‘Like working at a toy shop’: Making molten metal art with Behind the Embers

When it comes to metal, Derek Franklin is, admittedly, a bit of an enthusiast.

The former Long Beach local and Cal State Long Beach alum was 14 when he was introduced to his family’s business, Aerotec Alloys, a metal works company in Norwalk that manufactures parts and other equipment for just about any industry you could think of that might need a metal part or two: aerospace, military, maritime, automobile, medical, dental.

The company employs one of the oldest known metal-forming techniques, known as investment casting, or lost-wax casting. Basically, the method uses wax and other materials to form a hard mold that molten metals can be poured into. This method can create almost anything out of an alloy.

“Lost-wax process is what the ancient Egyptians used to do, that’s how they made all their medallions, their plaques, their plates, their gold, jewelry” Franklin said. “And understanding that one of the oldest manufacturing processes known to man was still just as serviceable and as important as it is today—it’s almost like working at a toy shop.”

It was when Franklin took over operations as vice president of the company that he started experimenting with splatter art, except unlike the ubiquitous abstract painting style that involves an artist basically slopping paint onto a canvas indiscriminately, Franklin poured molten metal and welded the jagged pieces together. It was a fun stress relief, he said, but that was about as far as his playfulness took him.

But in 2015, Franklin’s cousin died in a motorcycle accident. They were close, like brothers he said, and the loss sent him spiraling into a deep depression. Franklin decided to channel that emotion into a new project, one that would become the hallmark art piece for his metal art business, Behind the Embers.

He created a baseball bat display case inspired by a nefarious character’s choice of weapon from the AMC series “The Walking Dead”–Neagan’s Lucille baseball bat. Because of Franklin’s background with metal and woodworking, a friend commissioned Franklin to create a hellish-looking display case for the barbed wire bat.

By pouring a quarter-inch thick layer of molten copper in the box—plus a bit of epoxy, paint, and an LED light strip—Franklin created a display that made the box glow, as though it was burning embers. The display was a hit at Comic-Con.

“The initial six to 10 displays were ‘The Walking Dead’ themed, but once we started to move away from ‘The Walking Dead’ style, it really evolved,” Franklin said.

To date, Franklin has made over 50 of the custom boxes and now uses his know-how and resources to help other artists create art out of metal. If you can’t get enough of all the fiery action, check out Franklin’s Behind the Embers Tiktok where he shares videos of the forge’s daily projects.

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Cheantay Jensen is reporter and award-winning videographer who covers entertainment, art, food and culture for the Hi-lo section of the Long Beach Post. And sometimes breaking news, you know, just to keep things interesting.
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