I decided to do a thread on melting down scrap wheel weights for those who haven't done it before. First, get yourself some wheel weights. You might find out that these days, it's a little easier said than done. It seems to me that they're getting a little hard to come by. More and more of the manufacturers are sending out their cars with zinc, iron, and even plastic wheel weights. Sooner or later, they're going to become a thing of the past like linotype. To the best of my knowledge, wheel weights are the last of the commonly available bullet casting lead sources unless you want to pay top dollar for a commercially mixed alloy. If you've been thinking of getting into bullet casting, you might want to do it sooner than later.
A few of the big tire chains have directives from their head offices not to sell used wheel weights to private individuals. Rather, they must only be given to "licensed recyclers". No doubt some health and safety "person" in an office somewhere found out that they were made of evil lead. Then, they decided to flex the "moron muscle" between their ears to make their mark on history. Saving the world, one wheel weight at a time
A few tips for getting them. First, you'll need to talk to the service manager or owner of the garage. He/she is the person who will have the final say on who gets them. Second, when asked (and you will be asked) what you're using them for, don't tell them you're making bullets ! You don't know who you're talking to and they might be an anti. Tell them you're making downrigger balls, weights for your race car, you're re-doing the keel on a sailboat, you're making up fishing sinkers, or whatever. Just not that you're making bullets. Third, in passing conversation, don't be afraid to tell them that it's better that you get them rather than the scrap dealers. After all, they're sending them to China as scrap metal (which is true). Who doesn't hate the fact that everything is coming from China these days ? They might feel like they're getting a little satisfaction by selling them to a local guy rather than shipping them to some Chinese factory.
You can probably expect to pay for them these days. $25.00/pail seems to be around the going rate. I bought one pail for $25.00, another I got for free from 3 trips over 2 months to a garage I know. The other two, I had to pay a scrap car dealer $0.25 / lb for. That's a little steep since your average full 5 gallon pail weighs in around 160 lbs. I didn't mind it so much this time since I could see that they had been sorting them and nearly every weight was made of lead. If you're buying from a scrap metal dealer, you're going to get a mix of the same stuff you'll be getting from a garage. If you buy from a scrap car dealer, you will possilbly be getting a little bit more lead in the mix since the cars they're dealing with are older. I wish you luck in your hunting.
Now that you have your wheel weights, you have to process them into something you'd want to put into a melting pot and cast bullets with. This means you'll have to get rid of all the garbage that the guys tossed in the pails at the garage, the steel clips imbedded in the lead weights, as well as all the zinc, iron, and plastic weights. One other thing is, most of the flat "stick on" weights are softer lead which the black powder guys want. They're great for muzzle loaders, but not so much for higher speed rifle bullets.
Here's a pic of my half full buckets of weights. The lightest was 86 lbs and the heaviest was 97 lbs. My back just doesn't like slugging full pails of weights around anymore.
The first thing to take into consideration is the weather. You will be doing this outside, and there has to be an absolute ZERO chance of rain. Water, even a tiny bit, combined with molten lead will not make for a good day. Lots more on that later.
Ok. Let's get started.
Spread your weights out on your garage floor. Pick out all the garbage, old valve stems, screws, nuts, bolts, and other trash. Separate out your flat stick on weights and set them aside. You'll melt them down at the end. By sorting first, you will be doing a few good things. First, and most important, you'll be able to see if somebody at the garage put any liquids (like their old coffee) in the pail. When you're dumping weights into an already hot melting pot that still has some molten lead in it WILL ... not might .... it WILL result in the infamous steam explosion. I'll address that more a little later on.
Second, by removing as much of the paper, old valve stems, tire stickers, etc, you'll be severly cutting down on the amount of smoke that will be rolling out of your melting pot. If you leave all this stuff in and just dump in your weights, it won't hurt anything but the smoke is brutal. Also, it may catch fire from time to time. You'll already have enough toxic smoke and fumes coming out of there with the plastic coating on the weights, and the stuff you miss.
Third, it'll give you a chance to look at the weights. Once you know what to look for, you'll be able to scan for and toss a lot of the iron, zinc and plastic weights. The process I use will catch all of these during the melting process, but, why waste your time and propane heating up a bunch of scrap if you can catch it before hand.
Lead weights are sometimes marked with the letters Pb. Zinc weights are sometimes marked Zn. Iron are sometimes marked with Fe. Not all weights have marks though, so it's only one of your tools to get rid of the garbage stuff. Here's a few pictures of some of the weights you'll run into. The video following it is "the drop test". Larger iron and zinc weights will ring with a higher pitch than lead when dropped on a concrete floor. One other thing. With larger weights, if you can bend them with your hands, they're lead. Zinc and iron are a lot stonger.
