Casting Lead Cannonball Sinkers & Jigs

Unless you are a fly fisherman, you will more than likely need some weight to use in your fishing.  The common metal for years has been lead.   Recently (2012) some Federal rules have trickled down to State levels for abandoning this material.  With this regulation, the price of lead fishing sinkers have risen considerably, even with the possibility of them being regulated off the market (to possibly save some endangered, or not so endangered wildlife that may ingest the lost lead).  But for now, many fishermen will purchase moulds to be used in casting their own weights.  These moulds are usually made of aluminum & depending on the size of the weight, may contain cavities to cast from 1 to 4 at a time.

Lead in many forms can be found in old plumbing, roof flashing, underground cable sheathing, or wheel weights (which are a bit harder, but work fine).  Since the new regulations, wheel weights are hard to find from tire shops anymore.  But scrap metal buyers are a good source to look.

Equipment Needed ;  Shown in the photo below, lead cannonball fishing weights, from 1oz. to 6oz. are being cast using a common propane powered camp stove.   Many weights have been cast using Coleman gas camping stoves, and a old coffee can.   These camp stove setups are probably the most common method, but it is hard to pour a 12# lead downrigger ball using a small ladle out of a 15# capacity lead pot, but be fast enough in your pouring to not have the lead in the mould partly solidify before you get the next ladle full poured into the mould.  It can be done IF the mould is hot, IF you are fast, and IF you do not mind if there are a lot of wrinkles in the finished product.  This does not effect the usefulness of the weight, just some unsightly irregularities.

The downrigger weights in the background were cast using the setup in the 2nd photo below.

A more commonly seen lead casting style setup

Shown in the photo below is a lead casting setup using a propane powered crab cooker, where a large pot holding enough lead to pour 12# downrigger balls easily and of course also smaller cannonballs from 3oz. to 8oz. are being cast.

An extensive lead casting setup

As seen in the above photo, a propane crab pot cooker is the source of heat.  The melting pot is a bit above what the average caster will need.   It is a home-made unit made of  6″ well casing with a bottom welded in and handles onto the sides.  The handle with the Tee has a 3/4″ section of pipe over the 1/2″ shaft before the handle was welded on.  This provides for a cooler hand hold if needed than just the welded on rod.  The handle on the opposite side only has a 1/2″ rod about 12″ long  welded to the pot, with another section of 3/4″ pipe slid over it, making for a lesser size when not being used and an adjustable length handle for the helper.

The above photo was set up for a one man operation, (however two man is preferred).  Here the off side handle was supported on the upper concrete floor by (2) wooden 2X4″s.  The mould was set so the pot could be pivoted on the off side handle and the pourer could adjust his positioning so the pouring ladle’s pouring lip coincided with the sprue hole of the mould.  The mould was supported high enough to not require a lot of movement on the operators part.  The aluminum pan under the mould is there to make cleanup easier for any over-pour.

This pot doubles as a melting pot and pouring ladle for the large downrigger moulds and is controlled by the person holding onto the Tee handle.  It is also then used as a primary pot for dipping a smaller ladle into to pour the smaller cannonball or jigs.   It measures 6″ diameter by 6″ deep which easily holds 40# of lead.  A pouring lip was heated then forged into one of the upper sides.

This propane regulator is a 10# regulator designed for a burner of this type as compared to a 3 1/2# regulator found on your Bar-B-Que grill.

Other items needed would be a shallow sieve type strainer scoop, to skim off any floating debris or wheel weight steel clips.   Then a old metal coffee can or something to dispose of the skimming’s into would be needed.  And leather gloves would also be a preferred item to have available also.   A pair of large pliers can come in handy and also a pair if side cutting pliers to clip off the retained sprues on the cannonballs or jigs.

A long shaft thermometer going up to about 1000 degrees is needed if you are to have consistent temperatures as you want the initial temperature to be near 750 degrees.  The old method of testing was to find a cedar stick about the size (or a bit smaller) of a lead pencil, and when the temperature was hot enough, when inserting this cedar stick into the melted lead for about 20 seconds, if it ignited and was burning after you pulled it out, your temperature was good.  Another good item to have is a container of rosin, this is just the stuff you purchase at a sports store for baseball pitchers.  If the metal being used is scrap, which could have impurities in it, when it is hot enough, you can sprinkle some of this rosin on top of the melted metal, then stir it in.  If the metal is hot enough, the rosin will catch on fire and burn.  This burning rosin has the effect of blending the metals while bringing the impurities to the top for skimming.

You will also need something to lay the hot poured weights on.  Usually I use an old folded over bath towel or shop rag.  This protects the hot weights when they drop out of the moulds.  You do not want a section of Nylon carpet however (melts too easily).

