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Punched Tin Frame Using Recycled Tin Cans
Submitted by Pam on Sat, 03/20/2010 - 22:28
From 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.
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.
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.
A little more history
And a little about Mexican tin frames and nichos
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.