art.

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  • 0:02 Bronze Sculpture
  • 0:48 Lost Wax
  • 3:27 Examples of Greek…
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lost Wax

For most of the ancient world, bronze statues were small, often less than a foot tall. Not only was the material expensive, but bronze in large amounts tends to warp as it cools so large statues were just not possible.

Sculptors would create a mold of their image and pour molten bronze into it. When it cooled, the mold was removed and a solid bronze statue was inside. The Greeks used this technique as well, but they wanted to make life-size bronze statues, just like they made life-size marble statues. This meant developing a new style of casting bronze.

This led to the development of the lost wax casting method, also called 'hollow casting'. In this method, the statue is cast in individual pieces then reassembled, and the casting is done by creating a hollow wax mold that is replaced by bronze. The Greeks were not the first to ever use this technique, but they were the first to really embrace it on a major size and scale. The lost wax method was time consuming, but allowed sculptors to create large bronze statues.

So, here's how it works. First, the sculptor creates a full-scale model of the figure in clay. Next, the model is covered in a large clay or plaster mold. After the mold sets, it is removed in pieces. Remember that in the lost wax method, the statue is cast as smaller pieces that are later reassembled. In each mold, melted beeswax is applied to the inside surface, left to dry, and then removed. At this point, you have a hollow wax figure that looks exactly like the original clay model. The sculptor has one last chance to look over the wax model and make any corrections, smoothing out air bubbles or wrinkles and adding details.

In a last phase, liquid clay is poured inside the wax model to form a clay core and the outside is covered in a clay mold. Both are left to dry, and metal pins are driven through the mold into the clay core. Finally, the entire mold is heated and the wax melts, pouring out of the mold. This is where the 'lost wax' name comes from. Molten bronze is then poured into the hollow cast where the wax used to be.

After the bronze dries, the clay mold and core are removed and the metal pins soldered off. Now, you have a hollow piece of bronze. The sculptor solders all of the pieces back together and voilà, you have a life-size bronze statue. Whew! What a process! I'm exhausted just talking about it! No wonder these things are so prestigious!

Examples of Greek Bronze Statues

With the lost wax technique, the ancient Greeks developed some of the first examples of large bronze sculpture. One notable example is the Charioteer, made around 475 BC. Originally, this figure was part of a group of bronze statues including a team of life-size horses and a chariot. The entire composition was made of hundreds of individual bronze sections that were soldered together.

charioteer statue

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