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 Guest Column  

By Paul Richmond - Port Orchard, Washington - USA

On Pouring Lead
(Or How NOT to Melt Lead)
(Or how to destroy your mothers vacuum cleaner.)

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My mother, God rest her soul, was one of the most patient women God ever put on the face of this earth. Her standard questions whenever she heard a serious commotion was, “Is anybody hurt?”, and if the answer was “Yes”, it was followed up with “Are there broken bones or blood?” I believe she had resigned herself to the fact that her five children were going to creatively get into trouble and was just plain thankful whenever it did NOT result in a trip to the doctors office or hospital, (which it did on several occasions.).

This story starts with my younger brother Dan and I deciding that it was time to pour a couple more lead ‘cannon balls’ that were used as weights by my dad who was a commercial fisherman. These ‘cannon balls’ were different sizes weighing anywhere between 30 and 60 lbs depending upon the mould we used to cast them. Pouring them was kind of recurring hobby of ours as we acquired scrap lead from time to time.

The actual production process, as most processes do as they are repeated, became more refined as we ‘improved’ upon it each and every time we made a ‘pour’. We found that a wood fire under the influence of a forced draft from the back end of my mother’s ancient, rocket shaped, Electrolux vacuum cleaner, went a long way in speeding up the process of melting the lead. We had used it on several pours over a year or two with great success.

Then came a fateful, drizzling afternoon when Dan and I decided, mostly out of boredom, that it was time to pour some more cannon balls. Because of the rain, we decided to move the operation into the dirt floored woodshed that was attached to the end of our woodshop and garage. We dug a hole into the floor, placed a 1½” steel pipe down to the bottom of the hole and placed a section of 10-12” diameter pipe over the hole in the floor to hold the melting pot. Our ‘improvement’ to the process this time around was to use coal we had picked up along the railroad tracks to fire the melt.

We carefully got the fire started, placed the cast iron pot with 60-70lbs of lead on the large pipe with the fire at the bottom and then, placing the output hose to Mom’s Electrolux into the exposed end of the 1½” pipe to the bottom of the hole, we fired that sucker off and were amazed at what an improvement burning coal made to the process. We had that pot filled with lead actually floating on the flames roaring out around the large pipe stand.

The exuberant feeling of outstanding success was soon replaced with serious apprehension as we noticed sparks flying out of our makeshift blast furnace and bouncing around the woodshed. In a ‘calm’ voice I screamed at my brother, “I think you better turn that thing off.” referring to the vacuum. He quickly hit the switch and we watched in growing alarm as the woodshed rapidly began to fill with dark green/gray smoke. Not one to be ‘locked in’ to what appeared to be a bad decision, I quickly yelled, “No, I think you better turn it back on.” whereupon my brother hit the switch one more time causing the fateful explosion that resulted in the end of my mother’s vacuum. A spark from the motor caused the coal gas that had backed up inside the vacuum cleaner to explode. Both ends blew off of that thing. The ‘nose cone’ flew across the yard one way and the ‘back end’ where the motor and fans lived tore loose from the screws holding it and blew out the other. The armature even tore itself loose and flew out of the motor pretty much consigning Mom’s ‘good vacuum’ to the junk heap. We did manage to avoid burning down the woodshed but that was the end of that ‘melt’. Although, for a while, I was certain that Mom was going to melt certain parts of our anatomies but I think she was just relived that the shop building was still standing and there was no blood.

About a year ago, my brother and I had a chance to remember that story and somehow, in nearly 40 years, he remembers it being all my fault. Amazing how time can warp someone’s memory.

Paul Richmond
Port Orchard, Washington
USA