Punched Tin Frame Using Recycled Tin Cans

From this -

to this!

Most of you know by now that I love making things using tin and aluminum - especially butterflies!

What inspired this passion of mine were the punched tin mirrors and frames I was accustomed to seeing in Santa Fe homes and the light shields that we used on our family Christmas tree.

But I only just recently learned a little about the history of tin work in New Mexico.  And the first thing I learned was that I was completely wrong when I wrote in the light shield post that the little stars and flowers on our family tree were crafted in Mexico.  Mexican craftsmen used the tin abundantly available from Mexican mines..  But since there was no tin available in New Mexico, the New Mexican tinsmiths salvaged every tin container that came into the territory to craft mirror and picture frames, candle holders, nichos and crosses.  Since the little stars and flowers on our tree have the product imprint still on the back side, it is likely they came from New Mexico!

New Mexican tinsmiths plying their trade in the mid 1800's were the ultimate recyclers!  Every scrap of tin that came over the Santa Fe Trail by wagon, or later by rail, was reused to create frames and nichos for prints and statues of religious icons.  Sconces, candle holders and candelabra  needed in pre-electric New Mexico churches and homes were also fashioned from "recycled" tin cans.

Today, there are just a handful of tinsmiths in New Mexico carrying on and preserving the tradition of making with tin.  But today, they use sheet tin purchased from sheet tin producers.

One of the most dedicated and talented among them is Jason Younis y Delgado, a third generation tinsmith who makes his home in Santa Fe and not only creates stunning tin objects, but also is trying to pass on the craft to the next generation by teaching classes.  His hand crafted tin punches and sheet tin are available from his shop.

Stop right here and visit Jason's gallery - you just have to see this.

Since March is recycling month at my house and there is a big bag of tin cans saved over the past months sitting in my trash stash, I decided there could be no worthier project for all those tin cans than to try to make a frame using nothing but tin cans, tin snips, hammer and nail! 

The tinsmiths working in the 1800's used soldering irons heated in small forges to attach the separate parts of their frames and nichos.  I do have access to a "modern day" soldering iron.  However, because I wanted to use materials that would be available to almost everyone, in place of solder, I am using E-6000 glue.

This is not really a tutorial!  I am simply sharing my experiences and the adventure of going where I have never gone before!  There were moments of doubt along the way, but when I slipped that image of Our Lady of Guadalupe into the completed frame I was pretty darn pleased with myself!

A WORD OF CAUTION!  Always, always, always when working with tin cans wear protective goggles over your eyes and wear heavy leather gloves on your hands.

The first thing I needed to do was transform my round tin cans into flat sheets of tin!  In most cases, the top was already cut away and all I had to do was remove the bottom.

Moulded bottoms are a bit more challenging than bottoms you can remove using a can opener! 

When using a moulded bottom can, begin by using your tin snips to cut along the side of the can from the top edge to as close to the bottom as possible. Then cut off the bottom.

If the bottom can be removed using a can opener, all you have to do then is cut down the length of the can with the tin snips and then remove the rims from both ends.

One little trick I learned - whether you are trimming off a rim or simply trimming excess tin can, always trim with the inside of the can facing toward you!  It is easier and you get a smoother edge!

Getting tin cans to lie flat was a bit of a challenge!  I started the process by carefully pulling the side ends away from each other while gently pushing on the metal with my thumbs.

But I found out the hard way - it is best not to get in a big hurry!  And gentle pressure!  Those creases don't come out!

Once I had pulled the can as flat as the metal would allow, I worked it over with my hammer! I found that it worked pretty well to use one hand to hold one end of the can flat against the work surface while hammering the other end.  I was quite surprised to find that those ridges take the pounding beautifully!  They do not flatten out!

The tin can material is pretty rigid, so it gets mostly flat -  but not perfectly flat!

And speaking of those ridges! 

I decided to make them a part of the design.  The early tinsmiths actually sometimes used the stamped labels as part of their designs, so I followed their lead and decided to somehow make the ridges work as an element in the design.

One thing I noticed was that the "unridged"  edges were part of the reason the tin was resistant to lying flat.  I decided to turn them under.

I used pretty much the same technique I used for folding the edges of my napkin cuffs - bending the tin around a straight edge.

Except that this material is much harder to work with than the tooling foil!  As you can see, I was doing a lot of experimenting here trying to find a technique that worked easily.

This method worked the best of all - but wearing gloves - essential. I found it to be fairly easy to roll the metal edge up and over the ruler edge.  Since I was taking the photos, the piece missing is my hand on the ruler holding it firmly in place while the other hand moulds the metal up over the straight edge.

My trusty hammer finished the job of flattening the folded edge!

