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Author Topic: Casting Basics: Equipment and your first cast  (Read 2794 times)

sqlbullet

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Casting Basics: Equipment and your first cast
« on: January 20, 2012, 10:49:23 am »
StevenTing sent me a PM January 18, 2012 asking for this thread.  The focus of his question is equipment needed to cast your own boolits.

First some indoctrination.  Cast bullets are commonly referred to online as boolits.  This bothered me for a long time.  But, it becomes much simpler in discourse to use boolits  to mean cast bullets and bullets to mean jacketed bullets.  I will follow this convention. My apologies to those it annoys.

At the most basic you need only a mold, a steel ladle and a heat source capable of melting lead alloy - 437.5° F to 621° F.  You won't cast a lot of volume this way, and you will make a mess, but your boolits can be just as high quality as any others.  Lubing can be accomplished a number of ways without any special equipment.  Sizing is really optional unless your mold is really out of spec to the cartridge for which you are casting.

Most don't want to start quite this primitive, but many do, myself included.  I cast my first boolits in a Lee two cavity mold, 401 SWC TL which costs about $20 from Midway.  I melted my lead in an old ladle I had laying around the garage.  I used a Coleman white gas camp stove.  Scrap plumbing lead provided the alloy.  I cast about 50 boolits this way over an hour or two.  The reject count was high due to inadequate mold prep and preheat.  I lubed them with Lee Liquid Alox (LLA) and did run them through a Lee push through sizing die.  I bought the die because it came with the LLA and was very economical at under $20.  The die works with your existing reloading press.

I will address more specifically what I think would be needed minimum for a person to sustain a moderate shooting habit.  Several tools can greatly speed the process without breaking the bank.  I will also address how to avoid, diagnose and rectify common issues that surround casting boolits.

Basic Kit

A basic starter kit would include the following casting specific tools:

Mold(s) - For a starter, get Lee molds.  They work fine and are 1/3 the price of other molds. When you get your mold, scrub it very thoroughly with hot water and dish washing soap using a vegetable brush.  Pay special attention to the cavities of the mold.  Any oils left here will gas off when lead enters the mold and produce wrinkles in the boolits.  We will lube certain parts of the mold when we start casting.  You may decide later as you have more experience that you want a specific design or feature of a more expensive mold.  I have other brands.  But I still cast most of my boolits in Lee molds, and they work great.

Furnace - While the cheapest is the Lee Production Pot Four 10# furnace, the Lee Pro 20 # is usually less than $10 more.  Right now it is $2.00 difference.  I started with a 10# pot.  They work fine, but about the time you get going good you have to stop and add lead, then wait for temperature to come back up.

Thermometer - This is technically optional, but has hugely improved the quality of my boolits.  I spent the $50 on a Lyman thermometer.  If I were to buy again I would get a grill lid thermometer at home depot.  I am sure it would work as well for a fraction the cost.  You want most alloys of lead between 700° and 750° when you cast.

Sizing Die - Again, the Lee dies are hard to beat for the money.  $18 will get you a die and a bottle of LLA that will last for about 5,000-10,000 boolits.

Odds and Ends - You will need a bath towel that your significant other won't miss. You will need a empty ice cream pail.  And you will need a stout dowel or peice of wood to use to cut the sprue, and to tap the mold hinge bolt to release the boolits.  Also, some old crayons or candles for flux.  A small amount of 2 cycle engine oil.  Some cotton swabs. An old spoon.  A pot pie tin to catch sprues.

Safety equipment - Gloves, face protection, long sleeves, pants and shoes.  Leave you short sleaves, cargo shorts and sandals in the closet when casting.  You WILL get hot lead splashed eventually.  If it hits skin it will hurt, and will leave a 1st or 2nd degree burn best case.  Also, a fire extinguisher, and some kind of exhaust fan or very good ventilation.

Lead Alloy - You will obviously need some kind of alloy to start with.  Check your local classifieds.  Here in the SLC area, PM me and I will make you a deal on some lead.  For most purposes an alloy of 96% lead, 3% antimony and 1% tin will do fine.  Air cooled this hardens to a Brinell number of about 11.  If it is water quenched (dropped from the mold directly into water) it will end up a Brinell hardness of about 22.  For special purposes there are many other alloys.  The benefits of this alloy are: First, it is a good general purpose alloy.  It usually will work in about any smokeless cartridge. Second, it is readily available as scrap since this is about what most general industrial lead alloys are.  Wheel Weights and isotope lead are common sources.  If you are in the SLC area and want some lead to start, PM me and I will sell you some of my supply at a good price (significantly less than the $1/lb I generally sell in the classifieds).

