Introduction: Drink Can Butterflies

About: A Freelance Web and Graphic Designer with a habitual need to make stuff in the physical world and escape a life spent in front of a screen.

For some time and for reasons I'm not entirely sure of, I have been trying to find a good use for used soda cans. I have tried making a mini chest of draws, gift boxes (there is a very good Instructable by Mangetout for that) and cookie cutters, the latter worked very well and went down a treat when I used it to make Peppa Pig cake decorations for my Goddaughters 2nd Birthday.
Then last week I stumbled on the art of Paul Villinski, who turns old Beer cans into beautiful works of art by making them into butterflies and birds. I had to try it and whilst my efforts aren't a shade on Villinski's, I found it to be a surprisingly simple process and one that can be done with household materials, and with no specialist knowledge. Although there are some great Instructables on here for making butterfly charms and ornaments or reusing drink cans, none that I can see are similar to this one.
As with all my Instuctables I have probably over done it with the photos and descriptions, and have made a few mistakes during the process, nothing serious and I will point them out as we go.

I find the process quite addictive which is handy as I intend to make a lot of these and use them to create wall art in a way similar to Villinski's, you could also turn them into fridge magnets or perhaps stick them to hair clips. 

I hope you both enjoy, and find this Instructable useful.

Edit: Only after publishing did I see bauble's Drink Can Craft instructable it also features making butterflies and has some other great ideas for things to do with cans, do check it out.

Update: Following a suggestion by scraptopower, I went back and investigated the use of a can opener to remove the top of the can, I had tried this before but obviously with the wrong type of opener. It actually works quite well although it does pose some issues, I have added this alternative method to the cutting the can step, so you can choose which you prefer.

Update 2: Again I have made some changes to the cutting the can step to include weibbed's method of dismantling the can, weibbed has a lot more experience working with cans than I do and consequently their method is by far the best. Also added a new photo of the butterflies in situ.

Step 1: Tools and Materials

Although the photo shows quite a few tools, some are just to demonstrate alternative tools for the same job and you should have most of them around the house.

Empty Can: Obviously! Rinsed and allowed to dry. Coke or Pepsi? More accurately Aluminum or Steel? Coke cans are aluminum, Pepsi cans are steel, of cause other brands are available. I have found some differences in the two types of can:
Aluminium is often a thinner gauge metal, making it easier to cut but also more flimsy and susceptible to tearing and breaking. Steel cans are often a darker colour on the inside, this affects the final colour of your markers, Steel cans are attracted to magnets. At the end of the day the differences are not that important but you may have a preference. Your can should say what type it is, alternatively you can use a magnet to quickly sort them. The average 330ml can should give you a sheet of metal 8” long by 3 to 3.5” wide, enough to make 3 to 4 medium sized butterflies. If you wish to do your own decoration on both sides you could remove the can's original design with wire wool, or cover it with aluminium tape. 

Update: As can composition seems to be such a talking point I did some research "Most metal beverage cans manufactured in the United States are made of aluminium, whereas in some parts of Europe and Asia approximately 55 percent are made of steel and 45 percent are aluminium alloy. Steel cans often have a top made of aluminium." - Wikipedia, hope this helps.

Scissors: I am using “5 Star General Purpose Scissors” they are very sturdy and have no problem cutting the metal. I have found my scissors have become slightly magnetic, I dont know if it is from cutting the metal or just the number of magnets I have around, either way it is handy for catching the small bits of steel. I'm sure most scissors of any quality will work well but they may become blunt with time. 5 Star General Purpose Scissors can be bought online for a few pounds. Tin snips may also be useful but I find my ones to be a bit ungainly and less useful for doing the details, perhaps a better quality tin snip would be more effective.

Iso-Propyl Alcohol (aka Rubbing Alcohol): This is used to remove the permanent marker from the metal if required, it could be considered optional but I find it very useful as you will see. It evaporates quickly off the metal so there is no need to dry after using.You may also be able to use other solvents such as white spirit, but as I've not tried anything else I wouldn't like to say for sure,  Having done some tests I would say ISP Alcohol is the best thing to use, white spirit wont work. I believe this is widely available in the USA, in the UK I found it somewhat harder to find, you may be able to get it at a chemist, I bought a litter on eBay for £5 and have found many uses for it since.

Tissue: or Cotton Wool Balls/Buds, basically anything that can soak up the ios-propyl so it can be used.

"Blunt" Pointed tool: I say "blunt" as anything with too sharp a point risks tearing or puncturing the metal. Two of the tools shown here are metal embossing tools I picked up at an art shop sometime ago, they were very cheap, about £1.50 for both. Alternatively a pencil will work just as well, I would recommend a harder lead though (HB at least).

