Alabama's Sloss Furnace; Metal Arts and Blacksmith Training in Birmingham's Deep South
The Southern Mecca of Metal Arts
If you live in the Southeast United States and you are interested in Metal Arts, the training facilities available to you in this region are second to none. I recently had the opportunity to attend a three-day training course at the historic Sloss Furnace Iron Works in Birmingham, Alabama. My choice of instruction was the Beginner's Metal Casting Workshop in which one learns how to create, mold, and then pour his own iron castings. This class is considered a prerequisite for artists that wish to attend and take part in the regularly scheduled iron pourings that the staff conducts each month.
Sloss holds several classes a year in Basic Welding, Jewelry Making, Blacksmithing, and even Cuttlebone Casting. The Staff maintains an active schedule of instruction and keeps an up-to-date schedule of the available classes posted on their website.
Registration is as easy as going by the gift shop and paying or simply making a phone call to provide your credit card number. The cost is very reasonable and compares favorably with other premier training venues in the South such as the John C. Campbell School of Folk Art or the Metal Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.
Where the Magic Happens:
On day one, I met my instructor, the lead artist and Furnace Master, Remy Hanemann. Remy is a rugged man with abrasive hands, a bearded face, and scarred leather boots that attest to his strong work ethic. Despite his advanced knowledge of the arts and an extensive college pedigree, Remy carries himself with a humble demeanor and a quiet confidence that is reassuring as an instructor. His assistant, a sturdy young man from the Midwest, had just completed his master's degree program and was working at Sloss as a visiting artist. He was also very knowledgeable in the Arts and proved very helpful throughout the class with his insights and suggestions on concepts I had only begun to understand.
Remy started the class by introducing his students to the facilities and directing them to begin the construction of their sculpture utilizing melted wax and various shape and texture molds that were available in the shop. I teamed up with a Mississippi anesthesiologist who was bitten by the creative bug after attending a recent Kentuck Arts Festival in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He proved to be very skillful with his hands and made two pretty flower designs with the wax which he attached to sculpted plaques with his daughter's names. I had already created a small wax sculpture at my home studio the day before, but decided to use my time wisely and work on two bookends and a small plaque for my shop.
Day two was devoted to preparing the sand molds for our wax sculptures. This was the most interesting part of the class for me, as I was curious about the chemicals and processes used in this stage. Remy was very thorough and explained everything involved as we worked through the process together. I learned that preparing a sand casting for a metal pour is much more of a process than I had imagined. Special chemicals are required, and they must be mixed precisely in order for the sand to harden at the right speed. Packing the sand takes experience and sound technique, or there will be unwanted voids in the cast. I was surprised to find that working with this casting sand requires a good amount of speed. There is a race, if you will, for the artist to complete his work before the sand begins to harden. Remy had a good sense for this time restriction, and by the time I finished, so did I.
After my anesthesiologist friend and I completed the molds for our sculptures, we went home while Remy and his assistant loaded a shop full of work into the kiln to melt the wax from the prepared molds. They were there until late that night preparing the next day's castings for the pour.
Pour Day Arrives:
On the final morning of our class, there was an excitement in the air, a faster pace to everyone's step. It was pour day, the day that molten steel would flow into our molds and fill the voids to create our first castings. We learned to lay out the molds in a precise order so that the pours would proceed with maximum efficiency. And then, Remy fired up the big furnace that would melt the raw ingots. If you think seeing this big furnace fire up is a thrill, you are spot on.
My excitement only grew, when I learned that Remy was going to allow me to work with the crew in pouring my own casting. I had hoped for this, but I knew that Remy didn't have to allow it. Pouring molten metal is dangerous work, and as I learned, it requires skill, coordination, and teamwork to accomplish.
There were five men on our pour team. After suiting up with safety equipment, Remy and his assistant ran the furnace and controlled the flow of molten steel. This was a big job, and they worked hard to get the furnace to the proper temperature. Two members of the team held the crucible as the steel flowed from the spout and filled the small refractory bucket. As the two moved with the crucible from mold to mold, a third team member would follow with a shovel as a safety man. Each pour had to be complete, as any pause or break in the flow could ruin the artist's work.
I enjoyed my class at Sloss Furnace, and I know that I received an excellent value for the training. I highly recommend their Metal Arts program for metal artists at all stages in the learning curve. There is also a yearly summer camp for students that is a fantastic opportunity for young artists to learn from the best.
As Remy put it, he and Sloss are there to support the artists. His passion and Sloss's devotion to the program have made Birmingham a go-to facility for metals artists throughout the South. And speaking as a native of the Magic City, we couldn't be prouder of what they have accomplished.
Where to Stay:
If you decide that a class at Sloss is right for you, I recommend reserving your hotel in the area of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The downtown area has experienced a revitalization in recent years, and there are several good hotels in the area that will not break your checking account. Restaurants can be found all along University Boulevard and Fitth Avenue South in the UAB Complex. A vibrant night life is nearby on the weekends at Five Points South (blocks from UAB). Others may suggest that you stay at hotels in the outlying suburbs of Hoover, Vestavia, or Homewood. Those are also good choices, but there is a severe traffic problem going and returning to these locations during the rush hours. I would rather be eating dinner than stuck in traffic, and I bet you would too.
Please use the comment section if you have any questions about Sloss Furnace or the training available there. I will do what I can to answer your questions.