We recently did some aluminum casting at the Inventables Beer and Making night. The primary mission was to do some lost foam casting, but I wanted to try lost PLA.
Beer and Making is typically a gonzo/hackathon type event, so we deliberately try to use materials on hand and try to learn for ourselves. We used pink insulation foam because it could be easily hand carved during the event. This was the first time for everyone, so I was quite happy with our success. I’ll point out some areas where we probably could have done better.
One of the perks of working at Inventables is our personal Exploration and Project budgets. We all get a budget for personal exploration and making things. The furnace was recently purchased by Jon, one of the fulfillment team members, with some of his budget. This furnace runs off standard 110V and can heat the material up to 1150°C. We set it for about 1000°C for the aluminum.
The model I used is the unofficial mascot for the CNC build Club, the CNC Ninja Squirrel. I tried to use as little PLA as possible. I used 2 perimeters and 5% infill. There are a few steep overhangs, so I typically need at least 2 perimeters for success with this model. I didn’t use any special filament, just the PLA was in the printer at the time.
The model will be buried in the sand. You need to create a couple of channels (sprues) to reach the surface for the casting process. The channels have several functions.
- Provide a place to pour the aluminum.
- Provided an escape path for the air and other gasses created when the material is burned out.
- Provide a a source of aluminum for the part to draw from when it shrinks.
I created the channels from pink foam and hot glued them onto the PLA model.
We used what we could find quickly. We used about 9 parts of a play sand and pool sand mixture and 1 part of bentonite power (the Tait mix). We added just enough water to make it clump a little.
We got a large metal metal tray and put some dry sand on top. This was a bit of a fire pit in case of any spills or fires. You can see the size of the crucible in the foreground and the tongs that came with it.
We made a small enclosure out of MDF. We filled it half way with the sand mix. We placed 3 items to cast in it. We then covered the items in sand. We added the sand slowly and packed it down with a rod at several levels. We poured each of the 3 items with separate pours. We wanted to make sure each item got a lot of aluminum.
We used scraps of MakerSlide as the aluminum to melt. We cut the pieces to the length of the crucible. We would add a piece at a time as they melted. It took about 30 minutes for the first batch and about 10 minutes for the other batches.
The pouring was pretty exciting. Some of the aluminum ran to the MDF sides and started a little fire. We had a fire extinguisher ready, but simply put a cover over the box to kill the flames. Most of the flames you see in the image are the foam being burned away.
We did three separate parts. 2 were foam and 1 was PLA. The PLA probably had the best quality finish, but the part came out noticeably darker. It was easy to clean up with a stiff wire brush.
- The first change I would make is to use something non flammable for to hold the sand. I think a ceramic flower pot might be good.
- Build up the sand around the sprues to keep the aluminum from spreading.
- Cover the part in dry wall paste. This creates a thin shell between the part and sand to get a better finish.
- Get some better sand and a little fire clay to make a better sand mix.
- I might try to model the sprues onto the part in PLA
- Mark the in and out sprues, so you know what side to pour into.
- The smoke and fumes were pretty nasty, especially the MDF. Do this outside!