Your First Casting Session

Put cold lead in the furnace and plug it in.  Turn up the control as high as possible. Place the mold on top of the pot, but do so such that the wood handles don't contact the pot.  They will carbonize and burn.  As your pot melts the lead it will also preheat your mold. 

Once you lead is melted to about 650°-700°, move your mold aside, and stir the lead with the spoon.  You will see some dross on the top.  DO NOT REMOVE THIS.  Add a small piece of crayon or candle, about the size of a pea.  Stir while this melts and burns off.  As you stir be sure to scrape the sides of the furnace.  The dross will darken in color and clump together, while the rest of the surface will look shiny.  This is called "fluxing".  It serves a couple of purposes.  First, it helps collect and separate the dross from the lead alloy.  Second, the carbon burning provides an oxygen reduction reaction to the lead, antimony and tin oxide that made of some of the dross, returning some of these metals back to the melt.  Once the smoking stops, carefully scoop off the dross.  Over time you will get a good feel for this process.

A comment about fluxing. When you flux or add lead to a pot of molten alloy, it is imperative that no moisture be present.  Preheat spoons and lead ingots prior to putting them in the pot. Moisture can condense on the surface of dry cold ingots as they sink into the pot.  The water flashes instantly to steam, expanding violently. You will immediately learn where your clothes have ANY gaps that don't cover your skin.

Keep an eye on the thermometer and adjust the dial down as needed.  On my Lee pot, a setting of about 4-6 stabilizes around 700° with a little climb over time.

Now that the lead is fluxed and cleaned, take the mold and place a corner which spans both halves in the lead.  Hold it there for 60 seconds. While holding this in the pot, get a little 2-cycle oil on a cotton swab.  You don't want enough to form a run when you press, but you do want it all covered. 

When you remove the mold from the lead it needs to be lubed. Open it and run the swab over the alignment pins. Open the sprue plate and rub the swab over the bottom of the sprue plate and the top of the mold.  Take care to get oil close to the cavities, but not in the cavities.  You want to press he swab against the sprue plate at the sprue plate hinge.

Close the mold and sprue plate, and put the corner back in the pot for another 30 seconds.

Now, move the mold below the spout and pour lead into the two sprue holes.  Leave a generous puddle on the top of the sprue plate.  If the preheat is right, the puddle should solidify after 3-5 seconds.  It will pass through a few stages:  Liquid, slushy, solid.  About 1-2 seconds after solid, you will see the lead sheen change.  This is my queue to cut the sprue.  It is better to wait too long to cut the sprue than cut too soon.  I wear gloves and cut the sprue by hand, but many use the dowel to sharply hit the sprue plate handle.  Both work, but be sure the force is directly perpendicular to the sprue plate, along the rotation vector.  Force that is not in the correct vector will wear the mold prematurely.  Dump the sprues in the pot pie tin.

If you cut the sprue early, you will get a smear of lead on the top of the mold and the bottom of the sprue plate.  This will build up over time and cause additional issues.  The two-cycle oil will protect you from a small smear.  It will wipe off.  Larger smears, or smears that build over time must be very carefully removed from a cold mold using a razor blade.

Once the sprue is cut, take one second to examine the boolit bases before you drop them from the mold.  The bases should fill evenly and fully to the edges of the mold.  If the edge of the boolit base is rounded at all, discard them with the sprues.  They will not be accurate. 

Rap the handle pivot bolt sharply with the dowel while relaxing your grip on the mold handles.  Open the mold fully.  Hopefully the boolits will fall freely from the mold.  If they cling a little, just tap on the bolt a little more. DO NOT HIT THE MOLD ITSELF. Close the mold and sprue plate and refill the mold immediately. 

Everyone I have ever taught to cast wants to stop and examine their new boolits.  Don't.  The first boolits cast in a session are rarely any good anyway, even for experienced casters.  And, you are losing precious heat from you mold ensuring your next cast won't be good either.  You should work to a casting cadence of 10 seconds or so.  3 seconds to open, dump and close the mold, 2 seconds to fill the cavities and 5 seconds to cool the sprues.  After 5-10 casts your mold should be running well and fully heated.  You will need to add some time to allow sprues to cool. 

Take a break now, placing the mold back on the top of the furnace and examine what you have cast.

Most likely your boolits will be wrinkly. New molds tend to produce wrinkly boolits for first timers for several reasons;  inadequate cleaning, oil in the cavities when lubing the mold, inadequate mold preheat and slow casting cadence.

Things to watch.  Flow rate.  You have to fill the mold cavities at the right rate.  Too slow and the lead cools while still being filled.  Too fast and the mold can't vent.  Both result in rounded bases and wrinkles.  I find that for all my boolits about 1 second per cavity fill time is right.

