The art of casting is also the art of spending money.

I publish a little resource list (I think it’s now six pages long) of where to buy all the stuff you need for casting. Silicone RTV, fiberglass, modeling tools, waxes, casting billets: None of that stuff is cheap and most of it’s indispensable.

Interestingly, though, there’s also a bunch of utilitarian casting stuff that’s equally indispensable but can be had on the cheap. Here’s my list of 18 (oops, 19) cheap things, in no particular order, you should keep around a casting studio to make your life (and bank account) easier. At some point I’ll also put together a list of top cheap PLACES that every caster should know about.

And here’s YOUR assignment: What can you add to this list? I’m always on the lookout for cheaper, faster, better ways to cast, so please reply to this post with the stuff YOU use.

1) Roofing felt
Impromptu mold boxes
Cost: $20 for 14 feet at any good hardware store
Conventional mold frames of wood, acrylic or metal have one flaw: They need to be dammed up with clay to prevent the investment from leaking out and making a REAL mess. I spend an extra 10 minutes making a fitted tray for my model out of roofing felt, and I can avoid the whole clay dam mess. (see the photo on #12 for an example) The felt cuts easily, you shape it around your model and cut out the excess, then staple it together. For leak extra protection you can stick a piece of packing tape in each corner of your box. You can also use it to cut sturdy templates, provide internal support or external support on a model and to provide a little extra cushion between clay and a styrofoam core (the felt makes it easier to remove and save the styrofoam). The felt is normally 36 inches wide and unless you make HUGE molds, a 14-foot roll will last forever.

2) Empty household containers/dispensers
With lids, they hold (and shake) frit mixes. Without, they hold just about everything else
Cost: Free
I don’t think you can go for five minutes in a casting process without needing a container: clay slip and water, investment mixers, frit shaking for pate de verre, etc., etc.: The list is endless, and you can drive yourself nuts trying to find clean, empty containers. That’s why my recycling bin is usually empty these days–my recyclables rarely make it out of the studio.

My favorites are Chinese takeout containers (fabulous for shaking frit), babyfood jars (great places to store leftover frit mix for corrective pate de verre firing–I have a library of them for every sculpture still in my possession), empty frit jars and–if you can find them–movie popcorn/fried chicken tubs. The last are fabulous as one-time investment mixing tubs. I recycle spray bottles with a vengeance (Febreeze makes an incredibly good one), for water, CMC and just about anything else that can actually emerge from the nozzle, and old ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles are great for applying goos.

3) Wax “bondo” (pictured above)
Purpose: Substitute for correcting/filler wax, lets you fire a cast piece twice
Cost: Free or a couple of bucks
Hugh McKay of Cast Glass Forms taught me this one. When you’ve got a piece that didn’t quite come out the way you’d hoped–glass didn’t fill all the cracks or a bubble messed up a spot–you can fill it in with wax bondo, reinvest and refire. The bondo, a 50-50 mixture of lard and beeswax melted together and cooled, will completely burn out, leaving the mold intact and letting the glass flow into the space without a mark. It’s soft in your hand, but can be chilled to respectable hardness and polished if you’re looking for gloss. It also works as a classic correcting wax for wax modeling and it’s an amazing substitute for $200 hand cream.

I use it to create a moldable frit “clay” which lets me apply color corrections in a pate de verre refiring without disturbing detail, although that’s a tricky process. If you scavenge old beeswax candles (make sure there’s no paraffin in them), wax bondo is virtually free. And your studio will smell like the witch’s gingerbread house burned down, which might be handy at Halloween.

4) Nitrile gloves
Purpose: Avoid spending $40 on another manicure
Cost: $12 for a case (two packs of 150 pairs, or about 4 cents/pair)
Virtually all casting processes are hard on the hands (except for #3, which is GREAT for soft skin) and also turns your hands into potential sources of project contamination. Sheathing your busy fingers in close-fitting gloves protects your hands and allows you to literally present a new “skin” to the next step in a casting project instead of dragging the prior step’s clay/wax/silicone/fiberglass/investment into things. I pull the gloves off and turn them inside out at the same time, neatly encapsulating the crud, then toss everything. Saves immensely on cleanup.

5) Plastic cutlery
Purpose: About a gazillion, from mixing stuff to marking models to spreading goo
Cost: Costco, about $11 for 2,000 knives, forks and spoons
Yeah, yeah, I know it’s better to NOT buy disposable petroleum product stuff but instead to stick with a couple of permanent, i.e., metal, tools (and I have those too), but there are several processes that destroy both container and implements. That’s where plastic cutlery comes in handy. I buy the cheapest I can find–got a great deal at Costco on my current batch. Besides, if I ever go on a picnic, I’m covered.

