I knew Christina in high school, and we've kept in touch over the years. As the years passed, some of the old crowd began to wonder if she would ever marry. But she did, and now she's expecting her first. When I called her to offer congratulations, she told me that she's been getting one, maybe two calls a day from her (large) extended family. "How are you feeling?" "Can I get a copy of the ultrasound photos?" "Do you feel kicks yet? How many?" Christina was feeling overwhelmed and needed to vent a bit. "Even Great-Aunt Phyllis has weighed in -- she wants bronzed baby shoes. Do they still do that? They'd better. I'm sure she's got the shoes in the mail already." Another Great-Aunt, another mission. I went looking for bronzers and found David Hall (619-660-8710). Hall owns the San Diego County rights for the franchise bronzing business Patty-Cakes. "I purchased the rights back in 1994," he told me. Since then, he's done "quite a few shoes, but I probably do more of the hand and foot impressions."
Hall has worked with clients as old as 89, and has even taken paw impressions from cats and dogs. But mostly, he's working with small children -- "the youngest was about five hours old. I use a soft clay patty sprinkled with baby powder to keep it from being messy. The mother holds the baby and sits in a chair. I set the child's hand or foot on the patty and press down. That makes an impression that picks up most of the details in the hands and feet -- the lines and the wrinkles."
Hall makes house calls for that part of the service. Once he has his impression, he heads home to work on it. "I don't let the clay dry out. I put a little edge around the impression; I kind of roll up the clay to make a barrier. Then I pour an acrylic material into the mold; the barrier keeps it from flowing over and helps make the impression a little thicker. It gets very hard in about ten minutes. Then I have to trim off the excess material from around the impression. I file it and shape it with scissors, files, and an electric sander. The result is a three-dimensional mold of the hand or foot with a flat back."
After that, the mold is off to corporate headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama. (I'll bet Aunt Phyllis would not be surprised -- she has long lauded the South for keeping these sorts of traditions alive.) "That's where they do the actual electroplating of the metal onto the hands, feet, or shoes. We can do almost any kind of shoe, unless it's really fuzzy, or a knitted booty, or spongy. Shoes like that absorb the chemicals used in the process; they get matted down, and they don't look very good. Nowadays, it seems like I get a lot of tennis shoes or sport-type shoes. But I also get softer canvas-type shoes. Doctors are now recommending that children wear a soft shoe. But I still get some of the Stride-Rite shoes and the regular baby shoes." (I'll also bet that Aunt Phyllis sent something in the patent leather category.)
Electroplating, said Hall, is a matter of placing the shoes or clay hand/foot molds "into a tank full of chemicals. For bronzing, there's a copper-based metal rod in the tank. An electrical charge is run through the tank, and it transfers the metal from the rod to the object. It's not a hot process; it's a chemical process. You don't want to destroy the object that you're electroplating. We can electroplate almost anything, as long as it's not organic -- like an apple. However, I once did bronze an umbilical cord. It was dried and tied off with a knot at one end." The process takes a while, layer upon layer added to the object, with excess bits being filed off between dips. "You dip it two or three times, and you end up with a thick layer of metal."
Bronze objects get the antique treatment: "shiny copper, but with a little bit of darkness to accentuate the lines and details. Then the finished object is coated with a clear lacquer to keep it from tarnishing. It shouldn't be cleaned with any kind of cleaner -- that might take the lacquer off. Just dust it with a soft cloth."
The finished product goes back to Hall. If he's dealing with hand or foot casts, he'll mount them "on plaques or in shadow boxes. There are lots of different ways to do it." Cost depends on mounting style and the type of metal finish. "We do more than just bronze. We have pewter, porcelain, silver, and gold. Prices vary from $89 for a single bronzed shoe, handprint, or footprint, to $400 to $500 if it's done in gold. To get both hands or both feet in bronze on an oval plaque would be around $189 . A portrait stand would run around $249 , and that includes a nameplate. We have a $10 shipping and handling fee, but I do come out to the house to get the impressions, and I deliver the objects when they're done. Turnaround time is about eight to twelve weeks. I'm busiest in September/October, because people like to have them done in time for Christmas." He also gets a fair amount of business from his displays at various county fairs. "Some people at the fair don't like it, but others love it."
Hall noted, "Real bronzing is done with metal. It's a family heirloom, and it will last a lifetime. Some companies paint the shoes with bronze paint, add a thick lacquer, and call it bronzing. After a while, the surface starts cracking and peeling. At the fair, I encounter that about five or six times a year. We can clean those shoes up and 're-plate' them with actual metal. They turn out pretty nice."