How to Make Rusting Plates
What Is Rust, Exactly?
Rust is the common word for oxidation, which occurs when oxygen comes into long-term contact with certain metals, and corrodes them. If the base metal is iron or steel, the resulting rust is properly called iron oxide.
The main catalyst for the rusting process is water. While iron or steel may appear solid, water molecules can easily penetrate the microscopic pits and cracks in any exposed metal. The hydrogen atoms in water can combine with other elements to form acids, which will eventually cause more metal to be exposed and corrode. If sodium is present, as is the case with salt water, corrosion will likely occur more quickly.
Oxygen atoms combine with metal atoms to form a destructive oxide compound, and as the atoms combine, they weaken the metal, making it brittle and crumbly. Water alone does not cause steel to rust, but the acidic reaction allows oxygen to attack vulnerable exposed metal.
Don’t you wish you’d paid more attention in chemistry class?
Making Rusting Plates
If you want to rust things like paper or fabric, it helps to create rusting plates. These are flat sheets of steel or iron that have been through a simple chemical process that has accelerated the rust.
I hunted around for cheap, flat sheets for rusting paper. My criteria was that the sheet had to be big enough to hold a letter-sized or larger piece of paper, and easily stackable, because I don’t have a lot of room to dedicate to rusting things. I tried the hardware store first. Metal flashing looked promising in my head, but in reality, it’s either galvanized steel (which doesn’t rust) or aluminum (which also doesn’t rust). There was some uncoated sheet steel available, but it was very expensive.
The solution sort of hit me accidentally. I’m really hard on my kitchen baking pans and cookie sheets, because I like to roast vegetables tossed with olive oil in the oven. No matter how careful I am, they always seem to end up coated with oil that’s been burned onto the surface. When they get so brown and nasty that I can’t bear it, I banish them to the garage---where they are exposed to the brutal humidity and heat of Texas weather. After six months, they’re no longer brown. They’re bright orange and rusty. Cheap steel baking pans---plain steel, not galvanized or sealed or coated with Teflon---are the ideal surface for rusting papers.
A Little Rust Safety
- Never create rust close to metal items you want to keep intact. For example, I don't create rust plates in my garage, because there are power tools in there I'd like not to end up rusty. Even if you cover your work space in plastic, it's possible that the fumes from the various solvents will go to work on metal items in close proximity. If possible, work outside.
- Do not breathe the mist from peroxide or vinegar sprayers. Even though they're both non-toxic, they can be irritating to the eyes and nose. Wear a mask and safety goggles.
- Wear gloves, and be careful of getting rust in any nicks and cuts on your hands. An up to date tetanus shot might be a good idea if you're going to handle a lot of rusting plates.
- Do not use your kitchen or bathroom sink to rinse rusted items. Use a hose, and a plastic tub or bucket. Pour off the resulting rusty water in a dead spot of your garden.
- Store finished rust plates completely dried, in a plastic bag, to protect the rust from spreading to any adjacent metal objects.
Materials For Rusting Plates
To make rusting plates, you’ll need:
- Steel sheets. I used cheap steel cookie sheets from the dollar store.
- A liquid. I’ve rusted with three different liquids: tap water, hydrogen peroxide, and vinegar. Water works slowly, but is the least expensive and most readily at hand solution. Peroxide is sold in any drug store, usually in brown plastic containers. It rusts metal a little faster, and doesn’t smell too badly when you spray it. Vinegar is also inexpensive, and the fastest solution, but also the smelliest.
- Spray bottles. Buy cheap ones at the dollar store if you can, because they’ll be ruined for any other use. Get one for each liquid, and label it clearly. I label by color: blue is always water, green is vinegar. I bought spray peroxide in a brown spray bottle, and keep refilling it with the less expensive jumbo bottle.
- Salt. Sea salt is awesome, but table salt will work, too.
- Plastic to cover everything in sight. Rust is one of those things you want to confine as much as possible. Find yourself a nice non-metal surface, away from any metal things, and cover it in plastic. I work outside, on brick covered with plastic, because the weather is almost always nice enough.
- Water and a rinsing bucket. You do not want to rinse anything associated with rust inside your house. Fill a bucket with water, rinse rusty things in the bucket, and pour the water off in a dead spot in your garden.
Place the metal sheets on a plastic surface, and fill spray bottles with whichever liquid you’ve chosen. If you can work outside on a sunny day, the heat will help speed the rusting process a bit.
Start by spraying an entire sheet of metal with a coat of liquid. Make sure to cover the whole metal surface.
Sprinkle salt over the liquid. I did this by hand for my first few plates, but now I use a recycled salt shaker. The more salt you use, the more pitted and uneven the rust will be.
Spray the salty surface with liquid again. Let it sit, but don’t let it dry out completely. Mist it with liquid whenever it looks dry.
Watch for rust to start as a sort of pale caramel color. With vinegar, mine started in just a few hours. With water, this might not happen until the following day.
Keep misting the metal until the rust starts showing up as caramel-colored patches. Now’s a good time to stack the plates after a good misting of liquid, and let them sit overnight.
After a couple of days of misting every few hours and stacking overnight, a good layer of rust will form. This looks a little blotchy, but after being used once or twice, the rust will be solid.
Once you're happy with the way the plates look, and are ready to put them to use, simply rinse off any salt that still remains. Don't bother drying the plates. Just stack them while wet until you're ready to use them.
Here are my finished rust plates, ready to make paper. I have a stack of 24 plates, because when I make paper, I want a lot, and I want it now. You'll need at least two plates to start rusting papers and fabrics. It's faster to make a bunch of them at once.
How To Make Rusted Paper
Rusted Paper in Action
Because Arachnea asked in a comment what the use might be for rusted paper, here's a set of altered book pages, made using some rusted pattern tissue. Rusted papers have a unique look that really can't be replicated by manufacturer printed papers, or even laser prints of photos of rust. They have a color and texture that brings a subtle, organic sort of visual interest.
Rust Time Lapse Video
If only I could get my rust plates to rust at this speed!