Here's a video of "the drop test".http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0pG-t4WjH0
Now that you have a few buckets of "clean" and dry weights, you can get started with the melting. Stuff you'll need is as follows.
Personal protective equipment:
1. I highly recommend a full face shield, but I guess safety glasses are better than nothing.
2. A hat you won't mind ruining.
3. Heavy gloves
4. Old clothes that will completely cover you, and they should be made from natural fibers. No synthetic stuff for this job. I wear flame resistant coveralls since I have access to them.
5. Work boots.
1. A large metal pot. I used the bottom half of an old steel tank, but I've used a metal 5 gallon bucket before. It's up to you so long as it's made of steel. This will go faster if you have a piece of sheet metal to cover it with.
2. A heat source. I use an outdoor 60,000BTU propane cooking burner. I've also used a tiger torch in the past.
3. Enough propane to do the job. This melt used exactly one 20lb cylinder, but I had another on hand just in case.
4. A metal straining spoon. This is to pull out the metal clips, non-lead weights, and other garbage while leaving the lead in the pot. This should be a fairly heavy one as well. You'll be stiring very dense and heavy lead, not soup.
5. A wind break to keep your heat going to the bottom of the pot if there's a breeze on the day you do it.
6. Something to pour your lead into to form your ingots. I use muffin trays. On this particular melt, I used one that's made for rectangular mini-loafs.
7. A cookie sheet to set your muffin tray in. You'll see why later.
8. Something clean to dump your new ingots onto. I used plywood on this melt, but I've used cardboard in the past.
9. A pail that will hold some water and a cup to pour the water with. Your standard coffee cup is fine for this.
10. Something to use as a dipper to get your lead from the pot to the ingot tray. I use a stainless steel camping cup.
11. A metal can for you to dump the hot clips into.
Ok. You're ready to melt some lead !!!!
Put about 1/4 of a pail of wheel weights into your pot. Light the burner and set it to maximum. Put your wind break in place and cover the pot. The first batch will take a fair bit longer to melt since there's a lot of air spaces between the pot and your weights. Leaving some molten lead in the pot on following batches will speed things up.
Stand away from the pot while it's heating. The melting plastic on the weights, any debris you missed, and the fumes from the metal is downright toxic. If you start to feel light headed, STOP. Shut off the burner and wait for a day when there's a decent breeze. You can just assume that you're going to die if you pass out and dump a pot of molten lead on yourself. I can't stress the safety factor enough here. This little venture will require your full and undivided attention. Molten lead is very unforgiving and will burn any part of your body very badly in less than a second!!!
Ok .... the heats been on for a while ... your pot is smoking away and smells like a burning plastic and rubber dump just inside the gates of hell. If this is the case, you've done everything right so far. Every few minutes, peek into the pot to see if there's any molten lead forming between the weights. It will look like liquid chrome. Once you start to see this, get your gloves and face mask on and grab your spoon. Try to stir up the mix a bit. Drag some of that liquid lead up onto the weights that haven't melted yet. By doing so, you'll be keeping the contents of the pot at a more even temperature. What you're trying to avoid is having liquid lead in the bottom of the pot getting way above it's melting temperature. This may cause any zinc weights that are down there to melt into the mix.
Zinc is to a bullet caster what garlic is to a vampire. Lead that's contaminated with very little zinc will not fill out in a mould. Your bullets will be left with bubbles and voids, and there's nothing you can do to fix it. The only remedy is to dump the pot, and start over with a fresh batch of lead.
Keep heating and stirring the mix until it looks almost like a slushy paste. This means it's almost time to start removing the clips and other junk from the mix. If you pick up a scoop of clips and there's a bunch of lead still in the spoon, it's not quite ready yet. The picture below shows it when it's at the slushy / pasty stage. A few more minutes of heating after this stage and it'll be ready.
Keep heating and stirring until you can pick up a batch of clips in the spoon,
and only a tiny bit of lead is is coming out with them. At this temperature, the lead will stay in the pot, but the zinc weights will not have melted. Scoop out everything as quickly as you can before the temperature climbs high enough to melt the zinc weights. Dump the clips and other junk into your metal can. You have lots of time to do this safely, so don't rush too much. Just don't leave the heat on and take a 2 or 3 minute break in the middle. Your spoon full of junk should look like whats in this pail. Sorry, I should have got a pic of it sitting on the spoon.
When you have all the clips and other junk out, your clean lead will look like this. At this point, you can add some flux to clean it up a bit more if you want to. Personally, I do all of my fluxing in my casting pot.
