Studio Saturdays: Metal Embossing

No doubt you use metal in your mixed-media art—we all love a rusty key in a collage—but have you worked that metal? Today’s Studio Saturday is all about metal embossing, which is easier than it looks, a lot of fun, and guarantees great results.

An embossed metal piece can stand on its own, or be incorporated in mixed-media art so many ways: in collage and assemblage, as a pendant, as an embellishment on a book cover, or to enhance a handmade frame. You’ll need a few relatively inexpensive tools to get started, which is another big plus.

Metal embossing

Let’s start with the metal itself. I used a sheet of medium-weight copper metal from Amaco ArtEmboss, which has a thickness of 5 mil, about 10 times thicker than the tin foil you have in your kitchen. It’s sturdy stuff, but also nicely malleable. You can cut it with scissors, but I wouldn’t use good fabric scissors (the ones your mom always yelled at you for using); any decent pair of scissors will work. You’ll need a paper stump and a couple of styluses, with tips in different sizes. I used a set meant for shaping paper, but there are also specific metal embossing tools available. You should also have two surfaces to work on, one hard and one soft; I used a glass cutting mat, and also a piece of thin craft foam. And you’ll need a plastic stencil, (preferably one that’s not too detailed), and some low-tack tape (I used washi tape). Optional and not pictured here are modeling paste and a palette knife.

Materials for metal embossing

The tools for metal embossing include metal, styluses, and some craft foam.

Decide what size piece you want to make, and cut the metal about 1″ larger in height and width. Tape the edges if they’re sharp or jagged, and tape the stencil to the metal, making sure it’s firmly in place. By the way, isn’t this a great way to extend the use of your stencils? And please note that at Cloth Paper Scissors Central, we do not clean our stencils.

Metal taped to stencil

Tape the stencil to the metal so it doesn’t shift while you’re working.

Place the piece stencil-side down on your hard surface, and burnish the design with the paper stump. Make sure you can see the entire design; while working, I flip the piece over to make sure I’m getting everything.

Metal embossing: burnishing the metal

Burnishing the metal with a paper stump reveals the design.

With the stencil still in place, go over the design from the back with a small-tipped stylus. Outline each piece of the design, pushing the stylus right up to the edge and really defining the shape. If the stylus slips outside the lines, don’t worry—we’ll fix that later.

Metal embossing with a small-tipped stylus

Outline the design with the small-tipped stylus.

Flip the piece over and you’ll see that the design is starting to become dimensional. But since you’ve been working on a hard surface, it’s flat on top.

Metal embossing

The design has dimension, but it’s still flat on top.

Place the foam sheet on top of your hard surface and the metal piece on top, stencil-side down. Using a stylus with a larger tip, go over the designs again, pressing fairly hard. This process stretches the metal and rounds it. You don’t want to stretch it so much that it tears, but this metal is fairly heavy, so you can get some pretty good height. Note the difference in the four petals that have been embossed on the hard surface, versus on the foam.

Creating dimension with metal embossing

By using a larger-tipped stylus on a foam surface, the details become more dimensional.

Work the entire design, then remove the stencil. The metal embossing should be pretty prominent at this stage, but the edges won’t be that sharp. To make them more defined, place the metal right-side up on the hard surface, and run the small-tipped stylus around the outline of each design element. This will create edges and also flatten the piece, which has probably become a little domed due to the embossing. To flatten the piece more, use the paper stump to gently push the metal down.

Creating defined edges with metal embossing

Working the design from the front helps create defined edges.

Note the difference below between the design on the left, which has defined edges, and the one on the right, which still looks a little blobby.

Creating edges for metal embossing

The motif on the left has been detailed; the one on the right has not, and is less defined.

As you continue work on the piece you’ll flip it from the right to the wrong side, and from the hard to the soft surface. When flattening and defining the piece, work on the hard surface. When embossing, use the foam. Take your time and refine the design, emphasizing the shapes, flattening, and edging. Use the paper stump to gently flatten any stray lines or marks. If your hand gets tired, take a break. The nice thing about metal embossing is that you don’t have to worry about anything drying out or not being workable after a certain point. You can leave it and go back to it anytime.

