Authors Introductory Note: This article describes my experience in obtaining, refining and casting scrap lead for later use in bullet casting. The safety precautions in this article are the actual ones I used in this process, and I believe them to be adequate to protect against contamination to yourself and the environment. However, I am neither a doctor nor a chemist, and if you attempt this yourself you should do your own research.
There are many articles on SurvivalBlog about the utility of bullet casting. This is true, especially for someone who has older cartridge guns and black powder guns, but there are also modern guns that can use lead bullets.
This article is not about casting lead bullets; however, it will be about one step back in the process. Where does the lead you want to use to cast with come from, and what do you do with it once you have it? I am going to tell you about my experience obtaining, refining, and casting scrap lead into ingots.
In my experience, there are two kinds of scrap lead that you are most likely to find in your search; wheel weights and soft lead. Wheel weights are an alloy of lead and antimony and are going to be harder than other lead that you may find. Soft lead is softer because it is purer, and without the antimony in it. Most of the soft lead that I have come across has been in the form of old roofing lead, but I have also seen lead weights. Of course, there are many other types of lead that can be found, such as medical lead, but in my experience are not as common.
So, where to get this lead? In my experience, there are a couple of good places. The first is to search local tire shops. Some of them will just give away the used wheel weights they have to save them the trouble of disposal. The place that I have had the best luck at is a couple of my local scrap yards. Yes, I had to pay for lead at a scrap yard, but its quite inexpensive, and they will usually have it in large quantities. Be aware that rules regarding the sale of lead may vary from state to state, but where I live its perfectly legal for the scrappers to sell to me.
There are other places to find lead. Auction sales, word-of-mouth, even posting an ad on Craigslist may lead to surprising finds. I even watched a video online of a gentleman who scored a great haul of lead at a boat auction. He bought a wrecked boat for next to nothing and was able to salvage the over 2,000 lb of ballast weight from it. The weight was pure lead. Now that’s a big score!
Once the supply of scrap lead has been obtained, the next thing should be sorting. Make sure that there is as little non lead items in the scrap as possible. Wheel weights will be a lead weight that has been cast around a steel clip. The clip is used to attach the weight onto the tire, and it’s not possible to separate them before melting the lead.
Wheel weights require an extra level or sorting. Most wheel weights are lead, but the scrap wheel weights they will inevitably have some steel and zinc wheel weights. As experience is gained, it will easily be able to spot the difference, but to start there are some clues. Some weights have the material cast right into them, PB for lead ZN for zinc. Tap the weight against a hard surface and the resulting sound will be different for lead, zinc and steel. Finally, keep a side cutter handy. If the weight is crimped by a side cutter, the resulting cut will be much deeper on a lead wheel weight than a zinc one.
The best thing to do for a beginner is to find a few examples that you know are either lead or zinc, and then examine them carefully by the look, weight, sound and the side cutter method. It won’t take long before its easy to tell the difference.
Getting Ready to Smelt Lead
So, the lead has been collected and sorted. Now it’s time to get everything together that’s needed to successfully smelt the lead. Everyone will have their own setup to do this, but these are the things that I have, and they work well for me.
1) A Heat Source: I use the propane burner from a turkey fryer. Its compact, it uses smaller grill size propane cylinders, and it puts out enough heat to melt the lead quickly.
2) A Crucible: A crucible is just another word for a container to melt your lead in, and since lead has such a low melting temperature, there are several good options for this. For my crucible, I have a large cast iron Dutch oven. It holds a good amount of lead and the size is nicely matched to the burner.
3) Molds: My molds are collection of about a dozen Lyman and RCBS molds that I have collected over the years. Other options that I have seen used are; bread pans, cornbread pans, and homemade molds using angle iron. Basically, anything that can hold the lead and withstand the heat will do. Note once a container is used for molding lead, then it should not be used for any other purpose
4) Scrap Container: A container is needed to put all the wheel weight clips and the slag that you scrape off the lead. Luckily for me, the wheel weights I bought came in a 55 gal drum, so the container was provided to me.