Butterfly Patterns: Whilst you could draw the shape of the butterfly directly onto the metal or cut it out “blind” I find the best results come from using a pattern, to this end I have created and included a set of 4 Butterfly shapes in various sizes for you to print out and use. I know that the physiology of butterflies is endlessly diverse, but I feel these four patterns can be adapted to produce most shapes and sizes.

Hole Punch: These may be considered optional but I find it very useful for doing some of the wing detail. Whilst most any hole punch will work, I prefer the single hole punch as it allows for more accuracy, I bought this one up at a stationers for £1.50.

Foam Sheet, Cork board or Folded Towel: You want something with a bit of give to as a surface when doing the embossing step, trying to emboss on a hard surface will not work. I got up a pack of 9 different coloured foam sheets from Poundland, I chose to use the pink as I cant see myself using it for anything else.

Tape: Any will do, though clear is better, only a small amount is needed.

Markers: Any permanent marker will do, I prefer Sharpies for their range of colours, but will use cheaper marker pens if possible as the sharp sides of the butterflies can damage the tips. I also use “Uni Posca” markers, they are paint pens, great for adding lighter colours like White, you could of cause also use Tipex if you prefer. Posca Markers are available in art shops and cost a few pounds.
Note: Sharpie Professional markers are more permanent than regular ones, this is great, unless you make a mistake, you will have to allow the Iso-Propyl to soak for a while.

A picture of a Butterfly: (not shown) Very useful for inspiration and as a guide, there are many available online, you can of cause do any design you like, or if you prefer try to recreate a particular type, I often use one species shape with the colouring of another. For this instructable I am using the the Blue Mountain Swallowtail as inspiration with an image form

Can Opener (optional): Pliars type with a tuning handel. £1 Poundland (weibbed has some tips on can opener choice in the comments section)

Dangers! While I have never cut myself on any of the edges of the butterflies and they are quite safe to handle taking only the slightest of care, the sharp points and barbs of the offcuts do pose a small danger of giving you small prick or even a cut if you run a finger over them, so take care with these. You may also wish to wear eye protection as pieces may fly off when cutting.

Step 2: Cutting and Preparing the Can

I dislike this stage, it's not fun but it is a necessary evil, at least until I invent some kind of can cutting jig (if I do I will post it on here), having said that Weibbed's way of cutting the can makes it less of a chore.

This is the step most likely to cause injury, the cutting produces sharp burs, points and jagged edges, as well as small flying pieces of metal. Please take care.

Your can should be rinsed out and allowed to dry, if you do not wish to wait, push a tissue through the hole in the can to absorb the moisture inside, that way it doesn't trickle out when you are working. If  you prefer you can clean after removing the top, as in  method 2.

Great tip from Weibbed about cutting the can: DO NOT CLOSE THE SCISSORS ALL THE WAY to the point when you cut! (this is how you prevent those sharp burrs that cause injuries).

Removing the Top:

Method 1 (Method 2 is my preferred way, only use this method if you don't have a can opener to hand.)

Start by pushing a scissor point into the can just below the shoulder to make a hole, be sure you fingers are well clear in case the scissors slip.

Cut around the can using the shoulder as a guide until you have removed the top.

Watching out for sharp sections cut straight down the can to the base, if you are able, over-cut slightly into the base, this will make it easier to turn the scissors for the next step.

Method 2 (Weibbed Method)

All Images with Coke cans are specific to this method.

Weibbed Says:

"Remove the pop tab and save for later.

Use a side cutting can opener and cut off the lid. (I find a top cutting can opener held side ways also works - Clintonmc)

Wash and dry the can once the lid is off.

Slice down the height of the can with a pair of kitchen scissors.

Turn the can on its side, and cut all the way around just below the neck of the can.

Cutting off the neck effectively removes the structural support and makes it much easier to then cut around the bottom of the can, in parallel with your neck cut."

Removing the Base

Cut around the base of the can until it is removed, discard the top and bottom of the can for recycling.


Trim a small section from length of each edge to remove any sharp bits and jagged sections, if required cut off any sharp corners, a smooth edge is unlikely to harm you. Discard the offcuts but take care, they may well be very sharp.

You will probably find the metal has a curl in it from the previous shape of the can, this curl may be made worse by the cutting. Gripping at each end of the metal bend it over the edge of a table in the opposite direction to the curl and run it up and down a few times, this should straighten out the curl, don't over do it or it will curl the other way. It doesn't have to be completely flat, this just makes it easier to work with.

Step 3: Transfering the Pattern to the Metal

Print out the patterns.

Choose the shape and size butterfly pattern you want, cut out a square of paper around it, don't cut out the exact shape in the paper!

Place a small section of tape along the top edge of the pattern

Orientate the pattern to best fit the metal taking into account any missing corners. Stick the pattern down.

You may find that your can has a design you wish to use as decoration, if so place your pattern over the section you wish to use.

