Putting Your Photograph on Metal





Introduction: Putting Your Photograph on Metal

There is all sorts of fun things to do down at TechShop San Jose whether it's in the wood shop, metal shop or in the textile area. However if you aren't the inventing sort, there is a way that you can combine photography, printmaking and the metal shop: Ink Jet Transfers! By placing an ink-jet transparency against a Purel-brushed surface, the ink will pull off and make a print on a surface of your choosing! You can do this to just about any surface, but if you want to use metal like I did you will need to take the MIG welding SBU. Beyond that, the only other tools I used are hand tools and the handheld plasma cutter which is a check-out service. So this is definitely a cool and interesting project that can be done without taking a class. 


A TechShop Membership (Not required but highly recommended)
Whatever is in the desired scrap bin (Or something you purchased)
Purel - 70% alcohol hand sanitizer
Apollo Inkjet Transparency Film (It cannot be multipurpose or quick-dry. And I don't know about other brands)
An inkjet printer - The higher quality the better
A Brush for the hand sanitizer
Angle Grinder
Flap Wheel
Clear coat

Step 1: Surface Grinding

So the easiest first step for this project is to prepare whatever surface you want first. The main reason for this being that once the image is printed on the transparency ink can be scratched off or it can be damaged in general.

Through doing roughly 8 of these pieces, there are many variables that can affect the final outcome. The most effective method to prepare the surface is to use an angle grinder and a Flap Disc. This creates grooves in the metal that makes it easier for the ink to stay on the material. When I was taught how to do this, the hand sanitizer method was mainly used for porous materials but I got a cool imperfect look with metal. 

As I have stated in my previous instructables, when using rotary tools it is important to not where gloves and keep otherwise loose things away. At the same time, it is important as always to wear safety glasses. 

Clamp down the piece of metal you choose, and grind it down! Be sure to be cautious of heat build up, especially with thinner gauge material. It is definitely possible to not only burn the metal but also grind through it. You want to make sure that the metal is ground down enough to create consistent scoring as well as brighten the surface to bring out the highlights. In the image provided you can easily see the before and after of this piece of scrap metal that I found.

Step 2: Stand Creation

For the stands that hold up the photograph, I used the remnants from another metal piece (that I didn't end up using). It left a cool curve  that I liked and so I plasma cut it once again to fit it to the proper form. I then ground down the edge on an angle grinder to ensure proper contact for welding.

In my first iteration of this project I created the stand after the fact, and when I welded the base to the image, it damaged the print. Because I am purposefully making these rough, it wasn't the end of the world. However, I always construct the metal portion fully before applying the image. This is the portion that would require the MIG welding SBU at TSSJ. After you set up the machine as per instructed in the class, prepare your work how you would like it welded. Before welding the majority, do a couple of quick tack welds to get it started. From there I flipped over the work and welded it on it's face so it's more stable. 

I pointed out the burns that were left from the heat of welding the two pieces of metal together. These are the burns that scarred my last image, and so I built this first. As captioned, the flap wheel will fix that burn right up. 

So! with this prepped, put it aside and head to the printer.

Step 3: Printing on the Apollo Film

The material that this uses is pretty straight-forward, when it comes down to it this project is simple and all of the complexity comes from you. The type of transparency needs to be plain ink-jet combatible and non-quick dry. Gloves aren't quite necessary, but it helps put my mind at ease. 

In terms of print settings, whatever options that are "high-gloss" you should use those. Also, if you can change the color density on the printer you will likely have more luck. I have noticed that the more ink is on the transparency, the better! With the Canon iPF650 featured here, when feeding in a sheet of paper rather than using the roll paper it uses a laser to register the paper. WIth the transparency however, it shines through and so it is unable to load properly. The fix was simple, and that is to just put a normal sheet of paper behind. When loading the film, as with photo paper, make sure the printable surface is facing the right way. The Apollo film has a convenient strip on the top which tells you the proper side to print on. 

In whatever photo editing program you use, (Photoshop is provided here at TechShop) brighten up the image. Compared to white paper, metal is always darker. Changing the brightness helps this, and the difference can definitely be noticed between two prints. Also, before you print be sure to flip the image laterally! Flipping horizontal keeps the natural orientation of the image which is crucial for text or common composition.  

Step 4: Placing the Image

As I said before, the reason why this all works is due to the alcohol in your common hand sanitizer. I have noticed better results with a higher percentage of alcohol, the concentration in this solution is 90%. There is another method of ink-jet transfers which floats the image on to the surface using an isopropyl alcohol bath. For the rougher brushed look, I used this method. 