Pot temp.  Remember how I wanted it to climb a little.  About every 5 minutes I dump my sprues back in the furnace.  I want it to cycle between about 700° - 725° during this time.  The solid, but hot, sprues and reject boolits will pull the pot back down to about 700°.

A few final comments.

Fit.  Don't worry about hard boolits.  Everything you think you know about what hardness is needed is almost certainly wrong.  You need boolits that FIT. A boolit that doesn't fit your bore will lead no matter how hard it is.  Usually a boolit that is soft won't lead if it fits properly. In fact, a soft boolit will usually lead less, because the pressure will deform it to fit.

You have to measure the barrel on your gun to know what fit you need.  I have 3 10mm pistols.  Nominally, the groove in these guns should measure .400".  In reality they range between a small of .3985" and a high of .401".  If I shoot boolits sized .401 in the gun with the largest bore, they will lead.  Hard boolits lead worse than soft.  Soft boolits will upset some (obturate) and fill the bore.

You measure by driving a soft lead slug, like a fishing sinker through the barrel and then measure it.  Your boolits need to be at least .001" larger than this size.  If you mold isn't dropping boolits that big, you will need to enlarge it.

If you are serious about casting, you need to spend some significant time at at the cast boolits forum and at the lasc website. There are volumes of good information at both places.

You also need to buy the Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook, 4th edition, by Mike Venturino.  Not for the load data, although that is helpful, but for the education in the front of the book.

I hope this helps anyone thinking of casting.
Utah

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    RandySBreth

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    Re: Casting Basics: Equipment and your first cast
    « Reply #1 on: January 20, 2012, 01:27:07 pm »
    Pretty much what I would tell someone that wants to start. Good job. :thumbup1
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    rgary

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    Re: Casting Basics: Equipment and your first cast
    « Reply #2 on: January 20, 2012, 01:45:20 pm »
    You can go to castboolits.gunloads.com and read much more about casting if you so desire.

    Russ

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    Re: Casting Basics: Equipment and your first cast
    « Reply #3 on: January 20, 2012, 04:19:35 pm »
    Nice write-up.

    I used to cast by the hour.  When I was a teenager.  Now, I'm on the shady side of 50.  I have my dad's old pot, most of his dies, and about 20# of lead, but haven't used any of it yet. 

    This is a great refresher.

    Thanks
    Oregon

    StevenTing

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    Re: Casting Basics: Equipment and your first cast
    « Reply #4 on: January 24, 2012, 02:06:48 pm »
    Just finished reading all of it.  Some of it has me terrified but I bet once I do it, it'll be simple.  I appreciate the time you took to write this.

    So, how long would it take you to cast 1000 boolits? I'm just thinking from a time/money standpoint.  You have local people selling 1K for about $60-$70.  I think if I were to start, it'd take me at least a couple of hours plus finding lead.

    Have you found it to be economical?  Or to you get some other intangible benefits from it.
    Utah

    JesseL

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    Re: Casting Basics: Equipment and your first cast
    « Reply #5 on: January 24, 2012, 02:14:52 pm »
    I've got a nice bottom pour pot, but I don't think I've ever been able to do much more than 200 good bullets in an hour. Of course that's with a single cavity mould.
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    only1asterisk

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    Re: Casting Basics: Equipment and your first cast
    « Reply #6 on: January 24, 2012, 03:14:41 pm »
    I've got a nice bottom pour pot, but I don't think I've ever been able to do much more than 200 good bullets in an hour. Of course that's with a single cavity mould.

    With a pair of 6 cavity pistol molds I think you might do 800-1000 per hour pretty easy.

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    Re: Casting Basics: Equipment and your first cast
    « Reply #7 on: January 24, 2012, 10:27:53 pm »
    I know with my old 4 cavity molds, I can drop 4 slugs every 10 seconds or so = 1440 slugs per hour. - IF, I have no partial fills or voids, don't need to add lead to the pot, never pop the sprue plate early, and assuming the mold is already up to proper temperature right out of the gate, your alloy is at and holding a nice casting temperature(not to hot, not too cold)  .....

    So, realistically, an easy 600-800 slugs per hour is no trouble at all.
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    RandySBreth

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    Re: Casting Basics: Equipment and your first cast
    « Reply #8 on: January 25, 2012, 07:58:22 am »
    With a 2-cavity and a 6-cavity mold I can easily cast about 500 - 600 an hour. That's almost perfect bullets - very few sometimes only a couple of rejects when inspected later. I'm not trying to go fast, either.
    If I just want "plinking" bullets I'm sure I can make more quicker. Another 6-cavity would help, too. 4 more with every drop.
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