Steampunk Spray Painting: How to Make Almost Anything Look Like Metal
What I'm going to do in this tutorial is, as the title implies, teach you how to make nearly anything look like metal. This can especially come in handy in Steampunk, as most of us don't have the ability to machine brass. We do, however, have access to wood, PVC, and spray paint. Not to mention that, as a costumer, I can speak from personal experience when I say that things made of brass are really, really, really heavy!
Since I don't have a prop that I'm working on at the moment, I decided that what I would do is take a scrap piece of wood and demonstrate the technique on it. I chose wood because it's one of the most difficult surfaces to make look like metal, due to the grain of the wood. I chose a flat piece because I don't hate myself. While you can make any shape look like metal, the odder the shape is, the harder it gets. This includes chair legs, as well.
Before I move on to the actual tutorial part of the article, let me take a moment to explain a bit about wood. The grain in wood is essentially where the sap flows through it. As such, it's harder than the surrounding area. What this means is that when you're sanding wood, you have to take extra care to sand down the grainy bits, or else your wood will be bumpy. This doesn't happen as much when you're using a sander with a big sanding area, but it happens all the time when you're sanding with a Dremel. This is important, because the bumpier it is, the harder it is to make it look like metal.
Let me also take a moment to show you what this technique can look like, when properly applied. Bear in mind that I'm not the most talented craftsman in the world; in fact, up until just a few years ago, I was convinced that I couldn't do any art at all. So if I can do this, you can, too! In the below picture of a Steampunk sub-machine gun that I made a few years ago, the entire barrel of the gun is PVC. Note how similar it looks to the rectangular, screwed-in bits which are actually brass.
Then below is a Steampunk bang stick (or power head, if you prefer) that's used to kill big, underwater animals. No, it isn't functional, but the rod is made of wood, not metal. Both of these props have seen a lot of abuse, but they still look pretty good!
Alright, now on to the demonstration!
Here's the piece of wood I started with. Note that it's already quite flat and smooth. Despite being very smooth to the touch, there's still a long way to go before it's passably metallic.
I used wood to show that it could be done, but it's waaay easier to use something without a grain, like PVC pipe. However, even if you're using PVC pipe, sand it before you paint it. I'm serious. Don't even start spraying it unless it feels totally smooth.
I recommend Rust-Oleum spray paints. They go on nicely, and are easily sand-able. You can use cheaper paints if you'd like, but your results may vary.
In this case, I've used the color "Vintage Copper". I also recommend Antique Brass for Steampunk things, but really, any of their metallic paints will come out looking nice.
This is really the trick to making something look metallic: sanding. Seems counterintuitive, I know, but it works. Trust me. You can use sandpaper if you'd like, but I prefer these sanding blocks:
Note two things in the above picture.
- On the box, it says 'between coats'. That's because it's intended to be used between coats of paint, to smooth it out.
- The number at the top-right is 320. This number is the "grit designation". The higher the number, the more fine the grit. Lower numbers are good for major stripping, while higher numbers are good for light sanding, and polishing. For this task, you'll ideally want between a 240 and a 320. I prefer more fine grit, but your mileage may vary.
Spray a moderate coat on your object of choice. What you want is a full coat, but not so full that it could bead or drip. At this stage, it's likely that your wood grain will still show through, if you're using wood. Here's what mine looked like after the first coat:
Note how practically all of the wood grain still shows through.
Also, on a side note, spraying on cardboard is a great idea. It's thick so that you can pick it up and carry it with an object on it, unlike newspaper or any other paper products. Foamboard is also great.
This gets its own step, because it's so important. Wait for your spray paint to fully dry. I know you're excited about your project, but you have to wait. If you attack it too soon, you'll just cause more problems than you solve.
A typical coat of spray paint can take anywhere from half an hour to an hour and a half to dry, depending on the humidity in your area.
With your 240 or 320 sandpaper, start sanding your object. If it's flat, I recommend round, circular strokes. If it's rounded, you can do whatever your heart desires. For rounded objects that are small enough to get your hand around, you can use sandpaper instead of sanding blocks, and just wrap it all the way around.
The object at this stage is one of two things. You're either:
- Trying to remove every last imperfection in either the spraying, or the material itself.
- Even out the difference between the wood and the wood grain.
When it comes to wood, the theory you're applying here is that there are little dips in the wood, which you're filling in with spray paint. Then by sanding it, you're evening the top layer with the bottom layer, thus eradicating any inequalities.
I'm not even kidding. You'll probably have to keep doing this until you're sick of it, if you want a really good, smooth surface. The devil is in the details, so don't be afraid to be really OCD about getting it perfect.
To give you an idea, during this project, I sprayed and sanded about 9 times. Here's some pictures of what the wood looked like at various stages.
Spray 5 looks pretty clean, right? Well, it's not. It only looks that way from this angle:
This is also spray 5, but I've tilted it so that you can see that the wood grain is still visible when light reflects off of it.
Below is spray 9, and I've finally succeeded in getting the wood grain out! Yesss!
Once you have your final spray, do not sand it again. You sand between layers, not after them. After your final spray, what you want to do is buff the object to bring out the sheen of metal in it. You can use a tee shirt if you want, but a real rag or washcloth works best.
Here's my final product, next to the rag that I used.
So after about 9 hours worth of spraying and sanding (which I could only do during the day, because I don't have an indoor spray booth), I am now the proud owner of a metallic-looking wood square.