A collector asks me how his 1935 medal was made at Medallic Art Company that year. The answer rests in the technology of the time, which was similar for the period post World War I until post World War II, from about 1920 to 1946.
How a medal starts and lead times needed.
Anyone can have the idea for a new medal. If it is an anniversary medal, the design depends upon the type of organization and who is in charge. If the new medal is a municipality, educational institution, or an organization with a lot of committees, ideally the medal idea is known at least two years in advance of the anniversary year. For a private organization run by management who can make decisions quickly, a year in advance is adequate lead time.
For an award medal, lead time can be somewhat less, in the range of six months. For all others it is about four months to obtain a fine art medal. This allows for time to select an artist whose style is acceptable to the client and for the artist to have sufficient time to create an acceptable design.
For all other medals – or for medals to be designed by an artist the medal firm selects – this advance time can be as short as six to eight weeks. I know some competitors can create a medal in less time, where they use their own factory artists but the resulting product shows it, a quickly-made mediocre design.
(I know of one instance where Medallic Art Company produced a medal in less than a week’s time, an extreme case, certainly not the rule. It was the week of the Moon Landing. An entrepreneur in Cleveland sold K-Mart on marketing a medal in all their stores. He contacted us on a Friday. Could we ship medals in less than a week?
We had open time on two die cutting machines. Press time was not a problem. If we could find a sculptor who could do a pair of models over the weekend, it could happen. We commissioned Joseph DiLorenzo, who stopped all other modeling; he worked around the clock and brought two models in Monday morning. The plasters were still wet and had to be baked in an oven to dry. But we cut dies Monday and Tuesday and had it on the press by Wednesday. We started shipping medals on Friday!)
No stock dies.
Medallic Art Company stated in all its advertising that they had no stock dies, all medals were made from custom models. An artist had to create the models from which to strike all medals. Any medal working firm could bang out stock medals. Medallic Art’s niche was the rule that all medals were created by artists. Medallic Art had a following of fine artists who could create those models. Over the years that group of medallic artists rose to over 250 at any one time.
The medal the collector is inquiring about was one that the sculptor brought to Medallic Art. This was reflective of conditions when the firm was established thirty years before. The founders, Henri and Felix Weil were sculptors’ assistants. They became a “service industry” to sculptors by providing those chores that required special equipment or special talents. The Weils had both. They could take a sculptor’s original model and make copies, enlarge or reduce, or make metal patterns for some further process, or even make molds or dies for a production of many sculptural items. Making medals was just one of those chores.
What a sculptor does.
Normally, a sculptor would be selected from his previous work. The client liked his style. A commission would be issued by Medallic Art to that sculptor for designing and modeling a pair of models. It would spell out the size model required and any special instructions. Frequently it would mention the final product, as “for a struck medal,” and the fee for the work. Design suggestions could be made to the sculptor, what the client wanted in his medal. The sculptor would sign and return a copy of the commission indicating his acceptance of the work and terms.
It was the sculptors responsibility to prepare a design in the form of sketches. He could make several sets of sketches to show the client. Once one set is approved he would proceed with the modeling.
Here is where the medal comes to life. The sketch is only the “blueprint.” The sculptor works in wax or clay. The form of modeling clay usually favored by most medallic sculptors is plastecine. It comes in several grades, for medallic models, the firmest or hardest clay is desired. Finer detail can be modeled in such a clay. (Softer clay is used for larger sculpture work.)
The artist prepares a background plate. This could be wood, plastic or plaster. It should be four or five inches larger than the size of the intended model. It has to be firm not to distort during casting. If his design has a border he creates the border first by the use of a template or a device for modeling multiple images of a repeated element. Often this is done on both obverse and reverse background plates.
The modeler shapes the form of device and symbols by placing pellets of clay on the background plate, building up the design a little at a time, then with sculptors tools shaping the clay to the form he wants.
He adds the lettering by molding each letter. Some artists carve the letters reverse in plaster and press clay into these letter cavities. Then place the formed letter into position on the background plate. Or the artist makes tiny “ropes” of clay to place in position, then shaping these into the letter forms.
The modeler continues by adding detail to his base forms. Detail adds charm and realism to the design. He shapes these with wire tools and boasters, modeling tools. He sharpens up the clay to make crisp, sharp edges, and deepens relief where necessary (as to make finer strands of hair in a portrait).
In modeling it is important to recognize no undercuts are allowed in the model (these cannot be reproduced). Interspatial relationship of all elements is important as well a height of relief (coin models cannot have a relief higher than the border).
The modeler will then make a plaster cast of his clay or wax model. He prepares the model by coating it with a release agent, building a fence around the model (with thin medal strips higher than the model). He mixes his plaster with water until it has a soupy consistency. He places a little of this on the prepared clay surface and spreads it around, making certain it gets in every nook and cranny.
