It’s common knowledge that if you want to create a mood, to slow down, or relax— you break out the candles.
Lighting is everything when it comes to ambience. We recently discovered a set of bronze candle holders while saddling up to the zinc bar at Au Cheval that cast a light so entrancing, we were instantly smitten. A series of heavy bronze candle holders, whose organic, low-lying shapes, unfold and billow out like clouds were eye-catching. The quality of candlelight that radiated out was amazing, casting a wash of rose-gold light so mesmerizing it took us a full minute to to stop talking about them and focus on our menus.
We wanted, no— make that needed— to know more about the beautiful candle holders. We didn’t have to go far. It turns out that they’re made right here in Chicago. While they might be locally made made, our visit to the metal foundry was like traveling to another world: big kilns; molten bronze boiling in one corner; blow torches flaring in another; musky wafts of a mix of wet earth and metal in the air. It was fascinating, and just a smidgen intimidating. But our hostess and the woman behind the candle holders, Leah Ball, was utterly at ease amid the buzz of machines and the heat of the flames. And she should be, Ball works at West Supply, one of Chicago’s leading metal foundries. She’s part of a team of skilled craftsmen and women who create original furniture items here. The candle holders, along with a jewelry line, are a side project and labor of love for Ball.
So how does a molten bronze pour turn into candle holders that gleam and cast some of the best light around? The process is one that requires large amounts of time and patience. After watching her cast and create candle holders at the foundry, we were in awe. This is no flash in the pan process. It’s time-consuming and detail oriented; there’s a lot of knowledge and skill that goes into the old-world craft of bronze work. We sat down with Ball over coffee to talk about the process, what inspires her, and how she got her start in a medium that’s hardly child’s play.
Tell us how you started working at the foundry.
Starting to work at the foundry was an accident; I started small with jewelry [Ball also makes jewelry using the drippings from bronze pours at the foundry]. Friends of mine had recently moved here and they were friends with the owner. We’re all Texas girls, so I was hanging out there a lot, and was intrigued. I had no idea what cast work was. I knew how to do it in jewelry, but I didn’t know much about the scale that is done at the foundry for furniture work.
Bronze work is intense, how did you learn?
It’s been one of the more humbling experiences that I’ve had. I so wanted to go in there and kick ass, but I felt really slow. I had a slow learning curve. But, I think if you approach a situation knowing that you have a lot to learn and knowing what you really want, then you’re not afraid, there’s no reason to be scared. It’s a genuine place to come from. I arm myself with that. All the people I work with have foundry degrees or sculpt. She [owner, Angie West] took a leap of faith with me.
Why do you like to work with bronze?
I’ve always been drawn to metal because of the exercise in tedium idea. It’s a tough medium.
I do a lot of research on a project before I start. That takes a lot of time. I’m drawn to types of work that are very tedious because it’s such a serious commitment. One of my old professors used to say that jewelry is an exercise in tedium. You have to throw yourself so seriously into the process. And if I’m going to do it, I want to be all in.
What inspires you?
Some of the artwork I make is very conceptual, but often times when I make something it’s because I’m excited about the process. I find inspiration in the process; that’s what got me through college. I didn’t like school. I had a serious illness in my family and this forced me to be very focused, because if I couldn’t throw myself totally into a project, I was easily distracted. I had to be picky about how to use my energy, I was saving a lot of it for family.
Ultimately, being a creative person you’re sort of looking at the world for inspiration. I look at life more nuanced when I’m creating. It could be as simple as the way a light fills a room, but you’re always searching for a way to express your individual experience.
How did the candle holders come about?
The candles came out of purely being a student at the foundry. They came from knowing that I wanted to learn that process [bronze] from start to finish, and I was sort of looking at the world for inspiration. It struck me that the candles would be amazing in bronze.
The bronze candles are also a natural process of my brain finding some shape that I’m drawn to. It was also serendipity. I’d been around them [candles] a year and a half and then all of a sudden, I saw them in a new light. [The candle holders are actually cast from melted candles that light Curio, a cocktail bar where Ball worked.]
How many hours go into one candle holder?
Essentially, the process takes two days from start to finish. But there’s a lot of waiting time between dipping cycles. So all in all, condensed time, it takes about five hours.
Can you walk us through the process to give a better understanding of how a melted candle becomes this beautiful bronze piece of art?
It’s a positive, negative, positive process. The candle is the positive, then around the outside of the candle, you make a plaster shell. Then you melt out the wax center. Now you have a void. Next you pour into the hole and you have a positive again in bronze. People think it’s like you’re dipping an object in bronze, but really you’re filling something with bronze.
Still confused? Ball broke it down step by step for us.
1. I edit through all the candles and find the most interesting.
2. Then I take a big drill bit and route out the middle, to make room for the tea candle.
3. Take to the foundry and sprue them up. This is basically creating a funnel for the bronze to pour into with wax. I’m also adding a venting system because the metal shrinks.
4. The next step is to basically dip it in shell eight times, which is a plaster coating. You need a ¼” around the perimeter. Then the bottom of the funnel is cut off to create a hole for the wax to melt out and the bronze to be poured into.
5. Then the wax is melted out in a Burnout Kiln.
6. Then the shell is pre-heated, and molten liquid bronze is poured into the void created by the burned out wax.
7. Next I cut off the sprues that are now bronze and do any rough grinding to get the shape and texture that I want.
8. Finishing, polishing and waxing are the final steps.
We were lucky enough to sit in on a fair amount of the work, and have documented the process in photos here. Ball is also working on a new series of candle holders that are based on antlers. The polished rose-gold colored candle holders use tall candelabra style candles that toss light with awesome dexterity. In addition, she’s casting a bronze pig’s skull that will likely be the base for a small table. For more on Leah Ball and her work, visit:
For more on West Supply see: