Photos courtesy of Shane Godfrey
They gave me simple instructions: Follow the sound of the sledgehammers.
It’s a late-Friday in March, and the MassArt iron crew is bashing the shit out of old radiators at the bottom of an inclined driveway, preparing for a fresh pour the next day. Their protective gear resembles something like an old firefighter might have worn into battle–orange hard hats, dirty mesh face guards. They need the protection; the sound of splintering iron bouncing off the pavement, getting crushed under the weight of hammers, isn’t a small racket. Rather, the reverberation echoes up and down the street, making the chain gang easy to find.
Before this, crew members harvested random chunks of metal from around town, then hauled it up to the Fourth Street Scrapyard in Chelsea. There, right around the seemingly appropriate hairpin-death-turn exit of the Tobin Bridge, they traded their salvage for old bathtubs, radiators, stoves, and other items fit for their sledgehammers, then lugged it all back to be smashed up, melted down, and poured into ceramic shells and sand molds. The student-run Corps has twisted metal on this level since the late-2000s and, even though their ritual has faced extinction, is the only college-level iron-casting program in the region.
For a group of hammer-wielding metal mongers, the Corps members are extremely welcoming, providing a tour of their facilities, and explaining how a pour like this is tantamount to their Super Bowl. The excitement builds into the next day, when I’m standing in the MassArt courtyard watching teams of four set up a massive furnace. Their recipe calls for five pounds of coke (a wicked combustible byproduct of coal, not the soda or nose candy) and the shards of the radiators–hardly stuff available at your local drug store. In order to ensure maximum safety, teams are broken down by height and experience, the former a critical part of balancing the scolding ladles full of lava.
Four people crank the furnace to 3,000 degrees, then wait for the liquid-hot iron to pour out of a tap hole and into the gigantic ladles, each of which holds up to 100 pounds of molten red liquid that appears to have a consistency more similar to water than soup, as I’d expected. There’s little room for error, as execution is paramount in order to prevent fires or other unfortunate mishaps. Once the furnace gets to screaming hot temperatures, the apparatus yields a 100-pound pour approximately every seven minutes. Over the course of several hours, the team melts roughly 3,000 pounds of iron–all of which is carefully tilted into molds on the ground. “Shit cools fast,” says one of the anonymous orange suits.
According to Iron Corps coordinator Sara Allen, the event before me was formerly much larger. “They used to have a big production with bands and other activities,” she says, waxing nostalgic about when MassArt hosted one pour a semester. “It was a big performance with metal bands, fire spinners, and pouring molds in front of a large audience.”
Those heyday outings–the brainchild of a sub-group called The Guild–were extinguished four years ago by the Boston Fire Department, which took issue with the number of heads packed in the courtyard. As a result, organizers started holding mandatory safety meetings and informational gatherings twice a month, and also performing dry runs to establish safe chains of command. In all, they now average about four pours a year–about 10,000 pounds of iron–while keeping a unique tradition kicking.
“The fire department had concerns,” says foundry and iron casting professor Marjee Levine, whose Corps has won cupola competitions across the country. “Since then, we reached an agreement to scale back the spectacle and focus these pours more towards the craft of sculpting. The program has since evolved in a very positive direction. It proved to be a blessing in disguise.”
Follow the sound of sledgehammers to find the next Iron Corps pour on May 22.