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Casting
Monday | 11 February, 2013 | 10:48 am

Iron woman

By Stephanie Andrews

Metal sculptor builds the United States out of cast iron skillets

February 2013 - Foundry work was written in the stars for metal artist and professed Leo, Alisa Toninato, owner of FeLion Studios, Madison, Wis. The studio, which got its name from a combination of her fire-driven horoscope and the periodic symbol for iron, began in 2009 with the creation of Toninato’s Made in America pans. “I had my very first iron pour that I ran with the first furnace I built,” she says. “As a student in art school, I was using cookwares as a vehicle to learn foundry work.” She made waffle irons, cookware and bakeware that could be cast either with aluminum or iron. But the concept for the Made in America pans came from her state pride. 

“I was at a residency in Minneapolis, and I was away from home for a while,” says Toninato. “I came back to Milwaukee, where my studio was at the time, and it was home. I was on home ground and loving the Milwaukee scene and DIY scene that I identify with. So the imagery of Wisconsin was really strong and clear.” 

The love of Wisconsin melded with her cookware creations, and from it, state-shaped pans were born. “So it all started as a total accident,” Toninato says. “We actually poured it in February. It was 2010 when I got my first mold of the Wisconsin pattern done and it was freezing out. It should never have worked.” With her burning-hot furnace and a tiny crew of six, she took a shot in the dark that the cast would work. “We just took a hot shot and just tried to get the thin form to cast, and it did,” she says. “When we broke it open, everyone there laughed because it was so funny to look at this single little Wisconsin skillet with a bodacious handle.” 

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From there the concept exploded. Immediately after the first cast, she hopped a flight to Los Angeles to visit a college friend. “My flight had a map of all the flight patterns out of AirTran, so coming directly from this pour and a three hour flight to LA, I used that map to draw handles on all the other states just to see how they would fit and if they did fit,” says Toninato. “[This project] grew geographically over the course of two years.”

However, subsequent casts were not quite as successful. “The next nine times that I tried to cast that exact pattern it didn’t work,” she says. “It was just a fluke because the first one worked but the next nine didn’t. I had to change my pattern and really hone in on getting a consistent casting outcome with the next pattern because I was building them with such thin walls.” 

Toninato took the advice of a professional pattern-maker in Racine and put it into creating a successful pattern. “It was great to have some industrial insight and put it back into my patterns,” she says. “This whole project just started to weave deeper and deeper into working with industry professionals.” She says most of the 48-state map was cast at a foundry in Minneapolis. “I had an acquaintance that works at Smith Foundry, and it was really great,” she says. “It was a chance to work inside a commercial foundry and get some insight and learn some new tricks but do it really similar to the way we did it, using resin bonded and sand.” 

Using Photoshop to tweak the pattern, Toninato printed Wisconsin on a 8.5 by 11 sheet of paper, which established her scale. “The Wisconsin pan that fit on a 8.5 inch by 11 inch sheet of paper was my first pattern that I transferred to wood and cut by hand with a delta scroll saw,” she says. “I did the whole old timey wooden pan-making methods that don’t exist anymore. And that set the scale for the rest of the map too. Everything was built around Wisconsin.” 

Toninato starts with a wooden pattern that’s placed into a box, or a flash. She does traditional sand casting, which usually takes two days per pattern. Once the flask is enclosed in the sand, she flips it over, removes the pattern and cuts the gates using a stone bit and drill. Toninato uses propane to start the fire in her cupolette furnace, which takes about an hour. “Once [the furnace] is up to temperature, we turn on the blowers, and that really brings up the temperature to the degree that melts iron. It’s then essentially a process of keeping the furnace charged with metal and coke—whatever we put into it comes out molten.” 

Toninato also has two people on ladle crew, who catch the metal when it comes out. “It’s like a dance when you watch it. We know when the metal is ready because we can see into the furnace and we can see a slag is starting to form. At that point, we call over a ladle crew and they catch it. When the person caps out, they run around to the molten and pour it in.” 

A labor of love 

The Made in America pans, comprised of the 48 contiguous states, is 9 1/2 feet by 6 feet long, and weighs in at 550 pounds, including the birch backboard and maple frame, which alone weighs 300 pounds. The last 28 states were cut on a CNC router, and the Midwest and East Coast were done on a scroll saw. “I had a time frame that I needed to finish the full map by because I had been accepted to do a show at an exhibition in Grand Rapids, Michigan, called ArtPrize.” Knowing how long it took to cut the patterns by hand, Toninato would need some help. “There is this really awesome community machine shop called Sector 67, and they have CNC routers and you can learn programming and do everything there. They gave me the opportunity to do these last 28.”  The most difficult pan was Texas. The problem: the sides of the CNC machine were only 1 1/2 feet by 1 1/2 feet. “It turns out that Texas, by scale, was bigger than that and so we had to do some serious math to figure out how to do it in two parts and still maintain the scale using the equipment that we had. It was a bear and of course it was going to be tough.” 

This project has received a lot of exposure over the last few years. With its appearance in Martha Stewart’s Living magazine and television show, the pans have become a symbol of FeLion Studios. “I’ve kind of honed the craft a bit more over the last two years. I’ve been primarily casting and recasting and developing this idea. Now my audience is a lot bigger, so it keeps me busy.” 

However, Toninato also is venturing into new projects. “I’m working with restaurants that want custom cookware, and I’m helping facilitate manufacturing. In my shop we will do smaller runs—custom pattern making for someone who wants 15 platters and a couple cocettes. But I’m also working with another restaurant in Austin who needs 100 fajita pans, and there’s where I’m able to leap out into the commercial sector. I can help them with the design and manufacturing process inside industry. I’m sort of finding a niche inside of cast iron cookware design—helping people take an idea and turning it into a reality.”

Each state-shaped pan comes with its own unique birth certificate. “Essentially these are like babies that are born. They go through this entire process. I’m very close with every one of the customers that orders these because these aren’t a cheap product and I feel like people deserve to stay involved.” Toninato’s pans are made-to-order and she doesn’t keep an inventory. “There is a limited casting number on each one. Each state pattern will have 50 castings made before I retire the pattern entirely and eventually move on from this whole concept altogether. But until that point I put numbers on the back of them and then document that on the birth certificate. They kind of have a piece of limited history to go with it.” MM

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