Introduction: Mokume Kireji-DIY Woodgrain Composites

Here's an easy alternative to Mokume Gane that the average maker can put together in their garage without the need for fancy tools.

Mokume Gane, Japanese for "wood-grain metal" or "burl metal" is a technique of metal-working developed by Denbei Shoami in 17th century Japan for the adornment of the guards (tsuba) of Samurai swords. The wood-grained effect is achieved by working diffusion bonded stacks of dissimilar metal plates.  The contrast between the metals can then be accentuated with chemical treatments called patinas. It has more recently found use in the west to create beautiful jewelry.  Although mokume gane can be made at home by the DIY'er, it takes some pretty heavy equipment to make it happen.  Wouldn't it be nice to be able to achieve a similar wood-grained effect with simpler techniques? Enter our old friend the composite.

Back in 1910, Westinghouse developed a composite of resin-impregnated fabric trademarked as MIcarta® (now a registered trademark of the Norplex-Micarta company).  The name micarta (with a small "m") is sometimes used as a generic term for any resin impregnated laminate of linen, canvas, paper, carbon fiber, or glass fiber. These composites are generally strong, waterproof, resistant to many solvents, and are great electrical insulators.  They have been used as knife handles, grips for firearms, printed circuit boards, electrical insulators, pool cues, and guitar fretboards.

In this instructable, we'll use simple techniques to produce micarta-like laminates with Mokume Gane style patterns out of cheap bed sheets and epoxy resin. You can use these laminates for computer case modding, steampunk projects, costume jewelry, knife handles, and a host of other things. I call these laminates Mokume Kireji (wood grained fabric).

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

Here is a list of materials needed to make your own wood-grained composites:

Safety:
Respirator or Mask: Sanding, filing, or grinding on composites generates nasty fumes, smells, and dusts. You must wear respiratory protection when working with composites.
Gloves: I used cheapo disposable nitrile gloves to keep the epoxy off of my skin
Eye protection: You know better than to use chemicals and tools without eye protection. Foresight is better than no sight.
Clothes you don't mind ruining: No matter how OCD you are, you will almost certainly get epoxy on your clothes. Wear something you don't mind messing-up.

Components:
Resin: I used West Systems 2-part epoxy. This stuff cures slowly (hours) which gives me more time to work.  Do not use quick curing resins like "30 minute epoxy" because they will harden before you have a chance to finish your work.
Plastic Wrap: I used Saran Wrap.  Epoxy does not like to stick to Saran Wrap and this will be used to your advantage.
Fabric: I used cheap cotton bed sheets from Wal-Mart.  Select at least 2 contrasting colors (more is ok).
Scissors and/or a paper cutter:  Something to cut the fabric with
Clamps and/or a press:  You need to compress the layers of fabric together.  If you don't have a shop press, don't sweat it; you can use some inexpensive C-Clamps and wood to make a functional press for small projects. Some of my examples are made using a 20-ton shop press; the others are made using four 5 inch c-clamps (about 5 bucks each) and 2 planks of 1 inch thick wood. No need to buy fancy/expensive equipment if you don't really need it.
Sander/files/sandpaper: You will need to sand, file, or grind away parts of your composite.  You can do it by hand, but it will take some time.  A small power sander will make the work go faster.  Use coarse grit paper to "hog out" larger amounts of material and fine grit paper to smooth out the surface and make it all pretty.
Advanced technology resin application devices: to mix/apply the resin. Wooden popsicle sticks or tongue depressors work just fine
Mixing containers for epoxy: I used GladWare disposable soup and salad containers; epoxy doesn't like to stick to these either; when the residual epoxy cures, pop it out of the container and you can reuse it (for more epoxy, not for food please).
Patterning material:  This can be anything from dried beans to toothpicks.  You'll see what I mean in just a few steps.

Step 2: Get to the Chopper!


Using a paper chopper or scissors, cut your fabric into appropriately sized pieces.  Keep in mind that the edges of your composite will be wonked up by excess resin, so you should plan on making your fabric slices at least 10 to 15% larger in area than what you need for your final size. It will also need to be thicker. How much thicker? That depends on what you use to create your pattern.  The thicker the patterning material, the more material you will have to remove to get both surfaces flat and parallel.  This will make much more sense in the following steps.  In any event, it is a good idea to make a small test piece in order to get your measurements the way you want them.