But the hammer till couldn't get those pesky "unridged" edges to lie flat!  So, I bent them back up slightly and cut them off to within about 1/4" from the edge. 

Don't get the idea that it would make more sense to cut the edges before folding.  It is way too hard to fold very narrow edges!

To make a frame, I needed four sides - four tin cans!  I didn't exactly collect cans with this project in mind so I had four different cans of similar size to work with!  But manufacturing processes seem to be enough alike that this was not really a huge problem. The ridges are slightly different but not really that noticeable.

You can't imagine how thrilled I was to get this far along!  I had no idea when I began what I was doing or how I would get there!

My favorite part!  Punching little indentations in the metal using my world famous technique - hammer and nail! 

A definite curve appeared during the punching process.

This is how that problem was solved!

Four frame pieces done!  Now what? In the mid 1800's there would have been some serious soldering going on!  I got out my tube of E-6000 and glued the four corners together and let it dry over night.

In the morning, I couldn't wait to remove the clothes pins and slip a photo in the opening!  Don't you love those flowers? My special friend Antonio made this drawing in art class and gave it to me.

Full disclosure!  The beautiful back!  It is easy to see that I used different tin cans now, isn't it?

Very few frames made during the 1800's were this simple in design.  I needed to add something. 

Rosettes were often used either at the center top of the frame or on the corners.  I just happened to have a bunch of tuna fish can lids sitting in the tin can bag and they were just the perfect size once the ridges were removed.

Using a Sharpie marker, I laid out the design and then punched it into the can lids.  The ink is easily removed using mineral oil.

I laid my lovely rosettes on top of the frame.  Didn't quite work for me.  So I cut the corners into a curve.

Perfect!  I glued the rosettes into place - again using e-6000 miracle glue!


Full disclosure, the image of Our Lady is being held in place by tape right now!  I have cut a piece of metal and a piece of cardboard to mount on the back just as I did with the miniature frames. I haven't yet decided which way to go. But be assured, both are from recycled materials!

Finishing the back will have to wait because I am off and running on two new tin can projects!


For those of you who are interested, I have a few links below that will give you a little more information about tin work in New Mexico during the 1800's.  But overall, I found it very frustrating to find good images on the internet to share with you and that is very disappointing for me as I think my little frame would have more meaning if you could see more of the work of the period.

The first two links will give you a little background on Hispanic culture in New Mexico. 

Three Hispanic New Mexico metal traditions

Traditional New Mexican Hispanic Crafts

Lane Coulter and Maurice Dixon, Jr.  have written a very thorough book on the history of tin work in New Mexico.  It is beautifully illustrated with many, many photographs of old mirrors, frames, nichos, candle sconces and crosses, but it is definitely written for historians and collectors and people with a serious interest in tin work.  I regret that some of these images are not available except in the book.

New Mexico tin Work  1840 - 1940

A little more history

Tin work in New Mexico

Spansih market in Santa Fe

And a little about Mexican tin frames and nichos

Mexican tin Frames and Niches


If you found this tutorial interesting, you might like to check out this 1850 wall sconce I made using tin cans.  It is fashioned after those used in northern New Mexico before electric lights were available.  I totally love how the candle light reflects off the shiny metal surface.

And if you find that playing with metal is satisfying, you will no doubt enjoy this tutorial for making napkin cuffs!  The suppleness of craft foil yeilds a lovely surface for tooling beautiful designs which sparkle and catch light at the dinner table.


This is not only unique but

This is not only unique but very cool looking. Have you made any Jewelry with tin?
Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

Gloria, thank you!!!  No I

Gloria, thank you!!!  No I have not made jewelry using tin.  I did make napkin cuffs using tooling foil in several layers and a reader actually used the idea to make wrist cuffs to wear to a Rennaisance Fair.  Search Napkin Cuffs.

I started or got interested

I started or got interested in tin smithing when I lived in Alpine Tx, I made a cross adorned with tin from soup cans. It came out very nice, but wear and tear and being next to the Barb b q have made for another life for the cross. Thanks for the great ideas to rekindle my interest in tin smithing....I'm coming back.....Dsaint

I appreciate your note so

I appreciate your note so much Daniel!!  I could not be happier to hear you are getting back to tin smithing!  Hoping you will keep in touch and share your results..

PERFECT!!! I was given a

PERFECT!!! I was given a print of Rosie the Riveter for Christmas a few years back. It's probably 14x36 and unframed. I wanted to make my own frame for it and thought something 'metally' would work. I always have great ideas and no knowledge to implement them :) Your frame is going to be how it's done! It's absolutely perfect for my picture, and with beautiful results. I'll probably be making a few more tin projects also for my house. thanks for sharing your knowledge!!