5) Tools: At a minimum of at least one large metal spoon, one large slotted metal spoon, and one large metal ladle are needed.
6) Flux: There are a lot of possibilities for flux. Sealing wax and candlewax are the most commonly used, but I’ve even heard of someone using used motor oil. The flux is used to give the impurities in the lead something to bind to and make them easier to remove.
7) Safety Equipment: There will be a section on safety at the end of this article, but I feel that I should mention safety here.
All the equipment is together, now what to do? First, arrange everything so that it can be easily accessed. The sorted lead should be close to the heat source, and there should be a nice flat surface close by to empty the molds on. The smelting area should also be one that is away from places where people, especially children, frequent.
Next, set up the burner. Make sure that it is set up on a smooth level surface away from any buildings. Once the burner is set up it should be lit, and the crucible placed on it. The crucible should be left empty on the burner for a few minutes to allow it to warm up. Then, add lead to the crucible. Since there is a lot of air space when pieces of scrap lead are piled on each other, you can stack the lead above rim of the crucible, and it will melt down. However, extreme care should be taken not to over stack the crucible. The last thing that is needed is to overload the crucible and have molten lead spilling everywhere! Depending on the size of the burner, the size of the crucible, and the type of lead that you are smelting, it should take 10-20 minutes to melt.
Once the lead is melted, it is time for the first fluxing. I prefer to use either paraffin wax or candlewax. Add the wax into the melted lead and allow it to melt. Depending on your heat source and what wax you use, the wax may self-ignite. If it doesn’t, you can use either a match or a lighter to start the wax burning. Once the wax has finished burning, use the solid metal spoon to stir the flux into the lead, making sure that the flux is distributed throughout the melted lead.
After the flux is added, its time to remove the steel clips from the crucible, if wheel weights are being melted. The slotted metal spoon is useful for this, as you can scoop up the clips and the melted lead runs out the slots cut in the spoon. Discard the clips into a container that is set aside for scrap.
Next, scape the sides and bottom of the crucible thoroughly. After stirring in the flux and scraping the crucible, there should be a layer of slag on top of the lead. Either the solid or slotted metal spoon can be used to remove the slag. After this I recommend fluxing a second time. The second fluxing should follow the same procedure as the first. The lead has now been melted and purified.
Now it’s time to cast the lead into ingots. If you have Lyman, Lee, or RCBS style molds, and there is enough lead in your crucible, you can simply dip the mold into the lead and scoop up enough lead to fill up the mold. Once the lead level in the crucible is low enough that the molds can’t be dipped into the lead, a ladle can be used to take the lead from the crucible and pour it into the molds.
The now full mold should be held steady and level for a few moments to allow the lead on the surface to cool and harden. The mold can then be set on a level surface for several minutes to fully cool. This is where having several molds can come in handy. While the first mold is cooling, the rest of the molds can be filled and set aside to cool.
Once the lead in the molds has cooled enough to harden the ingots can be removed by simply inverting the molds and tapping them on the ground. Care should be taken to ensure that the entire ingot has cooled enough to harden. If the mold is emptied before the lead is cooled all the way through, it is possible that the thin layer of hardened lead on the outside can crack open, and molten lead spill out from the center. Additional care needs to be taken as well, because even though the lead is cool enough to harden, its still hot enough to burn skin.
Care should be taken when the process is complete. Any stray bits of lead should be cleaned up, as well as any pieces of scrap or slag. Once the equipment is cool, it should be put away in a place that is not accessible to children. The lead itself should be stored in a similar place as well.
Don’t forget that anyone who participated in the process will need to be cleaned up as well. This is the process that I use. I undress as far as I can on my back steps (I live in the countryside, so no neighbors looking in my back yard to scandalize). My washer and dryer are next to my backdoor, and the clothes go immediately into the wash.
Next, take a thorough shower, making sure to wash your hair and use plenty of soap. After showering, wipe down the shower with a towel, and place any used towels in the wash as well. I recommend using plenty of laundry soap, using the heavy setting on your washing machine, and washing the load twice. As an extra layer of precaution, you can run the washing machine empty an extra time.
Lead is a heavy metal, and if you have any on your clothes or body, then it is relatively easy to wash off with soap and water. While the clothes are washing, I walk outside and rinse off my shoes. I wash them off over the same bucket that I used to put the wheel weight clips.
All of this precuation may seem excessive, but you want to limit even the possibility of exposure as much as possible. While lead is toxic, it is not nearly as toxic as many things may encounter, especially if you work in industry or agriculture. The most dangerous thing about lead, however, is that it is a cumulative toxin, meaning that once its in your body, its hard to get out. Because of this, many exposures to small amounts of lead over time can be just as dangerous to someone as a single large exposure.
Safety and Other Notes
The importance of safety can’t be overstated. If the correct precautions are taken, it is possible to stay safe while reclaiming and smelting scrap lead. If safety is ignored, it is possible to be exposed to lead, or to be badly burned.
First, it is advisable to wear a dust mask when sorting your lead. This will prevent you from inhaling any dust that may have lead in it. When it comes to the actual smelting, I would recommend setting up outside on a day with a light to medium breeze. This will provide excellent ventilation. I also wear a high-quality dust mask during this. If you are using propane as a heat source, you can control the temperature of the lead easily. If you don’t let the lead get super-heated, you shouldn’t have to worry about lead fumes. However, if you are meting wheel weights there can be fumes from the glue used to hole the weight to the clip, and there can be fumes when the flux ignites. Therefore, good ventilation is needed.
In addition to a dust mask, a heavy, long sleeve shirt, heavy pants, work gloves, work boots and a face shield are all recommended. These will all protect in case of an accidental spill of a moderate amount of molten lead.
The first time I did this, it was a hot summer afternoon. This coupled with the heavy clothes that I had on led me to get overheated by the end of the project. Always keep plenty of water handy and stay hydrated. Also, don’t be afraid to take a break in a nice shady spot if you get too hot.
Care should be taken with water around molten lead. I’ve heard it said that even a single drop of water in a lead pot could cause an explosion, but this isn’t true. If amount of water that is dropped onto the molten lead is small enough that the heat from the lead evaporates it before the water sinks below the surface of the lead, all is well. The problem is when enough water is poured on the lead that it can’t evaporate before it starts to sink into the molten lead. The remaining water is then converted to steam inside the pot of lead. When it turns to steam, it expands rapidly in what is called a steam explosion. This in turn ejects molten lead from the crucible in all directions. Aside from directly pouring molten lead onto yourself, a seam explosion is the most dangerous thing that an happen when smelting lead.
JWR Adds: Another cause of ejected molten lead is an un-expended primer getting mixed into scrap lead. Remember: Wear all the safety gear, all the time!
If common sense and a few basic precautions are used, using the method that I have described should protect you and allow you to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Its hot and sweaty work, but the feeling of satisfaction that comes from looking a large stack of ingots at the end of the day is real.
One final thing that should be discussed is the question of whether it is safe to smelt battery lead for bullets. While there are certainly differing opinions on this subject, I tend subscribe to the opinion of better safe than sorry. The sulfuric acid in a battery can create some nasty fumes that are best avoided.
What to do with the lead after all this? The obvious answer is to use it to cast bullets. That is the main reason why I like using one-pound ingot molds. The 1lb ingot fit nicely into my 20 lb Lee lead pot, and its easy to add 1 or 2 ingots at a time as you use the lead, which cuts down on the reheating time. You can also cast fishing sinkers or other useful things. Another use for the lead is to sell to others who cast bullets. I have found that this is a good way to earn a little extra money.
This is the first article that I have written for SurvivalBlog, but I hope it’s not my last. I want to thank all of you who read this article and I also welcome your feedback in the comments. Finally, a big thank you to my wife, who is my favorite proofreader.