This is also when you need to decide what your color scheme will be. Will it be alternating layers of black and white? Three layers of red to every one layer of brown? How about red, white, and blue?  How many layers thick do you want your composite to be? Figure this out now and cut enough fabric for your project.  Also keep in mind, that the tint of your resin will slightly alter the color of your fabric.  My resin had a bit of a yellow cast to it, and this tended to give my white fabric a bit of an olive tint.  When in doubt, make a small test piece to ensure you're going to get the results you really want.

Step 3: Lay Up Your Composite: Birdseye and Ladder Patterns


Now lets put the components to work.  Let's make a single piece of composite with two different patterns: The birdseye pattern, and the ladder pattern. This one will be made out of 15 pieces of black fabric alternating with 15 pieces of white fabric.

  • If you're using a press, wrap your press-plates in saran wrap.  If you're using c-clamps, wrap your pieces of 1 inch thick wood in saran wrap.  This will keep your press plates from sticking to your work.
  • Place a single sheet of your fabric down on the press plate.  This will serve as a template to help you place your patterning materials accurately.
  • Arrange your patterning materials on the template sheet.  For the ladder pattern mokume, I used several pieces of plastic filament about 3mm in diameter, lined up in a row (toothpicks would have worked too).  For the birdseye pattern, I used steel BB's (4.5mm diameter) arranged randomly.
  • Cover your patterning materials with a sheet of saran wrap so that they don't become glued to your composite.
  • Mix a batch of epoxy resin according to the manufacturer's instructions
  • Place your first sheet of black fabric on top of your patterning material and coat it with a thin layer of freshly-mixed epoxy resin. The entire sheet should be lightly coated.
  • Now add a sheet of white fabric and gently apply another thin layer of epoxy.
  • Continue this process: black sheet, epoxy, white sheet, epoxy, etc until you have used up your fabric (30 pieces in this example)
  • Take your other press plate (make sure it's covered with saran wrap) and lay it on top of your stack of epoxy-coated fabric.
  • Clamp tightly and evenly using your c-clamps (or press in your shop press)
  • Wait for the epoxy to fully cure


Words of wisdom:
-Make sure you let the epoxy fully cure, or the next step will be a disaster
-When you clamp your press plates down, excess epoxy will come smooshing out the sides of the press.  Make sure you lay down some plastic to catch the excess resin, or you will have one heck of a mess.
-Don't rely on paper towels or newspaper to catch the excess resin.  Just enough will bleed through to permanently fuse the paper to your floor and/or work surface. You must never ask me how I know this.

Step 4: Reveal the Pattern: Ladder and Birdseye


Once the epoxy has cured, remove your masterpiece from the press/clamps to reveal: a turd.  Your composite will look ugly, with chunks of resin hanging off the edges and no signs of the beautiful woodgrain pattern that you were expecting. Don't sweat it, you're not done yet.  Using files, a power sander, a saw, etc, remove the ugly tattered edges, leaving behind the nice uniform center.  Now using a sander or files, begin to slowly remove material from the surface of your slab of composite.  Note that in the pictures below, the ladder-pattern part of the composite was cut away from the birdseye-pattern part for greater clarity.  Also note that the BB's you see stuck in the composite were wedged into the composite but were not epoxied to the slab thanks to that piece of saran wrap. The stuck BB's were easily pried out prior to sanding.

As you sand down the surface, you will begin to see the pattern appear.  The patterned surface will appear dull and matte, but we'll fix that shortly.

Now is probably a good time to fashion your piece of composite into your project of choice.  Cut out a piece in the center and make an uber cool picture frame.  Maybe an escutcheon plate for computer case modding? Perhaps a component of your next steampunk creation? This stuff cuts like wood, with simple hand tools.  Don't worry about making sharp 90 degree cuts, if you radius the the edges with files or sanding (instead of leaving them sharp) the mokume pattern will become even more dramatic.

Step 5: Finish the Surface: Ladder and Birdseye Patterns


Now to bring out the shine.
Prepare a small batch of epoxy and apply a coat to the sanded surface and allow it to cure.
Any irregularities in this clear coat can be sanded out, and the surface re-coated with fresh epoxy.
Polish as desired. Admire your work, as you are indeed "all that".

Step 6: Bonus Pattern: Grid Pattern


But wait, there's more!

