Metal-look Paint Tutorial

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Won’t you take a ride on heavy metal?

In this tutorial we’re going to show you how to create a quick and easy finish that resembles steel with a realistic patina. There are many methods of producing a metal like finish on a non-metal thing – and we’ll definitely come back to the more advanced processes in further tutorials – but today is the day you learn to create an old and battered steel object plucked freshly from the nuclear wastes the easy way.

To begin, you’re going to need a few things. Weapons include:

  • A sandable or high-build primer
  • Silver spray paint (pick a basecoat that suits your fancy)
  • Brown, black and silver acrylic paints
  • Some medium-fine sandpaper (400 grit should do)
  • Heat gun
  • A couple of brushes

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In this tutorial we are going to be painting a giant wooden wrench we made some time ago. The wrench is made mostly out of MDF (medium density fiber) which is a common prop building material. MDF is also quite difficult to achieve a very smooth surface on due to the material’s absorptive properties. To combat that nasty paint absorption, spray your piece with a couple of coats of sand-able primer. What we’re trying to do here is to create a nice, smooth finish that will lend a more metallic appearance. We recommend priming your piece regardless of the material of the prop as getting that piece nice and smooth will lend a closer appearance to metal. When you’re shopping for primer, look for something that says sand-able or high build. The solids content in these primers allow you to fill little holes, cracks and fill the pores of the MDF.

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After your primer is all pretty and dry as per the manufacturer’s directions, grab yourself some fine sandpaper and smooth out all those rough and raised surfaces. You don’t have to sand too hard, just to level out anywhere the primer hasn’t left a smooth surface. After you’re all done, wipe your piece down and crack open the silver spray paint. Give your piece a few consistent coats until it looks fresh off the showroom floor and leave the piece to dry thoroughly. Make sure your prop is totally dry before moving onto the next step or you’re going to have a bad time.

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The key to this technique is the wash. To create a wash, grab your acrylic (or other water-based paint) ad mix up a thin solution of about 10 parts water to 1 part paint. In this example we used mostly black, with just a few little sprinkles of brown. Mix the paint up until you have a consistent, extremely thin paint. Take a big brush and just slather your wash all over the piece. Pay special attention to getting this stuff into all the nooks and crannies you’d expect dirt and grime to thrive.

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Next, draw your heat gun into action and begin to apply heat to the entire piece at a distance to begin evaporating the water in the wash. As the water dries, it will leave behind an organic looking patina. Have some fun while doing this, get the heat gun in close to push some droplets around to create lines of runny grease or extra oxidized patches. Just be careful not to apply too much heat to surface or you’re going to risk ruining your paint and even your piece (especially if it’s made of foam or plastic). Re-apply the wash and repeat this step as many times as you like until you achieve the amount of age and grime you’ve been longing for.

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This next step is optional if you’re happy with your dirty, weathered steel surface. If you want to apply a little bit of wear on the patina, crack out your silver acrylic paint and a stiff bristled brush. Dip your brush in the silver paint and remove most of the paint with a paper towel. Lightly dry brush your piece paying special attention to all of the hard edges and areas you’d expect to see wear in real life use. Remember, every prop is an opportunity to tell a story, emphasizing certain areas can really tell the story you’re imagining for your piece.

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If you want you can throw a glossy or satin clear layer over all of this for a bit of metallic shine, but we opted not to ourselves; the matte is lovely by itself and the wash makes the reflections irregular enough to look good as you move it around in the light.

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Now, just sit back and listen to some Don Felder while admiring how awesome you are.

Happy wrenching!


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