by Eric Waddington
What types of sheet metal should I use?
Just like any other product or material, sheet metal comes in a spectrum of grades, textures, colors and thicknesses, all of which should play a role in deciding which sheet to use for your artwork. Take a look at our
Sheet Metal Directory
for a general introduction and some visual samples of the most common sheets used in artwork. For the modern/contemporary style of Nicholas Yust's metal art, he prefers aluminum, however he has an extensive line of copper designs, works regularly with stainless steel, and has done several projects incorporating bronze, brass and other materials as well. Consider the style/genre of the metal artwork you wish to create, browse through the selections of sheet metal you have at your disposal, and make your decision accordingly.
For example, one might typically expect to use copper and/or bronze for traditional or classical metal art. Aged, heat-tinted, rusted, or patina-ed sheet metal might be used for western or rustic sculptures and decor. Clean aluminum or steel might make the most sense in modern or contemporary settings.
Will sheet metal produce high-quality artwork?
Sheet metal certainly has the potential to produce extremely high quality artwork. Each material has various levels of quality which should be factored in depending on your purpose. For example, aluminum has "pop can" grade, industrial grade, automotive grade, and even aerospace grade options. Within steel sheet you can find mild steel, cold-roll steel, and stainless steel (to name a few.) When you are choosing sheet metal for your artwork, consider the application first and then select a sheet metal with the appropriate finish, thickness, and ratings for your purpose. Selecting a material that will prematurely rust, fade, or bend and break easily is not likely to produce high-quality artwork. Nicholas Yust prefers to use a sturdy aerospace grade aluminum for most of his work - he loves the brilliant white reflections that the grind patterns produce, it takes grinding and coloring very nicely, and it is able to be used both indoors and outdoors and can be exposed to the elements without causing damage to the art.
For added quality, durability and protection of your sheet metal art, you might consider clear-coating it. Just like an automobile, a thick layer of clear-coat is meant to protect the colors and finishes of the artwork from UV rays, fingerprints, scratches, dirt, etc. Giving your sheet metal art that added level of attention really does up the quality, and as an added benefit, it makes it easier to clean, handle and maintain.
How To Use Sheet Metal in Art
You will notice in Nicholas Yust's artwork that his specialty is applying decorative grind patterns to the surface of the sheet metal. This is something that can produce breathtaking artwork from sheets of metal, however it takes years of practice to be able to create consistent, clean, symmetrical grind patterns that truly look professional. You will want to consider various manual grinding pads, as well as high-powered handheld grinders with spinning pads. My best advice for this column would be to practice, have fun, and experiment with new patterns and textures. The type of material, grit, direction, power, and intensity of your grinding will all influence the appearance on the sheet metal.
If your sheet metal is thin enough, you can bend it into funky or geometric shapes that will hold and add some new dimension and character to your artwork. This might make the most sense for standing sculptures (rather than wall art) but it can certainly be used for more three-dimensional wall displays, particularly if the bends are more gentle and subtle. You can use tools and machines to make bends, curls, loops, waves and twists, or you can also just use brute strength! If you have a thinner material, you may not need more than just "average" strength and a bit of leverage... =)
Coloring sheet metal for artwork can be tricky, and I actually get this question a lot. Obviously you can't just pick up your water colors out of the toy box and expect to effectively paint a metal panel! However there are numerous ways to do so, some requiring more resources than others. With certain materials (copper, steel and bronze) you can actually torch them at ultra-high temperatures to bring out some beautiful, natural colors. Depending on the duration of the heat application and the patterns used to torch the metal, a variety of colors can emerge. If you are looking for more vibrant colors, there are automotive grade paints that can be used, and with different types of paints there may be various application methods that will work with metal. My best advice for any aspiring artist looking to make sheet metal art would be to experiment, take notes through trial and error, and just like the grinding advice, just have fun and keep trying!
If used properly by a skilled artisan, these processes can work together (along with your own creative touches) to produce spectacular sheet metal art and make a bold statement that will withstand the test of time.