Sure, you can come up with all kinds of patterns on your own, but isn't nice to start with a palette of basics?
This grid pattern was created with a piece of the brittle plastic sheet that is used to cover fluorescent light fixtures.  A 2x4 foot sheet of the stuff set me back about 6 bucks at a home improvement store.

This is a really fun one as it serves a double purpose.  The demo piece below was created using alternating sheets of black and white fabric (again, cheep cotton sheets from Wal-Mart) with a piece of the textured light-fixture plastic as a patterning layer.

The left side of the piece has not been sanded and has a beautiful "quilted" appearance.  It could be used as-is.  The right side of the slab has been sanded and then re-coated with epoxy to reveal the white layers underneath.

Sweet.

Step 7: Bonus Pattern #2: Twist Pattern


But wait, there's STILL more (please excuse me, I seem to have misplaced my dignity...)

Here is one more pattern you steampunk types might particularly appreciate.  The twist pattern can really look an awful lot like wood if done well.  The sample below was done with black and chocolate brown cotton bedsheet material in a 1 to 1 ratio. In hindsight, a 4 sheets of brown to 1 sheet of black probably would have worked better.  I could not photograph this technique due to the sloppiness involved therein, so I will describe it as best I can.
  • Wrap your press plates in saran wrap
  • Place a large sheet of saran wrap on your work surface
  • Put your first sheet of fabric on the saran wrap, and apply a light coat of epoxy
  • Continue adding fabric/epoxy until your stack is complete
  • Tightly roll your fabric stack into a cylinder
  • Wrap the cylinder in saran wrap
  • Twist the cylinder firmly, and be ready for the excess epoxy to ooze out one or both ends
  • Keeping the whole mess tightly twisted, put it between the two press-plates, and clamp tightly
  • Allow the epoxy to cure completely
  • Remove the piece from the press, and peel away as much of the saran wrap as you easily can
  • Grind/sand/file down the surface to reveal the pattern below.
  • Apply a finish coat of epoxy to bring back the shine.
  • Not too shabby...

I hope you've enjoyed my first Instructable and hope it helps you in your quest to build cool things.  These low-tech composites have been around for over a hundred years and while I didn't invent these techniques, I so rarely see them used, that I felt I should share the fun.  If you liked this Instructable, please vote for me in the Epilogue Laser Cutter contest.

Comments

author
tim.troyer made it!(author)2015-03-11

Great tutorial, buddy!

author
brian.j.hillis made it!(author)2015-01-06

Hello. I made the micarta in these pics in 07/08.

IMG00039-1.jpgIMG00038.JPGIMG00039.JPGfull (3).jpg
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geoslim13 made it!(author)2011-03-26

WHEN you win that laser cutter make bigger sheets of this and cut or engrave them with this.

author
controlledwrinkles made it!(author)2013-08-26

Unless you switch to using polyester resin, DO NOT use a laser to cut this material, it will off-gas Hydrogen Chloride and Vinyl Chloride which will damage your laser, it also has the potential to off-gas chlorine gas, which will damage you. Always refer to a Material Safety Data Sheet for the material you plan on lasering. Dying for your art is all well and good if you have plans for being a martyr, but it is quite impractical in the long run.

author
festeezio made it!(author)2011-03-26

Wow, thanks! I hope you're right about the laser cutter :-) If I win, I will gladly do an instructable on laser-engraved mokme-kireji. I've also made some coin (U.S. quarter and U.S. dime) mokume-gane and I wonder how engraving would behave on the surface of that. Thanks for the kind words!
Cheers!

author
sarawelder made it!(author)2011-04-03

best ible I seen yet and so well documented with lots of photos. I have more fabric in my basement than you could buy at walmart and now I have great plans for it. How well so you think it would work with suede brown in the wood look?

Also can't wait for the coin ible. Main hobby is welding so fascinated by that too!

