Patina Finishes for Steel

Rust Patina


Introduction to Patinas

A patina is a surface coating on a bare metal surface. It is distinctive over applied coatings like painting and powder coating in that the effect is caused by actually reacting a solution with the metal surface. Metals react with moist air on their own in a gradual pace. By using a blend of acids and/or salts, the process is greatly accelerated to a time frame that is managable for decorative application. Also, there are nonreactive patina products avialable that either modify existing patinas or splash color on bare metals. One such nonrective product is dye oxide patinas.

Usually, when one thinks of putting a patina on metal they usually think of metals like copper, silver, and bronze. This is because these metal have the greatest range of reactive colors over the other metals. Unfortunately, the cost of these metals makes them practical for jewelry and not so much large artworks. Steel is the most widely used industrial metal and most inexpensive. If diligent, one can find steel even cheaper or even free in scrap form. As this article implies, there is still a good selection of finishes for steel besides the traditional rust finish.

Surface Preparation for Metals

If you are applying any finish to steel, whether it is a patina or otherwise, proper surface preparation is paramount. There are several ways to prepare the surface of steel. To get the desired results any combination of the methods mentioned here may be needed. There is mechanical debris removal with abrasives and wire brushes, acid pickle, and solvent cleaning.

There are two major kinds of mild steel, cold rolled and hot rolled steel. Hot rolled steel is shaped and rolled at high temperatures. Hot rolled steel has a black oxide coating called mill scale. To patina hot rolled, the mill scale must come off. A good and inexpensive way to accomplish this is to use an acid pickle consisting of equal volumes of water and muriatic acid. This could be hazardous due to the fumes and exposure so be sure to wear gloves and eye protection. Cold rolled steel just needs to usually be wire brushed followed by a wipe down with solvent. If the cold rolled is heavily rusted then it will more than likely need an acid pickle.

Abrasives and Wire Brushes

As far as abrasives are concerned, the most effective tool is an angle grinder with a flap wheel. Flap wheels come in a variety of grits can be had cheaply by bulk online. Another option is the sanding adapter kits sold for angle grinders. Like the flap wheels, the sand paper discs come in several grits from coarse to fine. They are beneficial as they have more abrasive surface area to work with.

Wire brushes also come as fixtures for angle grinders. Usually two configurations are found. One being a flat wheel for crevices and irregular surfaces, and cup brushes for flat sheet and plate.

Acid Pickles

When abrasives and wire brushes are insufficient to remove extensive rust or heavy millscale, an acidic pickle can be most helpful. One of the fastest acting pickle is muriatic acid. In most situations, it is best to dilute this powerful acid with water. In extreme cases though it might be best to dunk the steel in the concentrate right out of the bottle. Keep in mind this acid can blind you almost instantly, it burns skin, and the fumes are toxic with a suffocating odor. Also, when you are done pickling, you have to rinse with a lot of water to mitigate flash rusting because the steel will be in an activated state.

If fumes are a major concern, there is an acid that produces almost no fumes and converts rust into an insoluble primer base that can be painted. That acid is phosphoric acid. There are several brand name rust removers/converters on the retail market based on phosphoric acid. The principle of the reaction is the iron oxide in the steel corrosion products is converted to iron phosphate. This phosphate is relatively inert and insoluble and offers a barrier that can be painted over.

Solvent Cleaning of Steel

By far the most useful solvents for cleaning steel is acetone and denatured alcohol. These are the least expensive solvents but are excellent and removing oils and grease. These liquids are flammable so make sure to keep the containers away from ignition sources like welding equipment. Also, they mix with water in all proportions. This is helpful when water rinsing steel from an acid pickle. Acetone and alcohol will remove remaining traces of moisture then evaporate leaving dry metal.

Rust Patina


Rust Patina

A rust patina is exactly as it sounds, a coating of rust oxidation on steel. One of the simplist ways to accomplish this is to leave bare steel outside in the weather. After a few weeks or months, depending on moisture and humidty, the metal will start an oxidation process eventually coating the whole surface.

If time is of the essence, then we need to speed things up chemically. Thankfully, most formulas for rusting steel can be made from readily available products. One very simple method uses just salt water and warm sunshine. Just repeated application of salt water and allowing the warm sun to work takes several days instead of weeks. If it is winter or you live in a predominently cloudy conditions, then perhaps a little more active solution is needed. A cheap but very effective recipe involves a mix of salt, vinegar, and peroxide. This solution is of low toxicity and fast acting. It gives the most intense chile red color on contact with steel. The proper proportions are in the recipe below. It is best to make a fresh batch each time. If you want more information, check out the instructable.

Vinegar/Peroxide Patina Formula

This is a formula derived from all easily accessible materials and is of low toxicity. Dissolve the salt in the vinegar and once dissolved, add the peroxide until total liquid volume is 16 ounces.

  • 2 tablespoons of rock salt or kosher salt
  • 2 ounces or 1/4 cup of 5% distilled vinegar
  • 3% Drugstore Hydrogen Peroxide until total volume is 16 ounces

Other Rust Patina Formulations

The above paragraphs give a description of the easiest, most cost effective, and safest route to obtain a fairly consistent rust patina. There are numerous other ways to accomplish the same results but they require corrosive and/or noxious chemicals. One method is a strong acid like hydrochloric or sulfuric acid diluted to less than 5% and a trace of copper to accelerate rusting by galvanic corrosion. Bleach with peroxide is rather effective but you have to cover your clothing and eyes to keep bleach out. Also, the mixture fizzes profusely so you can only add bleach to peroxide a little at a time.

Gun Bluing on Mild Steel


Black Patina

There is a product called gun bluing that is sold whereever sporting goods are sold. Typical use is to give a handsome bluish black finish to gun barrels. It is a poisonous light blue acidic liquid that turns mild steel black on contact. It's active ingredient is selenium dioxide which oxidizes the iron to magnetic black iron oxide and also deposits elemental selenium. Apply to clean steel and burnish to desired results then promptly rinse. If you do not rinse this patina off thoroughly, the metal will start rusting under the patina. Also, it should be know that gun bluing is ineffective on stainless steel alloys.

Black Patina on Cold Rolled Steel

Your Ideal Steel Finish

What type of finish looks best on steel wall sculpture?

  • Rust finish
  • Black patina
  • Heat coloring
  • Dye oxide or paint
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Heat Patina on steel


Heat Coloring of Steel

If you have a shiny and freshly poolished piece of steel, you can create an impressive pallet of color just by heating in air. What happens is the oxygen from the air plays upon the hot steel and starts forming oxides. The layers of oxides are thin at first and the transparent colors that result are an interference effect. The colors are difficult to control. Although you can use a torch, an even heat source is best. A ceramic support over an electric heating element or in an oven will give more consistent results. Placing a few drops of water or oil on the metal before heating can create some interesting patterns. Many of the blues, magentas and violets cannot be clear coated since the clear reacts with the coating. The golden and bronze finsihes can be clear coated but will eventually darken with age. A periodic application of renaissance wax are recommended for protection.

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