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Press Aluminum Cans into Ceiling and Wall Tiles

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This is an experimental project that uses aluminum cans to make decorative metal tiles for ceilings or walls by cutting open the cans into flat rectangles and using a die stamp to form them. This is similar to my beer can roof project except the die making is more complex here.

  • First make a tile die design in expanded foam
  • Then use evaporative (lost-foam) pattern casting to cast the tile die in aluminum.
  • Clean up and shape the die with a grinder and other tools.
  • Start cutting cans and stamping tiles
  • Staple them into place on a ceiling, wall, or whatever you can think of.

This is a very involved and semi-dangerous project where tools have to be built, very high temperature molten metal is used, fumes are created, etc. Use caution and be safe. I'm not liable for any injuries you may occur using the techniques shown here.''

 
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Step 1: Make + and - polystyrene foam molds of die plates

Picture of Make + and - polystyrene foam molds of die plates
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Make some foam cutting tools if you feel like it, a good sharp utility knife will do OK on this step. This link has a great variety of foam cutting ideas:
http://wolfstone.halloweenhost.com/HalloweenTech/fotmak_MakingFoamTools.html

Polystyrene or styrofoam of some kind is carved into the shape you want to cast aluminum into. I used egg cartons, take-out containers, and dumpster scavenged foam. These foam pieces are exactly how the aluminum cast will turn out, so put some effort into this step.

First make two rectangular blocks out of the foam, about a half inch think and 8.25" by 3.75".

Print out a stencil or create your own for guiding and cutting a design on the 8.25" x 3.75" foam blocks. Here is this stencil link for use in Google Sketchup. If you make your own design, you'll want ribs of some kind as part of it to strengthen the tile. The templates I made have two squares which are the ribs. Cut the features into the foam very carefully with a sharp utility knife or exact o knife. The depth of the imprint should be shallow, about 1/16". A polystyrene egg carton is about the right thickness, a meat tray is too thick.

One foam piece should have an negative impression in it and the other should have the positive impression using egg carton foam (see picture). The two pieces of foam should have some wiggle room when assembled to make room for the thinkness of the aluminum can that will be pressed when the die is finished. You'll still need to clean up the final cast with a dremel tool.

Now finally hot glue on a foam sprue on the center back of the block; this forms a channel for pouring the molten aluminum into the cast. I used a 3" long piece about .5" x .5". In the pictures you'll notice two sprues/vents but these do not work, use a single center sprue.

This is a great instructable. For the people concerned about casting aluminum, you can create the molds and cast the stamp and dies out of zinc instead. Zinc melts at around 800 deg (f) and is stronger than iron in compression tests.

halfmumi2 years ago
Question : Can you make aluminum molds and cast aluminum inside?? Might sound silly but made me wonder...Anyone?
No.
For people that rent, you could always attach the aluminum cans directly to the ceiling using strong double-stick tape. I think this would look really cool in my bathroom...once I cover them in Rustoleum. No rust stains for me!
The cool thing about Aluminum is that when it rusts, it rusts clear. That is unless there are specific impurities that are present during the rusting process. In fact there is an art/science to it, it's called anodizing and it can produce some beautiful results. The best part is that the rust, although only microns thick, is as hard as Sapphire. Because Sapphire is aluminum rust.

If you decide to go that way I would love to see your results (please share with the community)!
is sapphire really aluminium rust?

Yes, Sapphire is a gemstone variety of the mineral corundum, an aluminium oxide. (Al2O3)
I wonder, might it not be easier (though maybe more time-consuming) to skip the wet sand and make the dies out of concrete? Maybe something like papercrete for more tensile strength and durability under impact, but I'd think that would be a little easier and safer than casting aluminum dies, and you can do fine shaping before the concrete fully cures.

In regard to crucibles, I have no actual experience in this area myself. With that disclaimer out of the way, from what I've read about DIY metal forging and smelting one can make a pretty heat-resistant crucible from a metal container lined with a thick layer of refractory mixture that is 50% wood ash and 50% cheap kitty litter (bentonite clay), moistened with water to a paste and allowed to dry after application before being fired. Apparently, wood ash is well-known for its refractory and heat-resistant properties, and the clay acts as an inert binder. I've been told it can be used at least hot enough to forge steel (lining the inside of a BBQ forge), so you should have no problem with melting aluminum. You've got a really cool instructable here!
stallsworth3 years ago
i would use a press. it would have a more crisp look
PKTraceur5 years ago
This is amazing! Although im not a heavy (Soda!) drinker, I think I could make some interesting lamps... So, a thought/question on the "foundry." Can a hardwood be used for fuel? What addition does the hairdryer add? Does it enable it to be hotter? How can I contain the aluminium? So, you create a foam positive, to make a wetted sand negative, thus making a aluminium positive? Is that confusing? Any tips on pressing the can with the "die cast?" Any other tips? -PKT
robbtoberfest (author)  PKTraceur5 years ago
Wood doesn't seem to get as hot as charcoal, but maybe I'm doing it wrong. This is a first in casting for me. The hairdryer air is very important as a blower, not for heat. You make the foam exactly how you want the aluminum to turn out, that's what you bury in dry sand and pour the molten metal into. I did try heating the cans on a heater and pressing them hot; that seemed to reduce the tearing.
How shall I come about getting a crucible? I don't like eBay, so it really isnt an option. Perhaps a steel pot? But wont that get orange-y hot? -PKT
I have purchased a few stainless kitchen utensil holders at a Ross "Dress for Less" store in my town and they hold up very well to the heat, with thinner walls than cast iron pipe
http://www.lindsaybks.com/