Note: The following steps should be done on your foam sheet to get the best effect, alas I forgot, but fortunately my cutting mat has some give so it still worked.

Using one of your pointed tools and following the pattern, push down to create small dents in the matel all the way along. Don't press so hard as to make hole. It'snot the end of the work if you do though.

You can use the tape as a hinge to flip the pattern up and check you have enough dents to follow.

Concentrate dents around the sharp bends to get the shape right

Once you are happy with the number of dots carefully peel off the tape and put the pattern aside to be use again if needed.

Using a fine tip marked connect the dots. Even if you are using the cans own design as the decorative side it is easiest to do this and the following steps on the “shiny” side.

Don't worry if you pattern differs slightly in places to the original.

If you make a mistake, the marker can easily be removed by some Iso-Propyl on a tissue.

Step 4: Cutting Out Your Butterfly

Step 4 Cutting out the Butterfly Blank

Caution: You will again be making some sharp points and there may be some small pieces of metal flying around. So some care is required.

A note on cutting: I have found it is better to always cut “into” the narrow tight sections of the pattern from either direction. To this end I have included a guide to cutting out. Each line represents a new cut and should be cut from Red to Blue.

Cut along the outline of the Butterfly trying to “hit” all the dents along the way, again its up to you how accurate you are, small mistakes likely not be evident.

If you have cut into a point from both sides and the piece is still attached by a very narrow section don't be temped to cut further, it could cause damage. Instead grip the piece you wish to remove and “wiggle” gently it should come away with ease.

Leave the antennae till last, cut straight across from wing to wing above them, then flow done each side.

Narrow sections of metal such as the antennae will curl when being cut out, but can be bent straight again with a little care.

Once the shape is fully cut out go back and trim off any sharp points and smooth off the small corners that can form on a curve.

Once you have you completed Butterfly “Blank” go over it with some of the rubbing alcohol on a tissue to remove the marker and clean the surface.

Step 5: Embossing and Adding Detail.

You will notice I have now remembered the foam sheet, however the use of the hole punch as described below is better done at the beginning of this step, I did it out of order.

With which ever side you want to show facing up, use your blunt point to press a line into the blank on either side of the body, from where each wing begins to where it ends.

You will notice the wings now lift up slightly.

Flip the butterfly over and using the fat end of a pencil or similar shape tool, pushing down along the length of the body section to emboss it out. When flipped back over the body should have a nice shape along its length.

Again the next part is best done at the beginning of this step. It is however completely optional depending on the type of butterfly you are making.

Some Butterflies like the Blue Mountain Swallowtail have indents along the length of the wings edge. I find it easiest to do these using a hole punch to “nibble” the edge where needed, although you could probably do it with your scissors.

Again using your pencil/embossing point indent a line across each wing, bisecting it, this should be as deep as those used to make the body.

With your embossing point make patterns in the wing to represent the natural ridges a butterfly would have, accuracy is up to you, on this occasion I chose to do simple arks on the the wings. These embossed lines need not be as deep as those made previously.

This last action may cause the wings to curl in a way we do not want.

Flip the Butterfly over again and run embossing point above and bellow the original lines that bisected the wings. This should take some of the curl out of the wings, however some further manipulation with your fingers may be needed to get it looking right.

You may need to go back and remove any further sharp points at this stage.

If you are using the design of the can as decoration or feel you like your butterfly metal coloured then you are done!

Step 6: Decorating

This step is entirely up to you I will just add some pointers.

Sharpies and other permanent markers work well, the metallic sheen will show through them giving a glossy iridescent finish.

The colour could be scratched off, but should stand up to being handled

Lighter colours should be done first and then darker colours can be added over them if need be. This stops the lighter colour pen nibs being ruined by picking up the darker colour.

When doing blocks of colour work quickly and avoid going over already dry sections it will make streaks by removing the colour.

If you clean the surface with Iso-Propyl before colouring the Sharpie ink may run a bit before drying, this is good as it give a smoother colour finish. Obviously this wont happen if the markers are starting to get low on ink. 

A good way to add subtle detail is to dab spots onto an already coloured section with the same colour, if there is enough ink the spots will grow slightly, it gives a good effect. 

Using the markers over each other can block the felt of tip or cause it to pick up the underlying colour but a quick scribble on scrap paper will clear this.

If you make a mistake use your Iso-proply to erase it.

Posca or similar markers can be use to add light detail, like the white dots many butterflies have on their wings.

Posca markers take abit longer to dry and will not allow the metallic sheen to show through, giving a matt finish where used.

Of cause if you wish you could spray paint the butterflies a flat colour, this can be quite effective, and faster if you are planning on making lots of these.

And finally remember to recycle your off cuts.

I hope you have found this fun and useful and I pray it was easy to follow with out being too long winded, as ever my Dyslexic disclaimer about spelling applies :) .