On one end metal sculptors create custom garden pieces, letter boxes and detailed furniture. On the other, lifelike metal portraits and massive publicly commissioned outdoor features. The artistic application of metalwork is ever reaching.
Metal sculpting and chainsaw carving are not so unalike. Both use common resources as canvases, both have origins in traditional trades and both come combine dangerous methods and equipment to achieve a final art piece. Where metalwork becomes noticeably more versatile is inside our houses and gardens.
The subtlety of fine metalwork means it can be used to create home ornaments as well as improve existing ones. Rusty planters, metal vases or bird cage chandeliers can add a contemporary feel to any home. What’s best about these art projects is that they can be done DIY and for the most part, are made completely from recycled steel.
The minimalism of metal art is what drives its appeal. This simplicity is not lost in the finer end of metal sculpting either. Metal art has developed to a position where the craft’s best are able to achieve incredibly detailed and surreal works that encompass whole parks and foyers.
At this end, metal sculptures are as complex as any painting or mosaic. It is the single colour shade and space within the design that keeps metal artwork from becoming multifarious and restricted in where it can be placed.
Metal Sculpting In Australia
Metal casting, where liquid metal fills and sets within a mold, can be dated back to 6000 years ago when early Egyptian civilisations used casts to make small intricate shapes from gold. The use of metal casting continued through history and played a significant part in early oriental culture, Greek and Roman figurine work and the Renaissance art movement in the western world.
Australian Indigenous art is the oldest art tradition in the world, with rock paintings having existed for more than 30,000 years. Metal however was not used as an artistic material within Australia until hundreds of centuries later. Bronze casting in Australia was used for early memorial statues and plaques, with Australian heroes such as Simpson and Duffy being immortalised by the metalwork technique.
Contemporary metalwork in Australia extends beyond casting, with techniques such as plating, joining, enamelling and repousseing allowing metal sculptures and artists to achieve different shapes and designs. Some of these techniques may be easier than others, but for those willing, metal sculpting offers a unique form of expressionism within art.
The Best Metal For Metal Art
Metal sculptures commonly originate from a range of different metals. Yet ironically, the quality of popular crafting metals has become polarised throughout history. As the older civilisations would frequently use gold, silver and bronze to create metal art, it is now more popular than ever for metal sculptors to build their projects from scrap metal. And for good reason too.
As metal is not exactly ephemeral, it tends to stick around, with steel monuments from the 18th century still standing today as they had 200+ years ago. Recycling old metals isn’t only for the sake of the environment either. Just as connoisseurs prefer aged cheese, recycled metal artists will stick to aged steels. The rustic aesthetic of scrap metal art is vibrant against green gardens or plain walls. Making it a staple for contemporary metal home decor.
Copper has also become a metal of choice. The natural patina of copper reflects iridescently with the right film, from direct sunlight or under flowing water. Copper is also a forgiving material and great for beginners who want to create faux flowers and plants. Bronze and brass metals mostly find a home in cast sculptures, as their colour remains indefinitely, however these materials are more difficult to manufacture and therefore are not frequently used on smaller art sculptures.
Wire mesh and armature wire are also popular metal sculpting materials for creating figurines or lining existing garden ornaments. Craft stores will also supply steel, iron and copper sheets for metal paintings and abstract metal wall decors. Steel and iron also make great materials for bigger projects. Both are readily available, durable and when properly preserved, shiny.
Artists like Australian Jordan Sprigg may conventionally stick to scrap metal, however they will combine recycled and new steel when crafting some sculptures.
“I make the frame out of new metal and the eyeballs are stainless steel, just because I want that to stand out. Otherwise the shell and everything else is all recycled metal. When I started it was all I had at my disposal and it was plentiful and free … The more and more I do it, I appreciate the history and the life that old pieces have, you have some metal that is over 100 years old and by putting it into this sculpture and you give it a second life,” said Jordan Sprigg on what metals he uses and why.
Techniques & Tips
Metal sculpting is not a secret art as it once was. It is an approachable art form that can instil a creative license in anyone who’s looking for an outlet. There are techniques and projects out there for DIY enthusiasts and experienced welders alike. Like anything, the best way to figure out if it’s for you is to give it a go. Before you get started however, it’s best to think of a project you will actually enjoy. Aussie metal sculpture Jordan Sprigg encourages beginners to work on something they’ll enjoy rather than what they think looks good.
“I can only say what works for me and that is only build pieces that you are interested in building. Do your niche, do your thing … You may like building abstract art or figurative art, whatever it may be you have to do your thing rather than what other people are doing, they may be doing it well but if you don’t like doing it there’s no point in doing it.”Jordan Sprigg
First thing first, you’ll want to figure out what type of welder will benefit you most. There are three common welders used in metal sculpting. The MIG, the arc welder and TIG welders. For beginners it’s recommended that you pick up a MIG welder. These welders are the easiest to achieve high quality welds with, but don’t work well on rusted or rugged metals. More experienced welders may prefer the arc style welder for rough materials or a TIG welder for thin steels. These welders are reasonably cheap and are always available on the Machines4u marketplace.