6) Soldering station
Wax manipulation
Cost: $12 at Goodwill, $40 new
Unlike a soldering iron (which would be cheaper), a soldering station gives you accurate control of the heat you’re applying, so you can sculpt wax without vaporizing it (which is obnoxious to your lungs anyway). If you buy a common brand, like Weller, you can usually find all kinds of soldering tip shapes, too, which gives you the ability to use different shapes. (You can also cut down old screwdrivers or drill bits for tips–I have an old half-inch spade bit that I’ve bent into a paddle, which I love)  Be careful to make sure your tip matches your soldering iron, though, since tips come in all different sizes.

7) Heat gun
Smoothing over wax, hurrying up small silicone molds, drying out clay
Cost: $5 at Goodwill, $30 new on ebay (or less)
A heat gun, used sparingly, will gloss up large expanses of wax when you’re refining a model. It’ll also dry out a soppy chunk of overwatered clay, and can be used to touch up old RTV that isn’t curing fast enough.

8) Cheap, CHEAP paintbrushes
Purpose: Spreading, coating, smoothing stuff
Cost: My last deal was 50 assorted brushes for $5.95
Latex, silicone and urethane are pretty much death on paintbrushes, and frit doesn’t really do them much good, either. I ruin brushes by the gross every quarter, so I tend to find the cheapest deal possible for brushes in bulk. Once or twice I’ve found a HUGE assortment of painter supplies at Goodwill–I give the nicer brushes to artist friends and keep the dreck for the glass studio.

The brushes I buy range in size from mini detail brushes to big honkin’ paintbrushes, but the most useful seem to be the squared off, softer synthetic fiber brushes about an inch long and maybe 3/4 inch wide, which are exceptionally good for fritwork. For clay, I use a stiff fan brush and a stencil brush for texturing hair and “sanding” to smooth a portrait surface. About the only really nice brush I allow in the glass studio is a Winsor-Newton flat round brush, very, very soft and originally for watercolor. It’s just about perfect for smoothing and detailing tiny areas around the eyes and lips of a clay portrait.

9) Waterpik
Removing bits of clay and investment from stuff
Cost: $5 at Goodwill, $35 new
You can spend half your life delicately scrubbing out bits of clay or wax from a mold with a Q-tip, or getting investment out of glass detail with a wirebrush…or you can fill up the ol’ waterpik and pressurewash it out. Doesn’t hurt the material (unless you really go at it), and it works like a charm. (Thanks to Linda Ethier for showing me this trick) Only caution: Wear a raincoat when using it because you WILL be soaked.

10) Wallpaper steamer
Getting the wax out of molds
Cost: $12 at Goodwill, $55 new
Remove the big tray-like applicator from the end of a wallpaper steamer hose, and you have an almost perfect wax steamer. (Thanks to Linda Ethier for this one, too.) For my smaller molds, I bought two galvanized steel tubs and a replacement round BBQ grill. I put the grill on one tub, set the mold upside down (wax side down) on the grill and insert the steamer hose into the mold (the bars of the grill help hold it in place). Then I cover with the other tub, turn on the steamer and go do something else. The steamer melts the wax, which drips into the bottom of the tub for later recycling, and the upper tub holds in the steam and heat. You check the mold every so often to move the hose to a new spot, but that’s about it. It’s not quite as efficient as the system I used in France, i.e., a copper tub on an old stove, filled with water, with a kerosene drum over top, but it works quite well.

12) Clamps and clothespins
Holding mold frames and other things together
Cost: 10 cents and up
I always keep a dozen or so old-fashioned clothespins around for impromptu clamps and such. I’ve also purchased springloaded woodclamps for making moldboxes, which works like a charm (right)

13) Kitchen scraps
Make your own “breathable” or “soft” investment additives
Cost: Free
If cast glass shrinks in the mold and the mold doesn’t shrink with it…crrrraaaaack! Casting supply houses sell investment mixes that are formulated to shrink with glass, or at least become soft and aerated so they collapse slightly and let the glass shrink without cracking. They’re expensive. You can do the same thing by mixing organic material into standard investment and putting it into difficult spaces; the organics burn out early in the kiln, leaving you with a spongy, air-filled mold that can collapse when needed. Organic material can mean anything that could go on a compost pile.