Great post!
congratulations

author
controlledwrinkles made it!(author)2013-08-26

When doing colors, keep in mind that when it gets the resin in it the color will darken significantly. Also, if you use a polyester resin, you will be able to use a laser cutter to cut your final project to any shape you want, as long as it is less than 0.25" in thickness. (It will stink though)
Lasering epoxy resin will off-gas fumes that are not only toxic for the user but potentially bad for the machines as well.

author
festeezio made it!(author)2011-04-05

Thanks so much! I wish the epilog judges had seen things your way ;-)
Suede brown sounds like a winner. Don't forget to post pictures!
Cheers!

author
yoyology made it!(author)2012-03-15

I know that real deal Micarta is sometimes made with paper instead of cloth. Would that work in this application as well? I'm thinking of using pages from old books in criss-cross layers. Obviously you'd have to have a lot more sheets, since it's so much thinner than cloth.

I'm also thinking something like this would make a show-stopping fretboard on a cigar box ukulele or guitar!

author
controlledwrinkles made it!(author)2013-08-26

Paper works fine for this, I'd love to see your final product.

author
KemikalzAreFun made it!(author)2013-05-06

I know what kind of knife handle I'm doing now! :D

author
controlledwrinkles made it!(author)2012-07-15

There are several other well documented Homemade Micarta descriptions on the web, this one http://www.fendleyknives.com/LM105.htm and Make had one as well http://blog.makezine.com/2010/03/22/how-to-make-micarta-from-blue-jeans/ Has anyone tried non solid colored fabric composites?
As soon as the weather cools down, I will attempt to create some of this stuff.
I have been reading about this for a while and will post an Instructable when I actually get around to it.
Some of the things mentioned in other homemade Micarta blog posts, is that heavy freezer bags work well to keep the mess factor down, and are less likely to break from the heat that can potentially be generated by the curing, also, submerging and saturating and then squeezing out the excess before placing your layers together, seemed to be faster and more efficient, no need to pick up and put down a brush for every layer.

author
controlledwrinkles made it!(author)2012-07-15

Whoops, both of those links led to the same Fendly Knife blog, but there are some great videos on Crashbladeknives' YouTube channel, just search for homemade micarta

author
mkeith54 made it!(author)2012-05-10

A well written and well done 'ible.

have you thought about using a Vacuum food saver to make a vacuum press? It would provide a lot of clamping force without the need for clamps. The vacuum baggers can be gotten from goodwill/second hand shops very cheaply. Roll bags are available in the box stores as well as wally world.

author
a+rigger made it!(author)2011-03-28

I wonder how rigid this stuff is. I'd love to use this as a faceplate for an upcoming project. About 8"x18" with holes for a car stereo, charging ports, etc. Do you suppose it could bridge 18" horizontally? Thinking about 1/4" thick...

author
festeezio made it!(author)2011-03-28

It will depend on several factors, including the type of epoxy you use, the type of fabric you use, and how much pressure you use to create the laminate. When in doubt, make a small test piece. It will let you work any kinks out of your set-up, it will give you a piece you can test for strength, it will let you know if your colors are going to come out the way you want them, and it will let you test your pattern; all without spending as much time/effort/materials/money as you would need for the full 18"x8"x1/4" slab. In general though, this stuff is pretty stout if it is made properly.

I bet it would make a sweet faceplate; please post a picture of your work, it sounds like it has great potential.

Cheers!

author
a+rigger made it!(author)2012-04-22

Sadly I never got around to using this technique on the boombox, but since you asked: https://www.instructables.com/id/Waterproof-Solar-BOOMbox-AKA-Post-Apocalyptic-Po/



author
tawnydog made it!(author)2011-10-31

I really like this technique! I'll be trying this soon!

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suayres made it!(author)2011-05-23

The mokume gane technique is also used (beautifully) in polymer clay....

author
festeezio made it!(author)2011-06-14

Absolutely. And if you're a jewelry fan, the same technique can be used with Precious Metal Clay (PMC) to make incredible mokume gane objects out of silver/gold/copper/bronze. Hadar Jacobson is a jedi master of PMC and is publishing a book on the subject this summer. I plan on buying it as soon as it's available. If I make something worthy, I'll post it.
Cheers!

author
suayres made it!(author)2011-06-15

I have not yet worked with PMC--primarily a matter of expense and lack of a kiln--but one of these days.....

author
Weather_blue made it!(author)2011-04-19

YES! Thou fine human, thank you for this 'ible. It's answered the "can this be done outside an industrial setting?" question I've been trying to answer with certainty for months.

author
festeezio made it!(author)2011-04-22

Thou art indeed welcome (verily). Glad you enjoyed it!
Cheers!

author
Dellbar46 made it!(author)2011-03-26

This is truly excellent, innovative and extremely well presented. You deserve to win. Hope to see more from you.

