Sometimes a project gets started with something as innocent as having a few waffles.
I was at my uncle’s house having breakfast, and I noticed that he was using a quaint electric waffle iron. It looked like it dated from maybe the 30’s or 40’s, and it was pretty cute. The thing that really caught my interest was that the waffle “iron” had aluminum grids on it. I realized that I could probably buy an electric waffle iron, make some new grids for it, and turn it into a personalized waffle making machine. That thought put quite a sequence of events into motion.
The first order of business was to select the right candidate for conversion. I went to a number of thrift stores, but most of their waffle irons didn’t have much character. However, I did discover a few things about electric waffle irons. There seemed to be a wide variety of ways the grids were mounted and heated. Some grids were clipped in and could be popped out for cleaning; others had the heating element and grid as a single integrated unit. Clearly I needed to steer clear of those.
So it was off to eBay for me. What did I find? 154 waffle irons, almost all of them different. Luckily I could ignore the cast iron ones which were designed for use with a coal stove, and that cut the list down to something like 50 electric irons. After much indecision, I eventually bid on an iron which I thought looked nice and seemed to be in excellent shape. I couldn’t tell from the pictures if the thing was going to be easy to retrofit with custom grids, but it seemed worth the risk. No one seems to take pictures of the inner workings of the waffle irons they’re selling on eBay. Not surprising I guess.
I won the auction, and a few days later the iron was at my house undergoing a thorough cleaning and disassembly. I was lucky that the iron had heating elements which simply screwed onto the grids. Removing these elements was a bit ticklish because I could tell that the fragile heating element would be very easy to break, and there’d be no real hope of re-attaching it if it did. So I removed the heating elements from their nest of hook-up wires, which felt a bit like defusing a sticky 50-year-old time bomb.
After the heating elements were out, it was nice to give the rest of the iron a very thorough cleaning. WD-40 did a good job of cutting through the ancient baked-on oil and flour mixture that filled every nook and cranny. I wouldn’t recommend using it on any section that you can’t later de-grease, or on parts which are going to be coming in contact with food, but for cleaning parts like the hinges, it really did the trick. I was thinking about giving my Mom a little fire extinguisher as one of the auxiliary gifts. 95% as a joke.
The plan was to cast new replacement grids out of aluminum so I needed to come up with a pattern. The original grids had been die cast and had various knobs and bumps that were drilled and tapped to take mounting screws. I realized it would probably be a lot easier to use the back half of one of the actual grids as the pattern for the back of my new grids. I used auto body filler to fill all the waffle grid holes and remove some of the extraneous details which would make it harder to cast in a sand mold.
What about the actual grid design?
I thought it would be best to make a board-mounted pattern and design it so the deepest parts of the mold were less then halfway through the board. As long as I kept the outline of the design symmetric I could use the same pattern to cast both the top and bottom grids.
The plan was to give the waffle iron to my mom for Christmas. She and her husband Stan have been building a victorian home in Historic Rugby, Tennessee. Since Stan likes Calla Lilies, they named the house “The Calla Lilly Cottage”. I thought the house would be a nice theme for the grid design, so I decided to make the Calla Lilly Cottage Waffle Iron.
I drew sketch after sketch trying to make a design that embodied Calla Lilly Cottage but was simple enough to act as a practical waffle iron. The design had to have a balance of high and low regions so that the waffles wouldn’t be too fat and doughy or thin and crispy.
Eventually I settled on a design that produced a simple house silhouette-shaped waffle with a calla lilly embossed on it.
I decided to lay out the design on thin poplar, cut out the rough high and low areas, carve in the details, and then glue and fillet the whole thing back together. This was by far the most time consuming part of the construction. I put more then the usual amount of draft on the pattern because not only would the waffle pattern have to come out of the sand, but waffles would have to come out of the iron, so I based my draft on the amount of draft on your average waffle griddle squares.
Casting begins, but time is running out
Finally the pattern was finished. The iron was cleaned up and ready to go, and the stage was set to cast the new grids and get a move on. I made a board-mounted pattern with alignment pins so I could use the original waffle iron grids in conjunction with the calla lilly pattern. This required making a flask with some very long alignment pins so the flask could maintain its alignment both with the board in place and after it was removed. So I made a new flask with long dowels, but that was the cause of the first big failure of the project.
The Christmas holiday was fast approaching, and I still had a long way to go with the project. The special flask made it so I could only cast one iron at a time, and that meant pretty much one casting per night. It was down to the last week, and I really needed to get two good castings right out of the gate in order to be able to have enough time to finish the project.