You can use a old wooden hammer handle or block to use to rap the moulds if need be to remove the newly cast weights out of the mould.  Sometimes just a pliers does the job.

You will also need to purchase or make yourself the eyes that go into the mould to attach the line/downrigger clip into.  These are made in different sizes to match the moulds which are relatively cheap.  The moulds usually have specifications on them indicating the sizes of the eyes needed.  For casting jigs, the special jig hooks required are also specified on the moulds.

Operation ; You will need to purchase the proper brass eyes as mentioned above for cannonballs or other normal weights and also hooks for the jigs.   The moulds usually have listed the proper model numbers of the hooks that fit each cavity.  If you are casting multiple sizes, some cavity sizes give an option of a couple of size hooks allowable.  Try to purchase moulds that give you an overlap of sizes that interchange, which cuts down on the number of hook sizes you need to purchase.  Jig hooks are usually sold in quantities of 100 each.  If you are going to be using them in saltwater, get the cadmium plated hooks over any copper flash coated.   Some weights, like bank sinkers do not use separate eyes, but have them cast integral with the weight.  

Get all of your equipment together then start your heat source with your pot in place over the flame.  Depending on your heat source, and the amount of lead you are trying to melt, it may take awhile to get up to casting temperature.  Test the lead for being hot enough as described above.  Once it is up to temperature, you can turn down the heat a bit just to maintain where you want it.  If the lead is overly hot it will have a frosted appearance on the cast weights.  If it is too cold, the color will be a bright shiny color BUT it may not be hot enough to fill all the smaller parts of the mould or solidify before the cavity is completely filled.

Use a pliers to pull the cast jigs out of the mould by grasping the sprues.  Cannonballs will sometimes fall out if you allow them to cool a bit, if not possibly use an old wooden hammer handle to rap the backside of the mould.  Most of the outer handles will be made of wood which acts as an insulator for the now hot mould.  Be careful to not beat it enough while you are still holding onto the handle that you do not strip the wood screws that are holding the wooden handle onto the metal shank of the mould.

Lay a heavy cloth down to drop the castings onto then allow them to cool.   After you cast a few and they cool enough to handle, you can cut the attached sprue off the cannonball or jig using a pair of side-cutters.  These can be returned to the pot for re-melting.  If the mould handles get so hot that you are uncomfortable, open the mould and lay it aside to cool off.   It is not recommended that you dip it in COLD water.

If the mould does not close completely, look for a bit of lead debris which may be stopping it from completely closing.   Occasionally put a few drops of oil on the hinges to ensure it does not get so hot that the hinge galls.

Safety ;  The most common problem safety here is HOT LEAD BEING SPLASHED ONTO THE OPERATOR.  This is many times because of the new metal being dropped into the melted lead that splashes, or that may have ANY MOISTURE on it when inserted into this melted lead.  The worst is the moisture when mixed with hot lead, it makes steam AND it will EXPLODE.  Even sweat dropping in the melted lead will cause this to happen.  Wear safety glasses AND long sleeved shirts, NO shorts either is a good idea.  And of course the gloves.

Weights/Lures That Can Be Cast ;  The vast array of moulds available will boggle your mind.  It seems that each style of fishing will have their own versions.  Many of these are designed for a special purpose, where ones used by catfish fishermen in the southern states may be totally different than ones used by sturgeon fishermen of the Pacific Northwest. 

The two most popular mould manufacturers are Do-It  and Hilts

Here is an assortment of cannonball weights from 1oz. to 10oz. Various sizes & styles of lead-head jigs in weights from 1 oz to a 16 oz. halibut jig.
Here are some newly cast 1 & 2 oz. jigs before the sprue was cut off  Crab pot line weight, float shaft weight & actual 4 1/2# pot weight
Shown here are heavier sinkers normally used for ocean surf fishing or estuary fishing for sturgeon Here is a old style line slip sinker, kidney mooching sinkers & a cannonball sinker 
Cannonball mould in 4, 5, & 6 oz. size.  The jig mould casts 1, 1 1/2 & 2 oz.  Notice the jig hooks in place

Do It Yourself Molds ;  If you are on a limited budget or need to cast odd-ball weights, make your own moulds.  MANY years ago when I could not find any commercial sea bass jigs available,  I borrowed a 3 oz. jig from a friend, waxed it, then used it as a pattern that was used for making a impression (top and bottom) then made my own mould out of Plaster of Paris cast in a small cardboard box.  This makeshift mould did not have a long life expectancy, but it produced enough 3 oz. jigs to account for some meals from a few fishing trips before the mould broke because of the repeated heatings. 

