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Picture of 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

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.

Step 2: Put foam piece into dry sand.

Picture of Put foam piece into dry sand.
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Before burying the actual foam pieces that were just carved, I recommend casting a couple of test pieces until you get the hang of casting.

In a metal canister or metal tub, fluff up some plain mostly dry sandbox sand that has been sieved with window screen. Press the foam mold into it the sand; then pack sand around the whole thing and bury it. Pat for a minute to reduce air pockets in the sand around the object. I added bricks on top of the sand to keep it packed tight.

Set a large metal soup can with both ends cut open onto the sprue; this is to funnel the liquid metal into the mold.

Step 3: Melt aluminum

Picture of Melt aluminum
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I'm not going to detail everything about casting here but I'll list some good links on metal casting and safety. Most importantly do this outdoors.

Casting Aluminum at submarineboat.com
Home Foundry
BackyardMetalcasting.com ...Melting and casting metal yourself

Gather aluminum from everywhere; lawn chairs, stereo amps, computer hard drives, beer cans, lawn mower and weed trimmer engines. It'll take about a pound of aluminum per die half, melt down more than what you think you'll need.

Make a charcoal fueled aluminum melting furnace, link to my quick and cheap aluminum melting furnace setup instructable for details on the information below.

Using the 5 gallon bucket furnace, and depending on the amount of aluminum to be melted it can take from 10 minutes to 25 minutes to have a pool of molten metal.

The pictures below show a metal 5-gallon bucket, a piece of stove pipe, hair dryer, and some duct tape for cheap a foundry furnace. A hole is cut in the bottom side of a metal bucket to fit the stove pipe. The bottom of another metal bucket is cut off about 2 inches from the bottom; a lot of holes are punched in that piece and its inserted into the main bucket as a burning grate. Keep bucket lids, one lid should have a vent hole in it for burning and the other lid should be left unchanged for snuffing out the fire. The hair dryer needs to have the "cold" button taped to use it just as a blower; tape the dryer into the stove pipe.

For a crucible, a 14 oz propane bottle was used; the top was cut off and some bolts were added for grabbing the crucible with the tongs. I made some basic tools with some scrap steel from an old bed box spring. You'll need tongs for the crucible, some kind of shepard's hook to tip the crucible, and a plain rod with a little bend at the tip for poking things and skimming out the dross (impurities in the aluminum).

To operate this, fill the furnace 1/3 full with charcoal and light it like you're going to cook some hot dogs. Wait until the coals start to turn grey on the edges, now fire up the blower and set the crucible in there with chucks of the aluminum. Cover the furnace with the vented lid, then grab a chair, a drink, and wait. When the aluminum is liquid, skim the floaties off the top with a hooked metal rod until the molten aluminum looks like a shiny pool of mercury. Now it's ready to pour.

Have all the safety gear on, turn off the blower, remove the lid and use the tools to grab the crucible and pour.

Step 4: Pour the liquid metal

Picture of Pour the liquid metal
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Like the last step, do this outdoors with good breeze, the stink of the plastic burning out of the mold is not too good for you.

Have everything ready with the foam mold and sand; also have a steel muffin tin or something similar for pouring excess aluminum into.

Pour slightly quick and aim well. This may take some practice with little chunks of foam before pouring the big project. Actually, I've recast the "big project" five times until I finally got the hang of casting.

Once poured, wait about five to ten minutes for cooling before poking at it. It will still be 500 degrees F or more; watch out it will be hot for about an hour after sitting. Use pliers to handle it. The sand also will hold this immense heat so don't start playing in it like I did, with a gloved hand (luckily).

Step 5: Clean up the cast

Picture of Clean up the cast
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Use a wire brush, grinder, file, and dremel to clean up the cast. Remove little bumps and funny spots and cut the sprues off the casts. If you used styrofoam egg carton for the mold details, the depth of the positive die needs to be taken down by about half; also round the all the edges slightly. This might take a while until both casts fit together nicely with wiggle room. If there is too little wiggle room between the negative and positive die, it can act like scissors and cut or break the thin aluminum tile.

Step 6: Cut and stamp cans

Picture of Cut and stamp cans
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First cut the raw material, the soda can.
This gets sharp, so wearing gloves is important. Use scissors or tin snips to cut the top off the can at the seam where the can bends. Cut down the center to the bottom and then cut off the bottom of the can. You should now have a rectangular piece of aluminum sheet metal.

Cutting lots of these little aluminum sheets in advance is nice

Lay a sheet in between the dies to make a little sandwich. Give it a few light raps with a ball peen hammer until you feel the deformation of the can. Open it up and see the tile; if you dies aren't perfect, this may take some practice and some dremel adjustments until everything works. Actually my stamp still tears and breaks the cans often, I think it has something to do with the sharp angles of the design.

Step 7: Install metal tiles

Picture of Install metal tiles
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To cover an area, it takes about 4.5 can tiles per square foot. Install with a staple gun or something similar. Start from the end farthest from the entrance on a ceiling or start from the bottom when installing on a wall, this helps hide the overlapping seams.

Each little can isn't perfect, but when they're all installed the effect is nice.
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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.

halfmumi3 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!
stallsworth4 years ago
i would use a press. it would have a more crisp look
PKTraceur6 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)  PKTraceur6 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)  rredmon5 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)  PKTraceur6 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)  PKTraceur6 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)  Goedjn6 years ago
Thanks for the explanation, I was wondering what was going on there.
timothybena6 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)  sing1ejack6 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.
legocompoundlever.jpg
robbtoberfest (author)  timothybena6 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 candy4 years ago
wau
watchout for what your cans are made of. not all cans are aluminum . ther mostly of stainless steel so test games .
Superfrk5 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)  Superfrk5 years ago
 Thanks for the good tips. I'll give it a shot.
nickodemus5 years ago
Truly innovative!
strmrnnr6 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)  strmrnnr6 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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