Then disaster struck. I rammed up the mold as usual, separated the flask, and removed the pattern. So far so good. The cope (the top part of the flask) was pretty darn heavy. The grids are perhaps 7″ across, and that meant the cope was maybe a foot on a side. With it rammed full of sand it weighed as much as two cinderblocks. As I was heaving it back into place and aligning the unfamiliar alignment pins, I (unbeknownst to me) brushed the face of the sand with one of the alignment pegs. This cut a channel from the mold cavity to the outside world. And I didn’t know.
Fountain of molten aluminum!
So I fired up the furnace, and melted a large charge of aluminum. I used cut up pressure cookers and other things that I felt were probably semi-food-safe flavors of aluminum. I got everything up to temp, skimmed the dross off as usual, and then went to pour. As I poured, a stream of aluminum shot out the far side of the mold and began to pool on the ground.
I stopped pouring into the mold. I poured the remaining aluminum into the muffin tin ingot molds, but I could tell that the casting was shot for sure.
The interesting thing about the resulting casting was that you could see the exact path the the rouge dowel took as it cut that channel. The aluminum frozen into the channel had the exact shape of the dowel’s path.
The other interesting outcome was that the form created by the spilled aluminum was rather beautiful.
The aluminum was on concrete, but the puddle actually spanned a gap in the concrete that was filled with a piece of wood. The wooden strip burned and produced a nice colored line across the form. I’m thinking about making that into a lamp.
As far as casting screw ups go, no one was hurt and I got two interesting pieces out of it, but it didn’t exactly help my time table. The next two nights of casting went without a hitch, but I still had the task of cleaning up and machining the castings.
I had designed the main casting with a sprue that was centered and perpendicular to the face of the iron. I did this by taking advantage of a long mounting screw that was centered on the original waffle iron grid. This gave me a handy shank to mount in the lathe so I could clean up the casting and make it fit exactly into the waffle iron body. Now you know why I selected a round iron rather then a rectangular one. This turned out to be a god send in terms of getting the whole thing to fit. The cast plates had warped a little as they cooled, so it was nice to have some extra meat on the casting that I could face off on the lathe so they would fit together nicely. (There should be a little space between the plates so that steam can escape from the waffles.) If I had it to do again, I’d probably leave a good 1/8″ of extra material on there and just face off the whole thing.
In the end I took one extra day of vacation and worked from 9am to about 2am. Fitting, machining, sanding, filing, drilling, tapping, wiring. *phew* Finally the iron was finished. A few hours later I was off to the airport with my waffle iron in a carry-on bag. There was no way I was going to check that baby! I was hoping to get to see an X-ray of the iron at the security gate, but no such luck.
Where there’s Smoke there’s Wire!
Of course, I hadn’t had much time to run a test of the iron. I had checked for shorts and continuity across the coils, but that was about it. On Christmas Day the iron was put to the test and FAILED. The iron would not heat up. I quickly discovered that the cord that had come with the iron was a dud. All that testing of the iron’s wiring, and I never checked the cord. Crazy. So we were off to Drogan’s for a new cord.
Was that the happy ending? No. As the iron came up to temp, we noticed some smoke! I had given my mom a kitchen fire extinguisher as a warm-up gift for the iron, but I hadn’t actually thought we might need it! Actually it wasn’t that big a deal; it was just a thin plume of smoke rising from the top grid. The ancient wiring was slowly smoking because it was still somewhat soaked in oil and pancake batter.
Argh! This fix required another trip to Drogan’s for a few lengths of high temp appliance wire and some crimp connectors. I spent an evening doing the ticklish bomb defusing dance trying not to break the heating elements while attaching replacement wires. The iron was reassembled with fresh new wiring, and finally it was taken on its first fully successful waffle run.
We set about making a whole pile of waffles. The waffles came out easily and were lovely. For added fun, the pattern in the waffles fills with butter and syrup. Mom, Stan, Cheryl, my sister Inge, and our friend Heather all tried a few waffles. Finally the Calla Lilly Cottage Waffle Iron was fully operational.
It’s funny casting a waffle iron grid because the iron grid, in turn, is used to cast the food batter. Now mom can have fun casting waffles in the kitchen. I had originally thought it would be fun to make more custom irons, but I think I’ll put that off for a good long while. It is rather a crazy amount of work, but can be pretty rewarding.
I was thinking it would be somewhat easier to make two matching “mirror image” grids by sandwiching two thin boards together, cutting them at the same time with a scroll saw, and mounting them on two different boards. If the pattern were a simple two-level design without any carved bass relief, it wouldn’t be to hard to knock a pair out, glue them up on two boards, and then fillet them with filleting wax. That would be a lot faster then my approach. Maybe in a few years I’ll have forgotten enough about how much work it was that I’ll be willing to embark on another one.
The original page in the Internet Archive.