In France I used chopped straw; here I’ve used grass clippings, oatmeal, chopped carrot peelings, lentils and right now a container of rancid basmati rice. Just mix handsfull into the wet investment, stir well and apply. (One additional advantage: Between the burning-out smells of this stuff and the wax bondo, your neighbors will think you’re a terrible cook. Gets you out of contributing at potlucks.)

CAUTION: If you plan to steam out your mold don’t use rice, lentils, beans or anything that expands when it cooks. Unless you’re very, very careful, a little oversteaming will cause the organics to swell and crumble prematurely. Instead opt for chopped straw, leaves, vegetable trimmings, etc. Rice is still my favorite if I’m not steaming, i.e., I’m making a mold on a clay model, or if I’m doing a corrective firing that has a delicate section. I only used rice once on a wax model investment–split it right in two. Never again.

14) Ice cube trays
Making color samples
Cost: $1 at Goodwill, $3-12 new
Ice cube trays are one of the best ways I know to make color samples for casting (I learned this from the Higuchis). I fill the trays with silicone RTV, pull away the resulting negative mold, and have a perfect, repeatable form for investing sample molds. The trays themselves become the storage container for the silicone form, and they can also carry a pack of finished samples if you need to be mobile.

15) Acrylic sheets
Mold bats
Cost: $1 each if you’re lucky, $11 to $40 each if you’re not
Glass casting processes come in discrete steps (sculpting the model, making a flexible wax mold, managing the wax, investing the mold, filling it with glass, etc.), and each step usually has a waiting period. Do those things on a worktable, and you’re stuck. Do them on a movable work surface, such as a sheet of 1/8- or 1/4-inch acrylic, and you can pick the whole thing up and put it on a shelf while you work on something else. The acrylic is also flexible, which is nice when you have to remove a plaster mold from its surface. I have a variety of bats (it’s a ceramic term–they do the same thing with clay) ranging from about 1×2 to 3×3 feet, depending on what I’m working on. If I’m sculpting clay, I just cover the bat with a piece of old bedsheet to prevent sticking.

16) Wet-dry sandpaper
Smoothing out castings
Cost: About $3/pack
We forget, sometimes, that powered glass grinders are relatively recent innovations compared to glass, or that glass is made and smoothed in many parts of the world that don’t have electricity. Wet-dry sandpaper, used wet, gives one of the nicest satin finishes I’ve seen on cast glass, much softer and sweeter than sandblasting or a diamond wheel. I just plop down on the sofa with the piece, an old cookie sheet, wet sponge and a pack of 200-400-600 sandpaper, spend the evening watching glass videos and sanding away. It cuts remarkably fast and there’s virtually no danger of overgrinding (unless you get to a really exciting part of the video). Best way I know to make a small correction to a piece.

17) Styrofoam
Inner support for models, braces for moldboxes
Cost: If you actually pay money for styrofoam you have my sympathy (not)
You know all those daggone hunks of styrofoam that come with electronics, furniture and other stuff come in, the sheets, chunks and corners? DO NOT THROW THEM OUT! Styrofoam is one of the most useful things to have around in a casting studio. I use it as the core of clay models (cuts down both on weight and wasted clay), to wedge something up against something else and as a quick-and-dirty stand-in for glass, clay and wax to calculate volumes and design a structure. I haunt the local electronics stores and get lovely fat sheets that set my heart aflame. When you’ve pretty much ruined a piece, chop it up and use it to pad all those glass sculptures you’re selling to folks in Madagascar or someplace.

18) Razor blades
Cutting, skimming, slicing, shaping
Cost: $4 for a pack of 100
A pack of 100 razor blades lasts me for about three years, so this may be one of the most economical purchases on this list. Even though I use (and wear out) a lot of Xacto blades, I actually find single-edge razor blades sharper, thinner and a little more convenient. They’re also great for trimming up the edges of a mold to keep crud from falling in with the glass, scoring roofing felt for moldboxes and just in general opening stuff. I only work on glass surfaces–MUCH easier cleanup–so all I have to do to clean up a wax, investment or silicon session is skim the razor blade over the surface–instantly gone.

19) Air blast cans
Purpose: Blowing crud out of molds and castings
Cost: About $2.50 each if you buy in bulk
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I can’t count, but I remember well, and I remember that I forgot to mention the airblast cans used to clean electronics components. If you don’t have a sandblaster with a good air compressor unit, this is the next best thing.

It shoots a very directed jet of air into, say, a just-divested casting, and blows out the dust and any loosened plaster. It’s incredibly useful for seeing where’ you’ve gotten with cleaning. It also doesn’t give you that “morning after” effect when youve cleaning the piece with water  and all sorts of crud pops back up as it dries.