Take your dipper/stainless steel cup, or whatever you're using and dip it in the pot. Take only about half a cup at a time. It's lead, not coffee so it's going to be heavy. Take it over and slowly pour it into your ingot tray. If you don't completely fill a cavity, don't worry about it. Just get more lead, top it up, and move onto the next one until the tray is full. Don't overflow the cavities. This will make the ingots want to stick in the pan. Make sure you leave about 2 inches of molten lead in the bottom of your pot to help transfer heat when you add more weights. More on that later.
Remember that pail of water and coffee cup I was talking about? Take about half a cup at a time and SLOWLY pour it into the cookie sheet that your ingot tray is sitting in. There's no danger of splattering lead because you're not actually pouring the water into the lead.....just into the pan that the ingot tray is sitting in. There will be steam and bubbling, but it won't be violent. Continue to add water to the cookie sheet until all of the cavities have some water under them and then leave it. By doing this, you can get away with using just one muffin pan. You won't have to wait for the ingots to cool before you dump them, and they'll be much easier to handle.
Now, back to the melting pot we go. The totally safe way to add more weights to your pot is to remove ALL of the molten lead, and let things cool down.....dump in some weights and start heating again. A faster way to get things melting is to leave 2 or 3 inches of molten lead in the pot (with the burner on high). This is probably the most dangerous moment in the entire operation due to the risk of the infamous steam explosion.
A steam explosion occurs when water, or another liquid turns to vapour instantly rather than boiling off slowly like it does on your stove. Pouring just about anything that is liquid at room temperature into a pot of molten lead will cause an explosion to occur. The problem is 2 fold. The steam itself is more than hot enough to burn you and it may have considerable force behind it. That's the good part. That REALLY bad part is, when the liquid violently turns to vapour, it blows molten lead all over the place too. This will at the very best burn you. In a worst case, you'll be dead, and your entire yard will be on fire....I KID YOU NOT !!!! I am usually the last guy to beat on the safety drum because I've been messing with this kind of thing all my life. I will however take EVERY precaution necessary to keep from being the victim of a steam/lead explosion. If you're thinking of just dumping a bucket of weights into a pot of molten lead....and there's a chance there might be a cup of water in the bottom of the pail....well, let's just make it simple and assume you're going to die.
Ok. Enough of the warnings and on with the show. Here's a VERY minor example of what will happen. DO NOT TRY THIS YOURSELF !!! Like I said...I've been messing with this stuff all my life and have a really good understanding of what I'm doing. Listen to what happens when I dump the weights in on top of the water that's dancing on top of the molten lead. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ac17VOXAsGo
Yes, I know that I look like a complete dork jumping back from the pot. Oh well. The idea was to show you how quickly it happens. You can really hear the lead hitting the steel sheet when the weights go in. Keep something in mind as well. Lead doesn't stick to steel really well. You could see the splatter that stuck to the sheet metal. Imagine how much lead actually came flying up, hit it, and fell back into the pot.....and that was with about 1/8th of a cup of water, which had already half evaporated by the time I put in the weights. Could you imagine if there was 2 or 3 cups of liquid in the bottom of your pail and the bottom 4 or 5 inches of weights were all damp? Most of the lead in that pot would have been in the trees above me. Ok. That's enough about steam explosions.
As you're dumping in your DRY wheel weights, do it slowly. As with any liquid, the lead can splash up and cover you. Just to it slowly and everything will be fine.
At this point, I want to address one more safety issue. Don't get more than 8 or so inches of lead in your pot. First, if you get more than that, it starts to get really heavy. You don't want to crush whatever your pot is sitting on. Second, there are limitations on how much heat you can deliver into your pot. If you try filling it right to the top, you're going to be there all day trying to melt it. Third, and most importantly ...... just in case the fumes get to you ..... you get distracted .... or whatever. Imagine you accidently jammed your hand into the lead while dipping out a cup. Do you want to have enough lead in there that it'll come up past your glove and fill it, or ........ would you rather (hopefully) clue into what's going on and rip your hand out quickly? With a little luck, you can rip the glove off in a big hurry and save yourself. With a little luck, you might comeout with only stinging fingers or a minor burn. If you fill your glove with lead, they probably won't try to save your hand at the hospital. Please, try and keep your lead level low.