MIG welders are also great for stick welding. Stick welding is a technique for forming joints in metal sculptures. This technique will also be forgiving for those trying metal craft with rustier materials. To pull of a successful stick weld make sure you adhere to these general rules;
- Use clamps to hold down the metal piece you are working on;
- Make sure the plate steel you are using matches the electrode and the amps are relatively set;
- Always hold the stinger with your stronger hand;
- Master you arc and bead by practicing joining random steel pieces before trying the technique on your project;
- Do your best to maintain a consistent speed and arc when welding;
- Clean your weld after the steel has been joined together;
- Visit Miller Welds for finer tips.
Remember that sentence before about the dangerous techniques, well this is one of them. Metal becomes malleable at high temperatures, meaning torches can be used to heat metal and then bend it to a desired shape. This is a difficult technique to master. As the metal becomes hot, metal sculptors use a hammer or metal grips to shape the piece to the curve they want, before allowing it to cool. Sounds simple right?
One of the most common mistakes beginner metalworkers will make with this step is over-bending the metal. To avoid this use a template and take it slow when you are curving. It’s also a good idea to avoid sharp bends and corners that will not maintain their structural integrity once the piece has cooled. Always make sure you have welding protection gear equipped when dealing with hot metal too. It’s also worth noting that copper and brass will just melt, so be certain that the metal you want to shape is too thick to bend without heating before trying this technique.
Powder coating is the best finishing technique for preserving metal surfaces. Before you powder coat your project make sure it is as clean as can be, as any foreign substances will leave the piece looking patchy. After you’ve chosen a powder coat you’re going to need a compressed air sprayer to disperse the coat over the sculpture. Make sure you keep the gun parallel to the sculpture and spray consistently, before curing with a heat lamp. This technique is great for sculptures made from new metals … scrap metals not so much.
For scrap metal pieces you may want to also research some plasma cutting guides, as Jordan Sprigg cites it’s usefulness in the craft,
“I think the plasma cutter is a game changer, (as well as) obviously the welder and angle grinder. The plasma cutter is one of the most important tools I use after the welder. With the plasma cutter it’s really just time and hours you have to put in, there’s no special technique.”
Australian Metal Artists
Metalwork has been a symbol of Australian culture ever since Ned Kelly pulled that tin bucket over his head. It’s only inherent then that so many skilled metal sculptors have bloomed within the Australian metal art scene. Here are five unique Ozzy metal artists shaping today.
Hailing from Nambour QLD, Rick King specialises in a unique brand of sheet metalwork. Rick builds custom sheet metal designs from his own studio and sells authentic metal paintings and wall decors in a range of designs. He uses precise and meticulous cutting and grinding techniques to form a huge catalog of metal cut outs and traditional metal signs. Just take a look below at his tribute to the royal Australian army with a delicately cut brass wall decor,
Richard Nagal is a NSW native who has taken his path into metal sculpting without the guidance of tertiary art schools. Instead Richard found his passion in his teenage years. His signature style uses recycled metals to create birds and animals that sit seamlessly as garden art in Australian fields and grasslands. All of Richard’s art carries a story in their material and design. Richard’s sculptures literally come from retired farm machinery and motor vehicles that had been scrapped and discarded. He has had pieces commissioned for the Ku-ring-gai Garden and is constantly building an enormous collection of his own personal designs.
Originating from Russia, Larissa made her transition to the land down under in the early 80’s. She’d completed a masters degree in architectural and decorative sculpture at a school in St Petersburg before making her move. Her sculptures attempt to return serenity to those who view them, pulling the audiences momentarily from the calamity of media and current affairs. Smagarinsky is one of the finest sculptors shaping out of Australia and is one of few artists across any discipline to be able claim the exclusive title of having held two solo exhibitions at the Sydney Opera House.
After completing his building apprenticeship Matt Hill was in pursuit of something more. This journey ended in Northern Japan, where Matt spent his time eating sushi and snowboarding, but something had been lit. Upon his return to Australia, Matt began working with AutoCad. Eventually mastering the architecture program, he created his first award winning project, ‘Simple Sphere’. Matt has since had sculptures commissioned at home and abroad. In 2015 he made eight pieces for an apartment complex in Japan. His combination of metal and light creates complex sculptures that cast shadows, extending the art beyond the feature itself and unto its surroundings.
Anyone who has visited the Western Australian town Narembeen will have already made contact with Jordan Sprigg’s work. A huge hawk with a wingspan of 2.5 metres and more than 1000 individually cut feathers welcomed visitors to the town’s recreation centre, before eventually being sold off to a collector. Jordan became a professional sculptor after finishing a Psychology degree. His sculptures predominantly come together from recycled brown metals and are inspired by powerful, masculine animals. Some of Jordan’s sculptures carry price tags that reach $45,000. This high price tag comes from the immense amount of time they take to complete, with the hawk alone taking 250 hours plus to come together. Jordan began his passion for metal sculpting early,
“I think I really just fell into it. As a kid I used to do a bit of metalwork in the shed, just playing around with the welder and the grinder and whatnot. It wasn’t until I had a bit of rusty metal laying around and I decided to make something out of it. I didn’t really have any compulsion to sell the work. But people liked what they saw and it’s kind of blossomed from there. The first piece I made was at boarding school, I made a dragon out of rusty old springs and chains. It was just a bit of fun and someone ended up buying it. I thought ‘what the heck’s going on here’.”
You can visit any of the artist featured above on their webpages to find out more.