In a small, cluttered workshop down a Leesburg alleyway and behind an unmarked set of brown doors, the symbols of America are born. Quite literally.
For more than 20 years, Alex Bigler and his wife, Ila, have operated a small artisan foundry in the tiny space. With just a handful of workers, they turn 2,000-degree rivers of molten bronze into some of the country's most enduring images.
Eagle-emblazoned seals of the United States are reproduced there, cast in bronze pieces big and small to hang in courthouses across the country and U.S. embassies abroad. So, too, are plaques that announce the names of massive aircraft carriers and hand-crafted knobs that open the doors to important Washington offices.
Last week, the couple cast the 36-inch U.S. emblem that will hang in the embassy in Luxembourg. Today, they expect to pour a similar image for the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
"Almost all the buildings that today are considered national treasures, we've done work in them," said Bigler, 69. "We can make things here that no one else has patterns for."
Take the bronze doorknobs in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The heavy knobs are imprinted with the seals of one of the three government departments that originally occupied the building -- State, War or Navy. They tend to go home as souvenirs with staff members after elections, so Bigler has recast knobs for the building for every presidential transition since Jimmy Carter's, he said.
Metal casting is hard and sweaty work. The blasting furnace used to heat the metal makes a hot summer day outside feel blessedly cool. A smoldering smell given off by the molten metal invades clothes and hair.
A casting can take days to prepare. First, Bigler needs to craft a pattern from a drawing, painstakingly drilling away at wax or aluminum to create a perfect image. He is especially proud of his U.S. seals, which feature a bald eagle with arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other. He has conducted in-depth research to make sure every feather on the eagle is perfectly positioned and every detail matches historical examples of the seal.
"If you can't get your most fundamental image of your society right, then you can't get a decent starting point," he said.
Bigler and his four-person team then pack specially treated sand around the pattern. The sand hardens, allowing the pattern to be removed and leaving a perfectly shaped hole ready to be filled. The liquid metal is poured from blazing red crucibles, tipped over holes in the sand mold by hand and flowing into place in a flash of fire. After the metal has cooled and hardened, the sand is knocked away and the bronze can be buffed, polished or painted.
The process is similar to work done at foundries for hundreds of years, and Bigler said he spends time researching the craftwork of his predecessors to learn new tricks to try in his work. "Preserving the past is only half the job," he said. "The other part is to preserve the process of designing and producing these things."
There are more than 2,400 metal casting plants in the United States, employing 220,000 people, said Alfred Spada, a spokesman for the American Foundry Society. The vast majority, however, feed industry, casting everything from engine parts to pipe fittings. There are others who do similar work for the government, but Spada said small artisan foundries such as Bigler's, where work is completed by hand, are unusual.
Bigler started in the foundry business mostly as a hobby. He had worked in state government in California, and then as an urban planner and policy researcher in Washington. In the early 1970s, he and his wife became interested in horses. They helped organize a long-distance horse race through the Virginia countryside. The racers wanted belt buckles with the group's logo, but they couldn't find a workshop that could cast such a custom item. Bigler thought he could probably make the buckles himself if he tried. So he took a class and learned the process.
Soon, other horsey folks learned he could make buckles, plaques and awards for them. Pretty soon, Bigler's phone was ringing constantly with proposals for casting contracts.
"It took over the kitchen table, then the porch, then the garage, then the barn," he said. In 1980, the Biglers opened their small business in Leesburg, naming it Equestrian Forge. Ila Bigler became the company's president, handling the money and paperwork. They still use that name, though they do seals and emblems for the government under the name National Trust Foundry.
The foundry still does work for private individuals, including local artists who bring their statues or bas-relief work to Bigler to cast permanently in metal.
"It's a very specialized art. There just aren't a lot of places like it that do that," said Robin Juncal, an artist from Purcellville, who worked as resident artist at the foundry in the early 1980s. "The art community is lucky that there's a place so close."
She said Bigler has an artistic eye and often makes suggestions to his clients before their work is cast in bronze forever. That goes for his government contracts as well.
"He won't let anything out the door," she said, "unless it's practically perfect."
Foundry worker Lloyd McCarty checks the temperature of the molten bronze in the furnace, waiting for it to reach 2,200 degrees in order for it to be poured.