Rosemarry, I am so sorry to

Rosemarry, I am so sorry to have just found your message.  Unfortunately I was not well when it came in.  But I am thrilled to hear you will - or maybe have by this time - made a frame for your Rosie Riveter!  You are right!  Perfect!!

Super project and it looks

Super project and it looks amazing.

I have worked with tin cans a few times in the last couple of years. I was given this tip to get them to lay flat.

You need two old bath or hand towels, two pieces of old sheet, a iron set on high (no water, no steam) and your ironing board or kitchen counter works also.

Place one towel on counter or ironboard. Cover with one piece of sheet. Lay the tin can that you've cut open with the side that needs flattening towards you, cover with towel and other piece of sheet.

Iron with pressure, going back and forth about a dozen times. Check to see if it's flat and if not iron again. Be very careful not to touch the can...it will be hot. Depending on how much pressure and how hot your iron gets it really doesn't take long to get it flat. Let cool and your ready to start creating. The good thing about doing it this way...no creases. Just don't use so much pressure that you iron out the bevels that are part of the can.

Thanks! Very helpful,

Thanks! Very helpful, especially info on what worked best or don't try that. A huge time saver. Can't wait to experiment with tin cans.

I am a DIYer. This year I

I am a DIYer. This year I have been married to my wife for 10 years = tin. I will either make a butterfly or a starfish for her.I wonder if you have heard the throwing a starfish back story. My wife is seriously like that.
Thank you for your inspiration and enthusiasm.
Unfortunately the recycling was emptied this morning = no cans.I have a month to do this.

Thank you so very, very

Thank you so very, very much.Have collected loads of tin cans and needed some ideas on how to use them. Now searching the web to make garden decor with them and hope I'm lucky. You're a star!!!!1

Nice job! I was on Ebay

Nice job! I was on Ebay awhile ago and looked up Mexican Folk art. The Mirrors were beautiful, but expensive. I will be trying my first folk art mirror courtesy of your techniques and Good Will (mirrors found cheap.



Dear Pam, You are so

Dear Pam, You are so inspiring. I would love you as a crafty and motivated friend. I save so many recyclables because I always see a creative use for them. I have around 200 wine bottles, tin covers from frozen juices,jars ,glasses etc. I am also a cook. I never get out of the kitchen. I love your site !! Great work !!

Wow! Wonderful work and

Wow! Wonderful work and inspiration.
My mom has a small battery opererated can opener that cuts the entire lid off, lip and all. I could use it on both side of the can and avoid having to cut the lips off. (on cans with lips on both ends)
That would make this whole operation easier.
I can hardly wait to make some frames for my Dia de los Muertos craft table.

PAM! This is gorgeous -

PAM! This is gorgeous -

Your work has inspired me to

Your work has inspired me to consider whether or not I could create a tin backsplash in my kitchen using cans. Based on your experience working with the material, how difficult do you think it would be to cut the cans into squares and mount them with some sort of mortar or maybe even nails?

thank you for the tutorial.

thank you for the tutorial. very inspirational. i love the tin work of SW artisans. i have a jewelry / metal smithing background. i use something called an automatic center punch to mark and make a dimple that i then drill. (the dimple makes it so the drill bit dosen't "dance" all over the sheet of metal)anyway, the center punch makes a little dimple the same way a hammer and nail will with better control. not that it's difficult to use a hammer and nail, but could save you some time! every crafter needs more time. thanks again for sharing your projects in this blog. :)

Love the frame idea. I've

Love the frame idea. I've used aluminum soda cans before, but not tin cans. Will have to give this a try.

I have just been staring at

I have just been staring at the photos in awe. It's really beyond what I've ever done, and it's fascinating. You really know how to work on a problem until it's solved!

This is great, and I think it serves quite well as a tutorial! Is this what you work on Sunday for crafting day?!

Beautiful, Pam! So much

Beautiful, Pam! So much creativity...cant wait to see the tuna cans project!

Another great post!!! I love

Another great post!!!

I love to see how you create these projects and the frames are fabulous :)) Not something I would try myself, though. My Dad used to do some work with ducts and other assorted handy-man type things. Sometimes I would help him on jobs after school and that was enough for me. I prefer the gentler pastimes now. Though I do appreciate the amount of work that goes into these projects. And I really love the results :))

You have to be the most versatile crafters I know. You are ready to try anything and seem to accomplish it all with ease. That's truly wonderful!

I think your tin work is

I think your tin work is awesome! I don't have the guts (or the materials) to try this but I love seeing what you've made from such humble sources. Lovely!

Great re use of cans. With

Great re use of cans. With wonderful results.
I have cut out butterfly shapes and painted them, tipped the wings up and nailed them to my fence and mailbox post (in Wisconsin).

You always have the best things here Pam!!