Monday, April 1, 2013

Pouring the Keel

It's nearly 2am.  My sister-in-law and I are wandering through a Wal-Mart, looking for a hacksaw, charcoal and firewood.  We're both sun-burnt, exhausted, and filthy.   How did we get here?

The keel of a sailboat runs fore and aft, and extends down below the boat.  The keel provides lateral resistance- which keeps the boat from being pushed sideways.  Our keel, like most, will be made of wood, and will have a lead portion, right at the bottom.  This lead ballast allows the sailboat to stand up to the forces of the wind- it keeps the boat upright.  Like those inflatable clowns with a weight on the bottom- you hit it, and it wobbles, but it won't fall over.  

Throughout the building process, we've been wondering, (and I've been worrying!) about how to best make our keel.  The main reason for buying both junky sailboats was for the lead in their keels.  Cody figured we would need about 4000 pounds of lead for our boat, and with lead prices at 90 cents a pound, paying $600 for a sailboat with 2000 pounds of lead in the keel was a great deal for us!

Cody's siblings were coming to visit us, and they were willing, maybe even excited to help us with this project.  We worked all week to try to be ready.  Cody bought an old cast-iron bathtub, with a nice pink enamel coating, and welded a steel spout to the drain.   He built a styrofoam form of our keel- a nice airfoil shape to help with the hydrodynamics.  I mixed up 150 pounds of casting sand- a special sand used for making molds in metallurgy.  The process involved grinding up 15 pounds of cat litter in a blender, mixing it with play sand, and then water.  The cat litter is made of bentonite clay, which holds water well.  When I was done,  I had the most perfect sandcastle sand ever!    We gathered all sorts of tools (weed burner, shovels, etc)  and odds and ends (spare leather gloves, throw-away clothes, bricks), and watched all the youtube videos we could find of other people pouring keels.

Dylan arrived in town on Thursday, Afton on Friday morning.   While we hoped we could be ready to pour on Friday, and therefore have fewer people around, but we just weren't ready.  Cody and Dylan bought another thousand pounds of lead (we had weighed what we had, and it wasn't enough.  Bummer!)  Afton and I made more casting sand.  We celebrated Dylan's birthday too-  a fabulous brunch at Eggs in the City, and cake and a fun game of pictionary with the Mannions.

Getting things into position.
We woke up early the next morning and got right to work, loading the borrowed trailer with bathtub, casting sand and form, lead bricks, firewood and tools.  Afton and I made a run to the store for lunch and snacks, filled water jugs (for drinking and fire extinguishing), and we all headed out to the desert.  Some friends met us out there, and we set to work, digging the fire pit, building the supports for the tub, unloading the lead from the truck.  We finally had the fire going around 3pm.  It was pretty exciting to see that first bit of molten lead pooling down in the bottom!  Molly and Afton and I started packing the form-  the styrofoam keel was in the middle of a reinforced wooden box, and we packed casting sand around it.  We had a big steel pipe, and propped that up at the base of the spout, and it was tilted just enough to run downhill into the mold.    Once the mold was packed, we sawed the styrofoam out of the center of the foam- less to burn up when the molten lead hit it.  Now, all we had to do was wait. 

Joe, using less back strength and more wisdom to help move the heavy lead bricks.

All loaded up!

Around 6, most of our friends had headed back to the city.  The bathtub was full of molten lead.  Some bronze bolts that we had been unable to remove from the keel were floating on top of the pool, along with other impurities.  The fire was Raging.  With a capital R.  Lead started leaking out of the poorly sealed plug early on, we remedied this by moving the fire back and essentially forming a lead dam.  When we finally thought we were ready to pour, we moved the fire forward and tried to open the drain plug.  It wouldn't budge at first.  When we got it to open, and flowing into the pipe, trouble really began.  We were heating the pipe with the weed burner, but the pipe was too long to keep hot.  The lead began to harden in the too-cold pipe, and formed a dam.  We tried to stop the flow, but it wouldn't stop.  Lead began pouring out of the back of the tube-  90 cents a pound, just into the dirt.  Not a single drop of lead had made it's way through the 12 foot pipe into the mold.  At that point, we started damage control.  We tried to douse the fire, but we had an impressive coal bed, and it wasn't cooling down anytime soon.  We pushed coals to the back of the fire, to allow the front of the tub to cool again.  We caught the molten lead in shovel loads of 10 lbs or more and dumped it back into the tub until the flow stopped.