Check this site out.  A guy I work with gave me a catalog from this company. They sell How-To books for just about anything you can imagine, including, making a crucible.
robbtoberfest (author)  rredmon3 years ago
Thats a really good link, thanks for the tip.
you're quite welcome. I hope you're able to get some fun from it. so far all I've done is pine over the catalog. I'm a hopeless procrastinator with way too many hobbys...lol. I'll get around to ordering some stuff from them eventually though
A steel soup can makes an OK crucible, but they can burn through sometimes.
You could try www.budgetcastingsupply.com They have ceramic crucibles and information on metal casting.
robbtoberfest (author)  PKTraceur5 years ago
All metal crucibles get "orange-y" hot LOL. I think that pot might work though. I've heard of people using 4" cast iron pipe for a crucible, but that seems like a lot of work to make with limited tools.
Ah, turns out a camp propane tank works, however I only had a wood fire. It got hot enough, (about 1300-1350 F) but I forgot to take off the slag. Nor did I know how to. Still, its a nice chunk, and my first melt. -PKT
robbtoberfest (author)  PKTraceur4 years ago
The slag/dross actually just sticks to the end of a hooked metal rod as you skim the surface of the molten pool with it. Then just tap the hook on a brick or something to knock the dross off.
Wood will EVENTUALLY get as hot as charcoal, after it's burned off all the low-temperature volatiles. The coals left after a campfire that's been burning for a few hours are an example. That's essentially what charcoal *IS*, is wood with all the water and low-temp fuels driven off by heating in the absence of oxygen. But who wants to waste the time and effort of turning logs into coals when you can just use the coals?
robbtoberfest (author)  Goedjn5 years ago
Thanks for the explanation, I was wondering what was going on there.
timothybena5 years ago
This is cool and all. But why do i need to cast a die to press aluminum cans? Seems liek a lot of trouble when i could just mill, or dremel, or route a couple of wood blocks.
Not to knock casting but I agree, it's not worth the bother to produce dies suitable for relief forming of soft metals like aluminum or copper. I have used masonite and plastics to great success. Make a simple hydraulic press frame, use a bottle jack for a ram and amazing things can be accomplished.
Do you think masonite would hold up to repeated use as well as poured aluminum? I was thinking of carving a foam positive as this guy did and pouring a negative in some sort of hard castable plastic - and then using that to pour the other piece of the die, also in plastic. How do you carve masonite? Do regular woodcarving knives work? Thanks
Carve your design in soap (take the leavings, melt them down, pour into a square the right size, let cool), create a negative of this design in rubber molding material that you paint on the soap positive, let it cure, peel it off and you can then create positive plaster castings of your design, as many as you want to use in pressing the aluminum cans with your original design. Crack one? No problem! You can make as many positives as you like with the negative rubber mold!
I like the idea of a press of some sort - something quick & streamlined since so very many cans would have to be pressed. How exactly have you done this in the past?
robbtoberfest (author)  sing1ejack5 years ago
I've use a bench press and a hammer only so far. I have a compound lever press in mind for the near future. I built a lego mock up here.
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robbtoberfest (author)  timothybena5 years ago
Casting is not that bad once you have a small foundry settup, stuff can be made in under an hour and be ready to use. Also, making this die with foam is way easier than carving wood or some other material into shape. Ideally, this could be very neatly done on CNC for a cost, but I've spent almost no money on this project except for the charcoal.
Fair enough!
mary candy3 years ago
wau
watchout for what your cans are made of. not all cans are aluminum . ther mostly of stainless steel so test games .
Superfrk3 years ago
 This is an interesting project, so just wanting to offer a suggestion to make it better. The creases and tears are mainly because it is a rough casting. Since most people do not have milling equipment you could use a sander " belt sander or variable sander to clean up the plates so that they will fit together better, then use a finishing file or deburring   tool to take off the sharp edges.

Then just press it with your vise and a breaker bar or make a press from a car jack. The car jack method would allow more pressure applied more evenly.

Either way like I said I do really like your project looks very cool, you could even paint them with some automotive paint and apply some clear coat. 

 
robbtoberfest (author)  Superfrk3 years ago
 Thanks for the good tips. I'll give it a shot.
nickodemus3 years ago
Truly innovative!
strmrnnr4 years ago
The tears and rips could be from the sharp angles but the main cause is likely the sharp raps you give with the hammer. You might try a press of some sort using timber and a long lever to squeeze the plates together slower. The metal then has a little time to heat enough to deform around the angles. It would be easy with an upright on the front of your bench and a timber lever that gives you a 4:1 ratio pressing down on the plates. I like this idea of the pressed metal. You make it look real easy too. Thanks.
robbtoberfest (author)  strmrnnr4 years ago
Thanks for the tips. I actually tried this in the bench vise and it did work better, but those sharp parts still cut the aluminum can in certain spots. I figure the gap between the positive and negative die needs to be more consistent too.
Sounds like you may want to get fancy and put in guide pins so the plates are coming down the exact same everytime. Also if the positive is made first, the sharpies filed off, then a layer of latex or something the thickness of the working metal being used, then a negative made with that - the gap should be exact to match the latex - all around. Hope it helps
when we die mold something in jewelry usually we bevel the edges about 45 degrees, and press using a softer material like strmrnnr says but we use a urethane rubber in sheets and a hydrolic press. {spell checker isn't helping today} i like the idea of the wooden press

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