At this point you can add some details to the piece. I pressed the small-tipped stylus into the motifs, creating little dots. You can also create free-form swirls, lines, or add other designs. Keep in mind that since metal is shiny, sometimes it’s difficult to see details. Move the piece around to make sure you’re seeing all the hills and valleys accurately. Also, I usually cut a small piece of metal to practice on or try out designs.

Metal embossing details

Add your own design details to metal embossing.

Metal embossing is all about creating interest through texture, dimension, and color or patina. I didn’t want the entire piece to be smooth and shiny, so I marked off a border around the piece and between the motifs. Then I sanded that area, using 220-grit sandpaper, and wiped off the metal dust with a baby wipe. In addition to adding texture, sanding also helps camouflage any errant lines or mistakes. I used a permanent pen to mark the borders, and that can be removed with alcohol.

Sanded metal

Sanding metal is one way to create texture.

I decided to stipple the background, creating little dots with the small-tipped stylus, and pressing from the front (with the foam surface underneath) to create little depressions. Try different techniques on your practice piece to see what works. When I stipple I first create some wavy lines, and then fill in around them—I find this easier and less tedious than just creating random dots. You can also see below that the lines themselves create an interesting pattern—you don’t have to fill in the entire space.

Background stippling

To create a textured background, make tiny dots with a stylus.

When the stippling was done I wiped off the drawn borders, turned the piece over with the wrong side facing up, and ran the paper stump gently around the inside of each motif square, which raised it up a bit.

At this point you can call it done, or add some color. I decided to add a little heat patina by holding a heat tool over the motifs for a few minutes. Make sure you do this in a well-ventilated space, place the metal on a heat-proof surface, and don’t handle the metal while you’re heating it.

Heat patina on copper

Adding heat to copper changes the color.

Other options are adding a patina, which can be done with various chemicals, formulas, and paints and rubs. Vintaj Patinas come in a wide range of colors and are easy to use, as are alcohol-based inks. Treatments like liver of sulfur will turn copper a dark brown, but it can be buffed and/or sanded to reveal highlights. Make sure you finish every part of the patina process before the next step.

Although the metal is quite tough, the embossed portions can still be dented. I like to fill in the raised portions with molding paste, which is available in most art and craft supply stores and dries as hard as a rock. Fill the spaces with paste, using a palette knife, even off the back, and let dry. If you’re left with any high spots, sand them off.

Protecting metal embossing with modeling paste

Protect your metal embossing by filling in the raised area with modeling paste.

To finish the piece, I cut a piece of chipboard a little smaller than the metal and wrapped the metal around it, trimming the corners like you would on a package. As you manipulate metal it becomes what’s called work hardened; if you have trouble wrapping the metal, use a bone folder to fold it around the chipboard.

Metal embossing attached to chipboard

Wrapping the metal around a piece of chipboard gives it extra strength.

I then attached it to a slightly larger piece of chipboard that I covered with handmade paper.

Metal embossing art

The finished piece has depth, texture, and, of course, lots of shine.

The piece is now ready for hanging! I’ve already got more ideas that I can’t wait to get started on. If you’re intrigued by working with metal, take a look through the resources below—they’ll fast track you to success.

You can also get some great tips on working with metal in this Technique Tuesdays post.

See you next week, when we’ll start another Create Along and make a planner for the new year!

Metal Sketchbook Pendant with Jen Crossley

Learn how to create a unique pendant using found metal in the video Metal Sketchbook Pendant with Jen Crossley.

Metal embossing techniques in the July/August 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine

Discover metal embossing techniques, plus other ways to work with metal in the July/August 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine.

Stamped Metal and Mica Pendant with Jen Cushman

Get more great metal techniques in the video Stamped Metal and Mica Pendant with Jen Cushman.

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