Rust Patina on Steel and Iron

Rust Patina as a finish

In this page, I will be describing the intentional rusting of steel art to create a pleasing color and texture on the metal surface. I will briefly illustrate what rusting is then I will discuss various methods to accomplish a rust patina on steel.I will cover several ways to rust steel both naturally and artificially. Most of the chemicals are cheap,readily available, and of low hazard.


Some of the methods in this lens for rusting steel may involve using irritation or even toxic ingredients and/or electricity. You are being advised that any activity you engage in influenced by this site is your sole responsbility. By reading this, you hold me NOT LIABILE for any damage to property or personal injury you incurr due to negligence or just plain stupidity.

What is rust?

Rusty 1937 FordRust is a form of oxidation where Iron or steel react with oxygen in the air to create orange, red, yellow, or brown flaky oxidation. Water or moisture in the air are required to intiate the reaction making it a catalytic process.

Unlike copper or aluminum, because the iron oxide flakes off, fresh metal is always exposed and hence rusting truly deteriorates the iron completely if left unchecked. You could apply a sealant to protect the rust finish but you are only slowing down the inevitable. Iron is not meant to exist as a free metal and it will revert to iron ore in due time.

Rusting metal naturally

Rusted Star bellWhen making steel art, one option is the natural rust finish you will get while leaving the unprotecting metal outdoors in the element. It does take awhile but the coverage is quite complete.

Rusting Steel chemicaly

Spray Master BottleIn this method we are talking about artificially rusting steel by chemical means. Do not let the word chemical scare you. Most of the chemicals used are the same you do home cleaning with or even cook with. The main benefit with this method is you can achieve the desired results in a very short amount of time.This first method to consider is very simple. It consist of applying a strong solution of table salt in water and applying to the cleaned metal surface and setting in the sun for a few days. Although it is simple, it is still kind of slow taking a few days to weeks and periodic applications of salt water treament are needed. It does work though and this method is almost completely void of hazard aside from getting salt in your eye.

A second and superior method still uses materials that are cheap and not severely toxic. This is the vinegar and peroxide process. It entails getting a Spraymaster Bottle and putting anywhere from 2 ounces to 4 ounces of distilled white vinegar into the bottle and a tablespoon of salt as a catalyst. Then you buy a fresh 16 ounce bottle of 3% of hydrogen peroxide from the Dollar store or pharmacy and add to the salty vinegar in the bottle. You spray this on the cleaned metal and it attacks the metal at once creating a deep red mixed iron oxide/acetate and the peroxide gives off activated pure oxygen which further continues the attack. Spray once, when dry knock off loose rust, and apply two times more and you will have a beautifully rusted piece within ONE day to be coated in wax, varnish, or lacquer.

Another method that bears mentioning is the peroxide/bleach process. Unfortunately, this process required the precautions normailly assoiciated with handling chloine bleach so wear goggles and gloves AND PROTECT YOUR CLOTHING! Most sculptors that use this mix equal part of Clorox with peroxide and vigorous fizzing ensues which is activated pure oxygen. Be alert as the mixture may overflow the container making a mess! If iron is present the rusting is prolific and quick. You can try this method as the chemicals are cheap but givin the effectiveness of the vinegar/peroxide method, this process is not recommended.

My rusted assembled wall art

Rusted mixed media sculptureHere is a sculpture I put together. It is an assemblage of steel pieces that where artificiallly rusted with vinegar, salt, and 3% hydrogen peroxde. The metall assemblage was fastened onto a cherry wood panel for a truly unique mixed media work of art. The wood wash finsihed with polyurethane and the rusted metal was treated with a drying oil mixture.

For more options of coloring steel,  you can check out my latest hub about the various finishes for steel.


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