Copper in the Arts

October 2013

Frogs in the Foundry: Valley Pattern & Manufacturing

By Michael Cervin

Frog plaquesThe famous frog plaques by Valley Pattern & Manufacturing.

Many foundries working with copper, brass and bronze have seen a lot of changes over the years, and Valley Pattern & Manufacturing is no exception.

“Foundry work is the second oldest profession in the world,” jokes owner Eric Johnson. Working strictly with non-ferrous metals, Stockton-based Valley Pattern is one of the few remaining foundries in California’s Central Valley. Johnson’s father emigrated from Sweden, made his way to Stockton, and purchased an aluminum foundry then bought Augustine Brass Foundry. “So that’s how we got into brass and bronze,” Johnson says. “We’re the only foundry left in the area. Copper is the primary element of brass and bronze and I don’t pour anything less than 50% copper."

Being a foundry means that Johnson sees his share of technical machined work and some artistic endeavors to keep the doors open. He has many long-term customers looking for 1,000 pieces of a specific part, but he also serves those needing only a handful of widgets in his 12,000 square foot foundry. Small usage means the molds are created from wood patterns, hand carved the old fashioned way using laminated sugar pine. Most of his bronze and brass casting however is for commercial uses: vaults to hold utilities, casting hood embellishments for old Fords, and castings for planes, boats and airplane restoration since these pieces are no longer made. Most of the restoration work is cast from red brass. He’s especially proud of the production of a 16-blade brass propeller weighing 500 pounds he cast for an irrigation ditch.

On the artistic side there are plaques and bas relief work including a bronze bas relief of actress Janet Leigh which is located in Janet Leigh Plaza in downtown Stockton, where the actress grew up. But it is the frog plaques in the historic gold mining town of Angels Camp that Johnson has become known for. Based on the Mark Twain short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” published in 1865, the frog jumping champions are commemorated by a brass plaque inserted into the sidewalks of Angels Camp, ala the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Valley Pattern has been making them since the 1990s but has cast them back to the resurgence of the competition in 1928, and that’s 85 bronze plaques in the ground, all cast by Valley Pattern. “I couldn’t believe I got the chance to do this for them,” he says. “To think this all started over the story Mark Twain wrote.” The plaques use C83600 Red Brass which has a copper contact of 84 to 86%, are 22 inches wide, 14 inches high with a casting weight of 42 pounds, and Johnson sources his bulk copper from CMX Metals. “Brass is a pretty resistant metal, but if it’s not cared for it will tarnish,” he says. “I spray the finish with clear lacquer.”

This process makes the frog plaques look pristine and have helped put Angels Camp on the map. For his exterior castings located near water he prefers manganese bronze because it provides tensile strength but won’t rust. “Brass has many uses and it’s easily machinable. Brass and bronze has that mystique of always looking good, better than iron or steel,” Johnson says.

The art of the foundry may be slowing down, but Valley Pattern keeps casting, a testament to the enduring love of brass and bronze.

Resources:

Valley Pattern & Manufacturing, Inc., 1115 E. Jackson St., Stockton, CA, (209) 463-1162

Also in this Issue:

Archives:

2017   |   2016   |   2015   |   2014   |   2013   |   2012   |   2011   |   2010   |   2009   |   2008   |   2007

Contact the Editor: