Smelting Wheel Weights into Lead Ingots

Smelting Wheel Weights into Lead Ingots

While it’s true that bullet casters can purchase lead alloys from a number of different reputable manufacturers, the fact remains that the majority of us still rely on tried, tested and true wheel weights as our primary material source.  Wheel weights have been around for many, many years, and while the push for more environmentally friendly materials has had an affect on supply, there’s still an abundance of them to be had by those willing to look.

The process of smelting wheel weights down into usable lead ingots for bullet casting is a surprisingly simple one, owing in no small part to the relatively low melting point of lead.  In this article we’ll examine how the process is done, and what kinds of equipment are necessary.

To get yourself started, you’ll need the following:

  1. Electric hot plate
  2. Stainless steel pot with strong handle
  3. Serving spoons (one with holes, one standard)
  4. Ingot moulds
  5. Thick leather gloves
  6. Respirator
  7. Wheel weights

The hot plate and other cooking-related items can be purchased cheaply at stores like Walmart or Canadian Tire; I’ve also had great luck with local thrift stores or garage sales.  Several companies produce ingot moulds; Lyman makes a very nice one (shown in the video above).  Lee Precision also produces a much cheaper, if smaller, version.  For the truly budget-conscious, a standard mini muffin tin from your local dollar store works nicely as well.  Leather gloves and respirators rated for working with lead and other heavy metals can be found at most hardware and building supply stores.  A good thick pair of leather gloves will save you a lot of trips to the burn ward, while the mask just makes sense with lead being both poisonous and carcinogenic.  Safety is always paramount in the shooting sports, and smelting wheel weights is no exception.

That of course, leaves the wheel weights!  To this day I still shake my head when I hear folks complaining about the challenge of sourcing wheel weights.  Invariably these people tend to be one of two varieties; residents of lead-free California (my sympathies to you), and the sort who show up to businesses asking for freebies and handouts.  Wheel weights, like everything else, are not free, and mechanics are hard-working men and women with bills to pay just like the rest of us.  Most of them will have arrangements to sell discarded wheel weights to metal recyclers– the margins aren’t very high, but I’ve yet to meet a mechanic who’d turn down free coffee money.  When approaching a business about collecting their wheel weights, exercise a little common sense and offer to buy them for a fair price.  Currently I pay $0.25/lb to local businesses and pick them up on my own time and my own dime.  The result of this has been a never-ending supply of raw material for bullet casting.  Local shops will call me when they’ve got a few hundred pounds they’re looking to unload, and I never have to worry about running out in the middle of shooting season.

With wheel weights in hand it’s time to get cooking.  On a clear day with no chance of rain, select a level surface away from open windows, and any areas reserved for eating or growing food.  Set the hot plate to the highest setting and load the pot with wheel weights.  Depending on the ambient air temperature, a full pot of wheel weights will take about 15-20 minutes to melt completely.  At this point you’ll begin to notice the dirt, grime and non-lead metals have risen to the top where they’ll float above the lead.  Using the serving spoons, scoop all the non-lead metals from the mix and into a metal bucket to be disposed of later (this can actually be sold to the metal recycler if you’re so inclined).

At this stage you should have a largely liquid product.  The top will still have some dirt, grease and other impurities as well as a thin layer of oxidized lead; this is called the ‘dross’.  Using one of the serving spoons, skim the dross from the surface of the lead and dump it into the same metal waste bucket.

Finally with just the lead alloy remaining, it’s time to pour.  Ensure your mould is resting flat on a heat-proof, level surface, and begin pouring the mix into the cavities.  Allow the mix to cool and harden, after which the clean ingots can be extracted by simply turning the mould over and tapping it on the ground.

Smelting wheel weights may not be the most fun part of bullet casting, but it doesn’t have to a chore, either.  Because of the time involved to get things up to temperature, this is a project best left to a day with a large window of working time.  Typically I’ll pick a weekend day when I’ve got four or five hours to kill outside doing yard-work, or vehicle maintenance.  This allows me to keep an eye on things, pausing when I need to perform specific tasks as necessary, without otherwise sacrificing a perfectly good range-day.

If you time things well and prepare in advance, one or two smelting sessions a year can provide you with enough lead ingots to produce tens of thousands of bullets at a fraction of what it would cost to purchase them.

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