Brass Artistry

An Age-Old Tradition Continues

by Dale Fisher

While staying at a guest house in Yaounde, I observed that its room keys had very interesting key chains or key fobs made of brass. I mentioned this to the guest house manager and he discovered that they were made close by. We visited the location the next day, only to discover a three-generation-old cottage industry.

This was Dale's key fob and room keys to Room 1 of the Hope Baptist Rest House.

As it turned out, three male artisans worked in a corrugated-iron-sheet-roofed shed that was behind and down the hill from a MoneyGram store. During my time at the TLM training, I visited the brass works a few times. I never saw any other customers there so I conclude that the artisans mainly sell to shops in town and near a game park. It was fascinating to watch and interact with them as they created and manufactured brass objects using the "lost wax" method, which probably started in Africa during the Benin Empire in the bordering country Nigeria. These artisans are from the western part of Cameroon, which is next to Nigeria.

Here in the brass works, midday, both fires are going. The fire on the left
is where the brass is melted, the fire on the right is the kiln.

The process of making a brass handbell, for example, starts with creating the object using bees wax, usually making many different art objects every day. Mr. M, one of the men I met, volunteered that he uses about 25 kilos (over 55 pounds) of beeswax every month. buying the wax directly from beekeepers. He created his first piece at age 6, but was frightened by the fire, so his dad fired it for him. They also teach their sons this art; since the boys are now in school, they come on weekends or during school vacations.

The lost-wax process begins by creating the object using bees wax.

The next step is to entirely cover the wax original with clay. A space is left open in one spot so the mold can be filled with liquid brass. This opening is often the shape of a funnel stem for easy filling.

In progress, the top of this object is covered with clay,
while the yellow feet need to be completely covered with clay.

After drying for a day, the clay is fired in a kiln- type oven, enabling the wax to be absorbed into the clay (which is why it's called "lost wax"), thus leaving a hollow space that now becomes the mold.

The clay gets fired until it hardens and the wax is absorbed.

Once the fired clay cools, molten brass (primarily taken from recycled pipes, faucets, and other plumbing parts) is poured into the mold. Then it cools.

The molten brass is then poured into the molds,
filling the space left by the wax. Then they're left to cool.

Finally the baked clay is removed from around the brass and the object is filed and sanded into its finished form. The handbell is their most popular item. All you need to do now is ring the bell!

This brass handbell, with a standing local man for its handle,
is the completed product of this lost-wax method of artistry.

I was amazed to find this foundry where brass (made mainly of copper with some zinc) art pieces are still created, basically using the same techniques that have been used and passed down for generations. In just three days, an idea becomes a shiny brass work of art. It was both my privilege and pleasure to observe three men skillfully practice this lost-wax process from beginning to end.

† Dale: "From Orphan to Pastor"

† Dale: "Brass Artistry Tradition in Continuum"

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