Now, while your second batch of weights is melting, go back over to your ingot tray. It will have cooled enough to handle (with gloves on) by now. Flip it over onto the wood. With a little luck, all of your bricks will have come out. If you get one or more that stick, carefully pick up the tray and drop it face down, perfectly flat. If you drop it on it's edge, it's going to bend. Remember, they're made for muffins, not lead bricks. Don't try smacking the bottom of the cavities with a hammer or other hard object. The aluminum in the pan is pretty thin and you'll likely punch a hole in it. Now you've got a cavity that you can't use. Just work around your stuck ingot. Hopefully with a few heating and cooling cycles, it'll come out.
Ok. That's about it. Just keep repeating those steps until all of your weights have been processed. Once you've done the last batch, get the last of the lead out of your pot by scooping, dumping it, or however you chose. Put in your stick on weights, melt them down and pour them into ingots. Make sure you mark them so that you know which ones are wheel weight lead, and which ones are pure lead.
The statistics from this melt:
We started off with 705 lbs of weights, and junk in the pails.
Out of that, we pulled 34 lbs of stick on weights
After all melting was done, we finished up with 482 lbs of harder
wheel weight lead and 28 lbs of softer stick on weight lead.
Total weight of finished lead was 510 lbs.
Total number of ingots was 130 1/2 of hard lead and 7 1/4 of softer lead.
I burned EXACTLY one 20 lbs cylinder of propane
We started setting up the pot at 9:30am and finished putting the last of the stuff in my truck at 5:25pm. In that time we didn't shut off the burner once. We had 2 full 5 gallon pails of clips, zinc and iron weights, etc.
I need to thank my buddy and my apprentice mechanic, Tanner
for providing the place to do the melt, for his help, and for lunch. I also have to thank all the guys from canadiangunnutz.com for all of the information theyve provided over the years.
In closing, all the usual hygiene rules apply. Don't eat, drink, or smoke while you're doing this. Take a few minutes to wash your hands really well before you take a lunch break. Do not do this on your freshly paved driveway, beside your new car, or anything else you can't get lead on. There WILL be some spilled lead. It's pretty much unavoidable. If you accidently get some liquid in the pot, there WILL be lead EVERYWHERE. Keep your kids away while you're doing this. The fumes and smoke are toxic. Kids these days have enough issues without us adding to them. If you do get lead splashed on you, your hat, you gloves, or whatever, toss them. You don't want to be tracking the stuff into your home. One more thing. For GODS sake, don't try to use the muffin tray, spoon or cookie sheet for cooking again. If you're only going to do one big melt, toss them out when you're done.
I don't want to discourage anyone from melting their own lead. If you are aware of the risks and take steps to avoid them it can be perfectly safe. Hopefully I've made everyone reading this aware, but I haven't scared anyone off. Well, that's about all there is to it gang. Happy melting, casting and shooting.
Disclaimer: I assume NO responsiblilty for your personal safety or the safety of your property. If you decide to melt your own lead, you do so at your own risk. Common sense is your best bet for safety.
Please use it ..................... Blacksmithden
If you want to cut and paste this article, all I ask is that you keep it intact. Other than that, please feel free. Anything that helps my fellow shooters is a good thing. Cheers!!!
THE END !!!!
UPDATE: September 25 2011 -
Did another melt yesterday. I got a pile of wheel weights for a really good price as well as some other bits and pieces. I thought it would be a good idea to discuss a problem we had, and the solution.
In with my wheel weights, I got one large 80ish pound block of lead, some roof flashing, some lead pipe, some very heavy puck type 70/30 solder, and what I thought was lead wire.
The large block needed to be cut into sections in order to fit in the melting pot. First, I tried our band saw. I made it less than an inch into the block and it grabbed the blade. The blade broke, and I actually had to break out a chunk of it, which remained stuck in the block. Don't use your band saw to try and cut lead. LOL. I wound up melting it into blocks with our oxy-acetylene torch. Even then, the blocks just sat in the molten lead. After half an hour, without even melting the edges, I gave up and melted them into the pot with the torch. The block type solder was the same. Didn't want to melt, so I just did it with the torch.
The lead roof flashing sheet melted into the liquid lead ok. I rolled it up and just stirred the pot with it unit it was all gone.
What I thought was about a 40 lb blob of bunched up lead wire turned out to be copper wire, insulated with cloth insulation, and then there was lead over top of that. All said and done, I got maybe 3 lbs of lead off it before I gave up and threw it in the junk pile.
Anything that wasn't pure wheel weights, I marked with and S, representing softer stuff. I'll use that exclusively for buckshot and slugs.
All said and done, I added another 546 pounds to the stash. That pushed me well over the mark of "a ton of lead". I think I'm done guys. If I can cast all this up in my remaining years, I'll be doing well. I imagine that my wife and kids will have to get rid of the last of it after I'm in the grave. Anyway....that's it guys .... happy refining and casting!!!