Ultimate guide to DIY & crafting with metal
DIY and crafts are becoming more and more popular. As Pinterest is on the rise, we can see thousands of breathtaking projects. From making upcycled Christmas wreaths to turning a bicycle into the Batmobile; from gluten-free, vegan and sugar-free cookies to food hacks on cutting vegetables – Pinterest is to blame when it comes to “DIY-mania”. Many craft projects involve metal. This is no surprise – who wouldn’t like to design their own Star Wars robot or copper pipe pot plant stands that all their friends will envy? The most popular DIY projects using metal are home accessories and furniture. Kitchen countertops which can be made from large pieces of sheet metal are in vogue. As to smaller pieces – original DIY jewellery or even wired copper ribbon for Christmas (such a brilliant idea!) are just examples of what you can do with metal sheets, scraps or reclaimed metal including aluminium cans or old cutlery.
However, metal does not seem to be the easiest DIY material to start with. Thinking of bending, welding, soldering and cutting – many crafters stay away from copper, iron or steel. In this guide, however, we show that metals are great even if you just start your journey with DIY and crafts. You do not need special, ultra-expensive equipment or technical skills to create heart-stirring projects.
In this article, we will show:
– what kind of metals are good for DIY for beginners;
– how to solder easily;
– how to cut sheet metal;
– methods of bending and forming;
– how to soften stiff metals;
– craft idea examples you’ll love.
What metals are good for beginner crafters?
Some metals are more difficult to work with because of their stiffness; others can be bent and shaped easily. There is a difference between stiffness (extent to which material resists deformation) and toughness (ability to plastically deform without fracturing). Sounds too complicated? Our expert and customer, Yorkshire-based metal sculptor Eddie Roberts (website / Etsy shop), mentions that mild steel is a great material for beginners, “I would recommend mild steel. If it’s sheet metal, then 1mm is better as you can manipulate it better when cold. However, welding is a challenge”. Why mild steel? It is a carbon steel with a low amount of carbon: 0.05% to 0.25% by weight. Mild steel is more ductile, machinable and weldable. “Mild steel around 1-2 mm in any form can be made into beautiful shapes by using a grinder with a cutting disc, tin snips and/or hammer and hard surface. What you make is up to you,” – encourages Roberts.
Of course, we cannot overlook copper, bronze, brass and nickel. These look great in home décor and you can find thousands of tutorials on how to create pot plants, jewellery and other creative adornments. However, it is better to start experimenting with cheaper sheet metals – mistakes made in silver would be more painful than those made in aluminium.
When on a budget, it is also good to first start projects with reclaimed metals and learn basic techniques before starting more skill-demanding projects. Aluminium, silver and pewter are also soft and easy to manipulate. Nickel, copper and brass are medium-hard, and stainless steel is really tough stuff. If you attempt to make, for example stamped jewellery, these metals will need hardened stamp sets.
Metal sheets are available in variety of gauge.
Gauge indicates the thickness of the sheet – the larger the gauge, the thinner the metal sheet. If you look for softer sheet – easier to fold and bend – choose metal sheet with a larger number. Roberts admits he loves corten steel. “The look of corten is rustic yet can be made to look modern. Very easy to weld as the rust finish can hide any imperfections,” he says. Stainless steel is more difficult to work with but creates an incredibly elegant feel. “Stainless stain is pure luxury and style. Although it is very tough to use, manipulate and weld, it is well worth the effort,” says Roberts.
Read more about corten:
When beginning your journey with metals, planning is key. Roberts explains, “I always recommend drawing or maquette before making anything as a good plan helps immensely”.
Basic techniques for DIY with metal: how to solder easily
Soldering is one of the most fundamental skills needed to craft with metals. It is process of joining two metals together with a soldering iron. Before you start, you need to ensure basic health and safety rules. Most of the solder wires or paste contain lead, which may produce dangerous fumes. Remember to have a well-ventilated area to craft in and, if possible, use a smoke absorber.
Another thing to think of is that soldering iron is hot – really hot! The tip can be as high as 400 degrees Celsius, so never touch it with bare hands. Always use an iron stand, protect your eyes, and use tweezers, clamps or pliers to hold wires to be heated. Working with electro-static sensitive components? Then you need to wear ESD (Electro-Static Discharge) protection. “A soldering iron is cheap and easy to use,” says Roberts.
Wondering which soldering iron to choose? On the market, there is wide choice of soldering stations, irons and guns that vary in shape and size. It is a good idea to invest in soldering iron with electronic temperature control so you always know the iron is hot enough. Iron that is too hot can damage projects and burn the circuits too. Most of the good soldering stations need 102 minutes to reach the desired heat.
You also need a solder, usually in the form of solder wire. The most commonly used are alloys of 60% tin and 40% lead, or 63% tin and 37% of lead. Solder with smaller proportion of lead is recommended for soldering smaller pieces. Before the first use, you need to prepare your iron tip by coating, heating and covering with solder (tinning the top).