Take an ordinary paint brush, the better quality will of course reduce the amount of bristles that fall off. There is no need to remove any oils in previous handling because the brushing process will do this for you. When brushing, get the coating as even as you can. There are many variables in this process, the more you can control the process the less stress there will be. There is also a certain amount of sanitizer that will work best. If there are large globs on the surface, this will result in globs of ink. If there is too little solution, then the ink won't come off. Play with this on your own and expect to do this several times before you really get it down. I also try to brush in a single direction before I finally place the image. There will be some breaks in the image, this process isn't perfect. If you brush in a certain direction, the image will break in that same direction making it look good. 

When you place the image on the metal, it can be a bit nerve wracking at first. I use two hands to place the image on the surface on one side, and then I use the rigidity of the film to my advantage. Bending it backwards, the tension makes sure the entire surface presses against the purel as it is placed along. Now, this technique is the result of doing this over and over again with much frustration. 

If you do need to redo the placement, you cannot do it immediately. Use purel to get the ink off, but then you need to regrind it. The residual ink will fill in the grooves that existed before. I learned this the hard way. 

So there is your image! It is possible to get a second coating as well, but it involves much risk and typically isn't worth it. For aesthetics I brush the edges with solution in make the image dissolve away. It's not often that this method looks good with hard lines on the edge of the image. In addition, if there is a lot of left over ink, you can coat other areas of the metal and sort of "paint" it on. 

On this particular piece, I did one side at a time. The hand sanitizer can evaporate quickly, producing another variable which can make things more difficult. 

Step 5: Finishing

And that's it!

From here on out it's all up to you, there are many ways to finish this but I believe the most effective is to clear coat it. This for sure makes the image stable. I used Rustoleum Ultra cover clear coat, purchased from a typical hardware store. Now the can of clear coat is matte. This is perfect for the backside of the piece, just to preserve that rustic unclean look. However I learned that using gloss for the actual picture portion is perfect! All told I used about 5 or so coats on the final surface, this gives the image a liquid sheen which is eerily cool. 

If you get a chance to try this out, let me know what you come up with! There is much possibility with this!



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    14 Discussions

    Just found this and I love it! I'd love to try something like this with my kids do you think sand papered tin (as in tin can) would be as effective as angle ground steel?

    I'm confused about the final steps.
    • How long do you leave the printed piece on the metal?
    • How do you remove it? Just peel it off?

    Thank you!

    1 reply

    Sorry about being a tad vague on that, I only left the printed piece on the metal for about 10 seconds or so. I didn't really keep track of time, I just spent the time making sure the image was in full contact with the purel. It's essentially instantaneous.

    And yes, I just peeled it off.

    Please do a video of the actual transfer part of project. Can one use just methanol , alreasy on my toxic waste shelf and purel costs more money and they are both spirit. There are many DIY picture transfer pieces on the web but yours is a bit different so it adds to the mix.

    1 reply

    I may be making more of these soon so when I do I will try to remember to record the process. It was interesting to try and record exact instructions since I wasn't being meticulous about it. I believe you can use anything with alcohol in it, that's the key ingredient. There is another transfer process which one can float the project in a bath of isopropyl alcohol which comes out with a cleaner look.

    This is a cool affect. I like working with sheet metal and making art sculpture with it so this gives me more ideas to try on my next projects. Have you tried using just plain printing paper? Also (I'm sure you already know this)have you tried cleaning the metal before and after grinding it? When I worked at a metal fabrication shop we cleaned all the metal we grind or sanded to remove the oil before welding and painting it! I'm thinking if there's oil in the metal it's probly why the image don't stick, maybe the reason why grinding it is working better?
    Also I was thinking instead of brushing the alcohol on maybe spraying it with a fine mist using a plastic spray bottle or maybe an paint spray gun for the alcohol. If you try any of this or already done it let me know how it worked out.. Thanks for the instructable MakerDrake..

    i use the pre-coat from Canadian company Inkaid to print on " anything " www.inkAID.com
    It comes out pretty good on coper and stainless steel

    Nice artistic effect. Thanks for the writeup (and the new ideas kicking around in my head). :-)

    If you chilled the metal (and possibly the Purell) before Step 4 (Placing the Image), it might slow down the evaporation rate enough to give you more working time before the alcohol evaporates too much.

    The chilling might make it easier to do larger pieces (which would likely require breaking an image into multiple printed transparencies). Brushing on additional Purell to apply a print next to an existing one seems likely to mess up the first image…but if the chilling slows evaporation enough, you could do multiple images on a larger chunk of metal by brushing over a wider area before applying the images.

    I haven't done any significant exploration in that area. Like I said in the write-up when trying to do another transfer after a failed one, it works terribly. I believe that the success on the metal is due to the grooves created by the flap wheel. It's worth a shot with a higher grit wheel!

    I wonder if you could use a pressure washer to remove the ink residue for a second trial!

    How long do you leave the transparency film on before removing? I am guessing just a minute or two if that.

    1 reply

    That is correct, about a minute or so. I wasn't really scientific with the process so it ranged from about 30 seconds to 2 minutes. It largely depended on how much other pressure needed to be applied throughout the transparency.