getting colors in steel, finishes

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I've been wanting to find a good technique for getting specific colors into my steel items and still have the underlying steel surface show through a bit. I had an interesting experience with using ink and then coating that with Rustoleum Clear Enamel. It looked great initially but then the ink seemed to fade over time. I've thought about using some oil based paints mixed into varnish. I've had good experience with soaking steel items in vinegar for a day, then wire brushing with a knotted wire brush in an angle grinder. This gives a bright shiny surface to start with.
Has anyone had good or bad experiences with coloring steel?

Frank Castiglione's picture

Hi Joe, I love letting

Hi Joe,
I love letting the steel go nature's way. One piece that I made got complaints from the gallery owner because it was shedding rust dust on other items. I gave it a coat of clear enamel and it at least stopped shedding bad stuff.I haven't gotten any more complaints.
Lately I've been priming the metal,giving the work a base color , and then adding highlight colors.One little scratch and the thing looks like sh*#^*``. Bright metallic highlights blend with any potential scratch though.
Some fancy wax patinas are creeping into my wishlist.
A car painter showed me some bike tanks that were scratched up raw metal the then given clear colors. They were stunning, but he cautioned that it was a short lived affair even with the great mechanical adhesion.

MATSU's picture

hola joe espero que puedas

hola joe
espero que puedas conseguir una buena traduccion de esto, he realizado algunas pruebas con patinas en hierro, con productos sencillos de cocina. Una de ellas que me ha dado muy buen resultado, es preparanco una solucion en caliente con sulfato de cobre, y con la pieza perfectamente limpia le aplico con un picel y corto la reaccion con NH3 el amoniaco que se utiliza en la limpieza de cocina, luego cuando llego al color deseado le aplico cera de abeja con un paño

Joe B's picture

Hi Matsu, I apologize for

Hi Matsu,
I apologize for not being able to understand what you have written. I'll take it to a friend of mine for translation.

Joe B's picture

One reason I like to clear

One reason I like to clear coat instead of paint is that, like you say, one scratch or ding and it looks like Fido's butt. I went to soaking in vinegar to remove scale because if I just wire brushed and sanded after forging, I often end up with scale patches that refuse to come off and to my eye look like crap. The problem with the vinegar method is that after wire brushing the steel looks very bright as if it were chrome plated. I'd like a look more like what I get from sanding after forging but without the scale patches. I saw one fellow spray some black paint on a rag and wipe it over the steel which was an interesting way of doing things. But most folks who are knowledgeable about paint warn against using it without a primer coat.
Incidentally, if I soak the steel in vinegar and pull it out after a day or so and let it set without washing off it develops some beautiful rust colors.
I've thought about chemical patinas but haven't found anyone with experience of them.
Rustoleum Clear Enamel works well to seal the steel against rust for interior work. For exterior work the only thing I've found is paint, paint, and more paint.

lin's picture


I have used the sculpt nouveau metal dyes successfully for indoor pieces for 5+ years and really like the transparent effect I can get. You can't get every color you want because the white is not transparent but you can combine them to vary the shades. I coat the finished piece with rustoleum clear. You might try a combination of clear shellac and pastels. I used to shave the pastel sticks and mix them with the shellac when I was a picture framer and needed to tint molding. I doubt it would hold up outdoors. I used shellac because the old framer saying was that shellac sticks to everything and everything sticks to shellac. For some of my indoor pieces I use Duplicolor transparent auto paint. It is beautiful but fragile. Lin

Joe B's picture

Lin,Thanks. I'll look into

Thanks. I'll look into sculpt nouveau dyes. That sounds very much like the effect I'm after.

But after looking at them, they might not work because they say a primer must be used for iron. I expect this is correct since the patina formulations I looked at where water based. I know that when I've tried acrylics on steel just for grins, I've ended up with rust spots unless I use an oil based primer.

lin's picture


The dyes I have used are thinned with a solvent, so I don't think they are water based. I have never used a primer as I want the steel texture to show through. I haven't had any rust but use them only on indoor pieces. Lin

Joe B's picture

Many thanks for the extra

Many thanks for the extra info. I went back and found the solvent dyes you are talking about and they look like what I need.
What had confused me was that I looked at one of the colored patina's and it talked about being water based.
I'll give the dye a try.

NELSON's picture

Hi folks. I peep in here

Hi folks.
I peep in here every once in a while, and I just happen to come across a patina receipe that Matsu shares here in Spanish. Hope you guys don`t mind translating it for you as it may turn out interesting….

“Hi Joe, I hope you can find a good translation of this, I have run some tests of patinas on steel, with simple household products. One of them which has given good results, is preparing a hot solution of copper sulphate, and with the piece perfectly clean I apply the solution with a brush and cut the reaction with NH3 (ammonia) the type used as kitchen cleaner, thereafter once the desired color is achieved, I give it a bee wax coat with a piece of cloth”

Sounds interesting to me, and I`ll give it a try myself. Happy holidays !!!

Hola Matsu,
pronto te contactare para intercambiar ideas. Gracias por compartir y felicidades ¡!!!!!!

Joe B's picture

Many thanks for the

Many thanks for the translation. We tried but hadn't gotten very far.
That sounds like an interesting idea. Gotta try it.
Thanks Matsu and Nelson.