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festeezio made it!(author)2011-03-28

Many thanks Dellbar46!

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oldanvilyoungsmith made it!(author)2011-03-27

Love your ible. I make this stuff a lot, makes great knife handles.

Tool tip, (don't know if you said this, but if you did I missed it) coat your c clamps with a light oil, (wd-40 works good) that way the epoxy (I use fiberglass resin) can be popped off easily if it get's on the clamp.

Tool tip #2
A horse hoof rasp works really well for hogging off material extremely fast. Works well on wood too.

Nice work Festeezio, I especially like the ladder pattern, I haven't tried it yet.

author
festeezio made it!(author)2011-03-28

Thanks. Those are both great tips. I generally use enough saran wrap on the compression plates that the epoxy never gets a chance to foul up my clamps, but you're absolutely right: a little oil, petroleum jelly, WD-40, or PVA/release agent will keep the epoxy from messing up your clamps.

I see you've done some metalsmithing Instructables. Please keep 'em coming; it seems that home metalsmithing is a dying art and it is people like you that keep it alive. When I show friends a piece of coin mokume gane, they are blown away that it is possible to work copper and iron right in your back yard.

Cheers!

author
kmurph10 made it!(author)2011-03-28

I would love to try this out, because as soon as I saw this 'ible I immediately came up with a couple project ideas. I'm stuck at one point though...are there any glues that could bond two of these "boards" together?

I'd like to make one thick piece and run it through a bandsaw, then bookmatch the two boards. It would end up with a nice butterfly like pattern, I think. Could you just spread more epoxy on an edge and clamp the two pieces together? Or would you need some other bonding substance?

author
festeezio made it!(author)2011-03-28

Well, it depends on how strong you need the bond to be. If it needs to support weight, adhesive probably won't be enough. For objects that do not bear any load, such as decorative items, I'd try the same resin you used for the composite: epoxy.

After you've cut the piece, consider "roughing up" the edges to be epoxied with some fine or medium grit sandpaper. For some reason, fresh epoxy doesn't stick to shiny/well cured epoxy as well it does to a roughened/non-glossy epoxy surface.

I love the idea of the butterfly pattern. Don't forget to post a pic of your work.

Best regards!

author
tinkerist made it!(author)2011-03-28

been drawing up an adjustable laptop stand (buddy just got a small cnc machine!!), this stuff would be perfect! you got my vote, dude(tte). good luck.

author
festeezio made it!(author)2011-03-28

Many thanks! Please post a pic of your project, I know I'd like to see it and I'm sure I'm not the only one.
Cheers!

author
mguerrero1 made it!(author)2011-03-24

Awesome write up! Might need to try this myself :-)

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festeezio made it!(author)2011-03-24

Thanks! Time to start mixing the epoxy.

author
jguerrero+brooderson made it!(author)2011-03-24

This is so awesome! Thanks for explaining things so well! I voted for you!

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festeezio made it!(author)2011-03-24

Thanks! That is one cute picture BTW.

author
bricabracwizard made it!(author)2011-03-22

I'm glad you have made this instructable, to buy these composites already made up cost a small fortune, this has given me many great ideas - and I have voted for you as well, thanks!

author
festeezio made it!(author)2011-03-22

Thanks so much for the vote! I did not realize that these kinds of composites were available pre-fab. Glad you found the Instructable helpful. Cheers and best of luck!

author
aeray made it!(author)2011-03-20

Excellent. You get my first contest vote ever. Good work, and I'm off to the fabric store.

author
festeezio made it!(author)2011-03-21

Wow, thanks! Please post pictures of your creation; not many people are familiar with patterned composites and your work may inspire others to try it as well.
Cheers!

author
Soksume made it!(author)2011-03-20

This is extremely well written with lots of insight and detail great work

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festeezio made it!(author)2011-03-21

Thanks for the kind words, they are sincerely appreciated :-)

author
EmcySquare made it!(author)2011-03-21

Very Good !!!
I've seen this type of DIY "m"icarta to make nice knife handles
Selecting the "right" colors results are awesome

author
festeezio made it!(author)2011-03-21

Thanks. This stuff makes great knife scales and handles. Any type of filework on the handle makes the patterns even more amazing.
Best regards.

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