Sunday, January 29, 2012

Experiments with aluminium bronze

Today I made some aluminium bronze, and it was a partial success I think.
I learnt a few things about the material, but I'm sure there's more to learn.

The first thing that I learnt is that it takes a surprisingly long time to melt copper; I was still trying after 20 minutes at full blast. Its melting point is 1084.62 degrees celsius, but either I couldn't get that hot, or there's some trick to melting copper. I got it to a very bright red-heat, but it wouldn't go any further.

So here's the lesson in that: according to The Complete Handbook of Sand Casting by C.W. Ammen, you should melt the copper first (p189), then add the other metals. I got fed up with w

aiting for the copper to melt, so I added my aluminium, which began to melt almost instantly, forming a puddle in the bottom of the crucible. Once this puddle had formed, the copper began to melt really quickly. If anyone can explain this, please do. Anyway, in future, I'll put copper in the bottom, aluminium on top, then more copper, then fire it up.
The second thing I learnt is that either aluminiun bronze is not nearly as golden as the internet would have me believe, or that it's a lot harder to get the ratios right than I thought. I aimed for 10% aluminium by weight, so I put 9 parts copper and 1 part aluminium in (2kg copper, 222g aluminium). One thing that leads me to believe that the ratio is hard to get right is that there was an awful lot of dross (or something that looked like dross) stuck in the bottom of the crucible after the pour. Thus, much of either or both metal oxidized. At what ratio, I can't say, but surely it is likely to skew my intended ratio.

In all honesty, I don't care about the colour, and the colour came out being pretty nice anyway. It looks almost like steel, only shinier. What I care about is the mechanical properties.

Here's an idea of the colour: the watch is stainless steel, the light has made everything a little yellower, though there are some patches about the place on other ingots that actually are that yellow. Also, notice how smooth the side is, and the two big flat bits on the top. The bumpy bits were loose bits of sand. This implies that I can get a pretty good finish with this alloy even with reasonably coarse sand.

The third thing I learnt is that aluminium bronze needs to cool slowly, otherwise it becomes very brittle. I quenched most of the ingots that I cast, with the result that I could break them by hand, or by dropping them from a height of about a metre. This had me worried, until I found an ingot I had forgotten to quench. I couldn't break it at all, I didn't try with a hammer though. In future, NO QUENCHING.

Here is a n ingot that I quenched, it was so brittle that I could snap it in my hand. It leaves a very sharp edge, I discovered the hard way. Notice how shiny the inside is? Also, you can see how it's quite crystalline. This has to be the result of the quenching, as the alloy ratio is almost certainly similar to the range of 'real' aluminium bronze, and I have one ingot, which wasn't quenched, which isn't brittle.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

My theoretical pet metal

People who work with metal tend to have a favourite; under normal circumstances, I would say my favourites are steel and copper. When talking about casting, however, my (theoretical) pet is aluminium bronze. I say 'theoretical' because I haven't yet cast with it. It is, therefore, my favourite only by virtue of what I have seen and read about it.

Aluminium bronze is an alloy of copper (~90%) and aluminium (~10%). It takes on a vaguely brassy look, and I believe that Australian gold coins are made from it. Here are the reasons I like the idea of aluminium bronze so much:

great material properties - it conducts heat well, is highly resistant to corrosion, and is very strong and hard. It's used to make bearings in aeroplane landing gear, boat propellers, engine parts, and many other things.

Great aesthetic properties - it looks a bit like brass, but not as 'bright'. It's also antimicrobial , apparently, as a result of the copper content.

And finally, great castability - aluminium bronze is a 'short freeze' alloy, meaning that it turns from liquid into solid almost instantly. The solidification happens from the outside face and progresses inwards. This means, according to this paper, that, assuming you have enough risers and feeders etc., you can obtain almost maximum density when casting aluminium bronze. Virtually pore free!

These reasons have all combined together to make me want to cast my lathe parts out of aluminium bronze instead of plain old aluminium. I may cast them in aluminium first, to make sure everything goes all right, and then re-cast them in aluminium bronze. But we'll see...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lathe bench

I'm thinking ahead now. I'm going to need somewhere to put my lathe when it's done, and given that it's going to be bigger and heavier than Gingery's lathe, moving it around will not be an option. I've drawn this bench up, it's made of 25mm box section painted RHS, welded together. The small box shaped cavity in the top left corner will house the motor at the back, and have a little cupboard or drawer or something at the front. It's a metre long, so I mah have to shorten my lathe a bit, I'm planning on a 1m bed at the moment... we'll see.

A new project: ambitious, but possible

OK, I have a new major project. I'm going to build myself a Gingery-inspired lathe. If you don't know who Gingery is, google him. In short, he was a man who needed a machine shop, but lacked the funds for one. He had plenty of time though, so he decided to build one. He made many machines out of cast aluminium, which he melted in a furnace in his back yard. I admire his ingenuity, but feel that his lathe design is somewhat lacking in some areas. Those areas are:

size - his lathe is very small
fittings - his lathe has no standard tooling fittings
engineering - there are numerous engineering points that I disagree with, I'll cover these as they appear though

So, the first part that needs doing is the bed and ways. (Engineering flaw #1) Gingery cast his bed out of aluminium, making a 60cm hollow ribbed block for rigidity. Being aluminium, though, it is not particularly rigid. I imagine this lightweight casting introducing many inaccuracies, mostly through flexing and sagging. The other major downside to the bed is that it's a very big casting, especially for novices, at whom the series is mostly targeted.

To counter both of these problems, I have decided to skip casting the bed, and opt instead for a steel I-beam. This should give me the extra weight and rigidity that I yearn for, while also allowing me to scale the whole lathe up a bit (this addresses flaw #1, size). I plan on scaling it up to a 75mm swing, with around 60cm between centres.

Here is my basic idea for the bed: The black I-shaped section is, strangely enough, the I-beam. The thin grey piece is an aluminium match plate that I will cast up, and the red is a piece of bright flat bar.

The purpose of the match plate is simple. I will first scrape one side of it to fit the I-beam perfectly, then I will scrape the other side to match the bright bar perfectly. This will mean that the inaccuracies on the surface of the I-beam won't matter, as they will be averaged out by the aluminium plate. Then, given the very close tolerance of the bright flat bar, the matched aluminium surface will be almost perfectly flat. This will mean that I can bolt the bright bar onto it and not have to worry about it deforming.

Now, the only problem I can see with using I-beam is that it is not designed to withstand torsional force, which is exactly what I will be putting on it. I have two thoughts on this:
1) it may be so grossly over sized that it doesn't matter
2) I could weld straps into it, between the two parallel surfaces, and perpendicular to them. This would change the side view from being a long, wide channel, to a series of boxes. I feel that this should strengthen it sufficiently against the torsional forces.

So, those are my current plans. I'll update you as I build. But for now, google Gingery and see what he's all about.