He tips the background plate and taps it to work out any air bubbles captured in the plaster. Once he is certain no bubbles exist he continues pouring in plaster to a height of about one inch above the highest relief. He has to work quickly as the plaster of Paris begins hardening immediately. It gives off heat as it hardens. Once it is cool to the touch the fence is removed, and it can be separated from the clay mold.
Working in clay and plaster gives the modeler great flexibility. It changes polarity with each casting. But the artist can carve in each or add clay relief to each.
The plaster is always subject to additional touchup. Again sharpening detail and deepening relief. Polish design and detail. And polish some more.
A positive clay model will make a negative plaster cast. Once this is touched up a positive plaster cast can be made from this negative. Same method. Coat with release agent, build a fence, pour in a little freshly mixed plaster, tip and tap to remove bubbles, pour in rest of the plaster.
How medallic patterns are made.
A positive plaster cast is usually what is brought to Medallic Art. If approved it can be made into a hub if that is required, or a negative plaster is made (to be made into a die).
The negative plaster cast is coated with bronze powder. Two wires are attached to the cast making sure they come in contact with the surface with the bronze powder. A stop off is coated on the back and edges of the plaster – all areas where no plating must take place.
The prepared ensemble of coated plaster model is immersed tank containing a prepared electrolyte solution containing ions of copper. In the tank are copper anodes which supplies the copper to be deposited on the surface of the pattern. The anodes are sacrificial, they wear away like a bar of soap, as the ions of copper leach off the anode, enter the solution, and when the current is tuned on deposit on the pattern, the cathode.
The wires hang on a bus bar above the tank. The bus bar is connected to a rectifier. When the current is turned on, alternating current is converted to direct current at the rectifier, directed to the bars on which the anodes are hung. Thus the current enters the electrolyte solution, deposits on the cathode, up the wires to the bus bar and back to the rectifier. Circuit completed.
The process is allowed to continue for hours until a sufficient amount of metal is deposited. A 1/16-inch thickness occurs in two to three day’s time, around the clock.
The ensemble is removed. The electrolytic cast – now called a galvano is separated from the pattern, by a screwdriver inserted between the two or compressed air blow in at some point of separation.
The galvano has reproduced the plaster model down to the width of a micron. Medal makers say, “if it is in the model, it is in the medal.” The fidelity of this electrogalvanic process is one reason for that statement.
[This is the technique that was in use in 1935. It was not replaced until the 1960s when an epoxy – developed during World War II – became widely available and was used to replace the galvano. An epoxy cast was made from the sculptor’s model in hours instead of days.]
How dies are made.
From that galvano a die can be made. The galvano is mounted in a die-cutting pantograph. A stylus is placed to trace over its surface as the galvano is rotated. That movement is carried by a bar to a second axis where a blank steel die is housed. A cutting point, guided by the movement of the bar mills out tiny bits of surface metal.
The die rotates at the same speed as the galvano pattern in synchronous motion. The distance between the two chariots determines the ratio of reduction. As the stylus travels inward at the pattern, the cutting point travels inward cutting into the die a proportional depth.
Ideally two or three passes are require to capture all the detail from the galvano into the die. A finer tracing point and a finer cutting point is used for successive passes.
Separate dies are made from separate galvanos. At this stage the dies are proved. The die is pressed into soft metal, lead or tin. Or the dies can be mounted in a press and a two-sided medal can be struck in lead.
How medals are struck.
Two dies are setup in a press. The diameter and thickness determine the type of press. Medals of say 3½-inch or more require 1,000-ton press capacity or more (measured in tons per square inch).
Blanks are cut out separately on separate presses much like a cookie cutter. The blanks are fed by hand in the setup press one at a time. The press is actuated and delivers its blow. Only a portion of the design emerges in that first blow.
The metal has become work hardened. It must be relieved by heat treating. Then the partially struck metal goes back on the press for another blow. This continues, alternating between striking and heat treating, until the full relief is fully struck up.
The pressman looks at the high points of the design and the design near the edges. Infrequently the metal flows into a die cavity, then back out again. The pressman must know the remedy to alleviate this condition.
Most art medals are struck in open face dies – without collars. This causes flash, an excess amount of metal to flow out between the dies from the edge. It’s the only place for it to go. The flash is removed by turning the medals on lathes. This leaves the minute parallel ridges on the edge.
How a medal is finished.
The raw medal as it comes from the pressroom is a bright hue. A first step in the finishing department is a sandblasting to break up that smooth surface. Originally fine grains of sand were use, replaced ultimately by even finer grains of glass beads.
The medal is doused for seconds in a chemical to darken its entire surface. Then it is relieved with a slury mixture of pumice and water and buffed under a wet wheel. This gives it a two-toned, highlighted, oxidized and relieved finish, also called French finish since the French invented it.
After drying the medal is coated with a light clear lacquer on both sides for protection.
What starts with an artists’ model ends up with a metal work of art. What’s in the model is in the medal. It will last forever!