The situation was not good.  There was no way we could move the bathtub- to get it back on the trailer so we could go home, reassess our plan and try again.  A 2500 pound brick of lead in the desert, we couldn't even just walk away if we wanted to.  Two officials had stopped by earlier and we gave them our word to clean up.  The pipe was full of lead and now weighed around 300 pounds (a guess, but it was HEAVY.)  A fair amount of our lead was on the ground, hardened into fantastic shapes and full of sand.   The mold was still empty.

We were all frusturated, disappointed, hot, and tired.   It was 7pm, and getting dark.  But the Harrises are a tough bunch.  We worked out a plan B.  Cody called Dustin, who said there was a few feet of large angle iron at the front.  We could weld that together and use it as a trough- so we could at least see any dams forming, and heat it with the weed burner.  He headed into town to get the angle iron, and more firewood.  We needed food, warmer clothes, head-lamps, and sleeping gear.  I headed back to our house to gather these things- and cried a little bit, as I am an Allen- a little softer and more sensitive than those burly Harrises.

Cody was already back at the site when I arrived.  I handed out hot bean and cheese burritos, cups of coffee, and clean socks (what bliss!).    Morale was back up.  Even I was feeling better! The boys already had the fire going again, and while some of the lead in the tub had hardened, most of it was still molten.  We set up the angle iron trough, and waited for the lead to melt.  We didn't have to wait long!  We were pouring lead around 11pm, and it was semi-successful.  We had preheated the trough with the weed burner, and while the lead was still forming dams, we able to clear them out and keep pouring.  We eventually emptied the tub.  Our plan B had been to empty the tub so we could more easily move and salvage the lead, clean up, go home, and try again.  But we were working out the bugs in our system, and decided to go for another pour the next morning.  

All we really needed to do for a more successful pour was to shorten the trough.  Less to keep hot.  We also needed to preheat it over the fire, not with the wimpy little weed burner.  We figured we had about 2000 pounds of lead in the mold already, which left us with another 1700+ to pour the next day.  Cody and Dylan planned to spend the night out at the site- no sense leaving a still hot coal-bed, a large amount of expensive lead, borrowed tools and trailer unattended.   Afton and I were to go back to town, buy a hack-saw to cut the trough down to length, more firewood and charcoal, and return to the site in the morning.

So that's how we came to be in a 24 hour Wal-Mart, looking for a hack saw so late at night.  We found one, thank god, and charcoal, but they didn't have any firewood.   The Smith's grocery store was open, and had firewood, but it was only available at their gas station, and the gas station store was closed for the night, but would open at 6am the next morning.  Afton and I made it home and stumbled into bed- alarms set for 5:30am.  When we arrived at the store, the same people were still working.  We bought some breakfast- yogurt and red bulls- loaded up with firewood, and headed back out.

The boys were up and were digging a new fire pit- closer to the trailer.  We helped them move the tub and get the fire started, then had breakfast together.  We loaded the remaining lead into the tub, along with the chunks that had hardened on the ground.  It was time for our "Victory Lap" as Dylan called it- and it went smoothly!  We were able to get a good flow of lead, and poured every last drop into the form.  There were still some issues- the fiberglass that had been on the outside of the form folded into the keel, effectively separating a section.  Some of the casting sand had crumbled, leaving the lead slightly misshapen.    

In the end, Cody decided that we couldn't use the keel we had poured- too many issues.  We learned a lot through the process, and have ideas to make it easier and more successful.  Afton and Dylan are taking a trip to Mexico next week-  then are passing through SLC again!  Maybe next time they're here, they could be bribed into doing this again.

We are so lucky to have so many supportive friends and family members.  I'd like to thank everyone who came out- we really couldn't have done it without all of you!

A big, heartfelt thank you to:
John Little- for his incredible generosity, and for always being the wind at our backs.
Molly and Ben Williams,
Joe Williams- for being our "adult" on the scene, and for bringing the fire-extinguisher!
PJ, Sarah, and Fisher Mannion,
Parker Child,
and of course,
Afton-  for her unfailing emotional and financial support,
and Dylan- the trooper, who never left the site, for his muscles and good spirits.

We love you guys!  

Alongside the road on our way back from this epic weekend.

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