When soldering, always keep the sponge in the ironing stamp damp with distilled water. This water is also used to clean the iron top before every use. You always need to keep your work area and all components clean – any dirt will stick to the solder!
Ready to solder? Hold your soldering iron as a pen, control the heat, and remember to work fast – a soldering operation should be completed in less than 2 seconds!
How to cut sheet metal
Cutting sheet metal and wire does not require any special skills or equipment. We do, however, recommend using gloves as the edges can be very sharp. Thin sheets of brass or copper (e.g. 30 – 36 gauge) can be cut evenly using standard household scissors.
If you want to get artsy and experiment with circular shapes, an X-acto knife can come in handy, and you can get it for as cheap as £2.
For straight lines, use a metal ruler. Thicker sheets of metal may require a couple of “passes”. Cutting circles and curves in heavier gauges may require offset metal snips (tin snips) which have rounded cutting edges (easy to find in building markets). Use them only for sheet metal and not for wires, as it can damage the cutting edges.
Top tip: In lighter gauges, you can punch holes using leather hole punchers or even a paper punch.
Harder metals and more complex projects may require electric shears, dovetail metal cutters with V-shaped blade, or nibblers, which are designed to cut sheet metal in any direction.
If you don’t want to bother cutting, don’t worry. We cut to size any order – for free!
How to bend and form metal easily
In industry, metal is bent in a box and pan bending brake. They come in various shapes and sizes: small ones are good for DIY projects, while huge industrial ones are used to make aircraft. This tutorial shows how to make your own box and pan bending brake. However, you can also bend thin sheet metal quite easily using wood boards. Narrow bends (e.g. flange along the edge) can be simply done with a pliers.
Top tip: Use pipes or other cylindrical-shaped objects to form sheet metal into a cylinder.
Another easy technique of shaping metal is hammering. You will need a sand pillow (to stabilise the metal; you can buy it online or make one from denim and play sand) and a standard hammer. Denting the metal with hammer blows can shape sheet metal into a dome shape. Just imagine beautiful bowls and table centrepieces you can make with a piece of sheet brass or copper!
Annealing: softening stiff materials
The easiest way to soften metals is to heat them, for example, with a blow lamp (blow torch). This method is called annealing. You need to be careful not to heat the metal too much so it won’t melt! When the metal reaches cherry-red colour, you should remove it from the heat and place it in hot water (just like the blacksmiths do). You can repeat this process as many times as you need. Working with hot metals needs extreme caution – metals can get as hot as 1000 degrees Celsius!
Metal craft examples we love – and you will, too!
Metals give you endless possibilities – you can create industrial or “cold” feel using steel and chrome, or “soft”, warm designs using copper or brass. From garden furniture to home décor; from one-of-a-kind welded mini sculptures to giant installations, the only limit is your imagination. Metals look great both in interior and exterior, and even professional sculptors sometimes cannot resist the temptation to keep their pieces. “I have many things in my garden for the family and just for me”, admits Roberts, “There are some pieces that actually break my heart to sell like Focus VII and Identity, which I loved thinking through the process and have had great attention. Sometimes the irony is not out-weighed by a price tag!”
Here are some examples of great DIYs we have chosen from around the web.
Projects from reclaimed / vintage metals:
1. This beautiful metal wreath is made from soda cans and hot glue. Golden hues are perfect for autumn, but it can be a great Christmas decoration too!
2. Steampunk lamps need some effort, but the effect is just stunning.
3. Reclaimed metals can be used for a wind chimes project – and you won’t need a lot of soldering or cutting either!
1. Elegant side table made from wood and copper pipes – because metal loves wood!
2. These copper or brass ear cuffs are easy to make and looks incredibly stylish.
3. Copper pipes again! They look great in this DIY copper pipes lamp project.
4. Everlasting flower: this copper rose is the perfect gift.
Sheet metal projects and other instructions
1. Sheet metals are great for displaying art or to use as magnetic boards. Sheet metal is used here to create a stylish, framed dry erase board.
2. Another project, using galvanised metal sheet: DIY menu board.
4. This crescent moon window medallion creates a boho feel in any interior.
5. This tutorial shows how to create hanging copper shelfing, but you can use any sheet metal of your choice – aluminium, steel, brass…
Brave enough to try making bigger projects? You can try making your own countertop or splashback for your kitchen. Copper, zinc, bronze or pewter countertops are very sought-after today. Unlike stone, they’re antibacterial, stain-resistant and very easy to clean. Stainless steel is the choice if you don’t want patina, but it’s more difficult to manipulate and use. Copper in the ever-trendy rose gold colour is antibacterial, and can create beautiful patina with green flecks. If you don’t find them appealing and want to keep your countertop rose gold – just polish the copper regularly. Zinc on the other hand is soft, easy to decorate, shape and mould. While making countertops requires some bending, splashbacks are in fact very easy to make – just be sure you get the right dimensions, order your sheet metal (we take care of cutting to size), and adhere to your wall. Copper can be simply glued to a wall surface or laminated to a back board and then installed.