Believe it or not, I have saved two of these old jigs that are now  50 years old.  On one the feathers are pretty tattered and most of the effective parts missing, but the memories are still there.  The other was an improvement using a hoochie for the tail.

Remnants of old 3 oz.  jigs made from a Plaster of Paris mould

The Plaster of Paris or Bondo would really work better for smaller weights, even oil soaked sand for larger single moulds.  When doing it yourself, use a small cardboard jewelry box or similar with a size to accommodate you intended weight.  Wax the pattern or use a gunsmith’s fiberglass release agent, pour your Plaster of Paris or Bondo in enough to become the bottom, press in your pattern 1/2 way down.   Let it set up, then add a wax paper cut out close to the outer shape of the pattern, lay this wax paper to separate top from the bottom side.  Then let it set up.  Don’t forget pour spout and one good thing for this is to use the tip of a dinner candle.  You need some method of aligning the two halves when you do the pouring.  This could be simply using the cardboard box as a alignment, or drilling a hole through opposing corners, which would later accommodate alignment pins.

If Plaster of Paris is used, you need to be sure the moisture has dried before you make the initial pour, otherwise you could get an explosion because of steam being created.  HOT splattering lead is not something you even want to be close to.

Some fishermen use drywall plaster for the simple pyramid sinker molds.  Get some wet plaster and put into a small paper cup.  Take a pyramid sinker and coat it with Vaseline, and stick it into the wet plaster (pointy side down), then let dry.  Once dry, pull the sinker out of the plaster.  Again, let the plaster THOROUGHLY dry out.

Make some sinker eyes out of thick wire.  Pour hot lead into plaster mold, and stick in the wire eye into the lead before the lead solidifies.  You should be able to get several dozen sinkers out of the mold, before it starts falling apart.

Or, turn over a beer/pop can, fill the bottom indent, put a wire eye in the lead before it hardens, makes a great flat sinker for plunking.

For larger cannon ball / downrigger moulds, you could use the same method foundries use for heavy castings by using a clean sand mixed with used motor oil, to a consistency where it will stay in position when compacted around the pattern.   Again allow for the pouring hole, AND for these larger moulds you will have to allow breathing/vent holes out the top of the mould and a indexing system.  By also using a wax paper separator, you may even be able to reuse it more than once.

Comments ;  The 12# downrigger mould I have, proved to be problematic in that as the lead cools, it shrinks.  If, when the lead initially fills the mould, if you do not you do not  periodically keep refilling the sprue hole as the lead cools, (but before it solidifies) you will have a void under the sprue.  A couple of problems I found was (1) the sprue hole was too small allowing the lead retained in the sprue to solidify, and not remelt when you added more to the sinking lead in the sprue hole.  I drilled it out larger then beveled the lead in hole, which helped.  However (2) was that the vent holes in this mould were so close to the sprue hole that unless the operator was very careful to not over-pour at the instant of the final filling, that this over-pour would plug the vents, creating the same problem as a smaller sprue hole.

Also when pouring these downrigger balls in sizes from 10#, 12# or 15# sizes, you need to maintain them in position for a length of time long enough for them to solidify, with the larger sizes taking longer.  This can be only a couple of minutes for the initial pour until the mould warms up, to possibly 8-10 minutes.  DO NOT OPEN THE MOULD PREMATURELY, otherwise you may get semi-melted hot lead all over the place.

The moulds need to be securely closed when casting.  One brand supplies metal spring type clips that hold the handles closed, while others can simply be C-Clamped together.  Also you may need to occasionally check to see if there is no lead debris clinging to the face of the moulds or inside the eye recesses which would not allow the mould to be totally closed, resulting in hot lead leaking out of the crack.

If you are making larger sinkers and during the initial cooling process the lead will shrink, creating a sink hole in the sprue area.  This is not detrimental UNLESS the mould is large like a downrigger ball which can leave a large void, so to counteract this, you need to add more melted lead ASAP as the sprue metal recedes, possibly more than once, depending on the size of the mould.  Also the lead may be too hot, as the temperature needs to be near 750 degrees, which can creep up higher as you use up lead from the pot but have not lower the regulated amount of propane being used.

If you are casting lead bullets which use a sprue cutter, this is a hinged metal plate with holes aligned to the mould, can get a buildup of lead (hot lead which has soldered itself to it), this may happen after many usages OR your lead is too hot.    This soldered on lead needs to be cleaned off.  To keep it from re-soldering itself, you can rub “welder’s soapstone” on the metal, (both sprue cutter and mould block top).

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