Upcycle metal sheets into luminaries, decorative boxes, and tartlet-tin sconces.
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holiday place setting with votives
Credit: Ngoc Minh Ngo

The first time you set a pointed tool to tin and hit it with a hammer, you might be surprised by the loud snap that echoes back. But don't be surprised when, a few punches later, you find yourself devoted to the craft; the methodical act of hammering designs into thin metal is simple and therapeutically satisfying. At one time, the perforations on punched, or pierced, tin served a practical purpose. In colonial America, the holes that made the pattern in a tin lantern allowed light to shine through but were small enough to shield the candle inside from drafts. Similarly, the punched tin panels in pie safes, predecessors to iceboxes, let air circulate around food but prevented pests from doing the same.

Although punched tin is no longer a household necessity, its decorative potential makes it a welcome addition to almost any room. Using geometric patterns instead of the original rustic designs—flowers and birds were popular—results in a more modern look. Punched circlets, for example, give personality to a plain metal lamp. A crosshatch pattern can bring new life to an old pie tin, which can become a piece worthy of display. These designs might be noisy to create, but the effect they have is quietly charming.

Tools and Materials

Despite the name of the craft, our projects use 28- to 30-gauge sheets of nickel silver and tin plate like Silhouette America Metal Stippling Sheets ($8.74, amazon.com); you can also try other metals, such as brass or copper. Gauge refers to the thickness of the metal; the higher the number, the thinner the metal; 28- to 30-gauge is ideal for punching. Look for the metal sheets at jewelry-­making-­supply stores, some crafts stores, and online. You'll want to protect your work surface with a piece of particleboard, a composite of wood shavings and sawdust, which you can purchase at home centers and hardware stores.

Use tin-­punching tools (available from specialty dealers like Country Accents) to make dots, lines, curves, teardrops, and other shapes in metal sheets. With just a few of these implements, you can create an abundance of patterns. A hammer—like Anvil Fiberglass Claw Hammer ($6, homedepot.com)—is ideal for pounding the ends of the punching tools as they pierce the metal. Use metal-­cutting scissors—such as Finder's Straight Cut Aviation Snips ($16.21, amazon.com)—for trimming the sheets to size, and a metal file to smooth rough edges.

Tin Punch Types

Sheets of metal used to make thicker objects, such as a vintage tray, require more elbow grease. It's not hard to design appealing patterns; working on a grid, just repeat lines and basic shapes. You can vary the effects by using different tin-­punching tools—try a set like the Stalwart 36-Piece Letter and Number Steel Punch Set ($23, homedepot.com). The basic punch makes circular holes. The plug removes a round of the metal, rather than just punching through, leaving less of a raised mark on the back. Tools that make lines, tear-drop shapes, and crescents offer additional design opportunities.

How to Punch Tin

This process isn't difficult, but it's still a good idea to practice on a scrap of metal before starting a project. Sheets of metal are easy to pierce with decorative holes in a diamond or swirled pattern. On a piece of paper, draw a grid using a ruler; plot dots where you'll want to punch (or photocopy the templates). Tape the paper to the metal, and place the metal on a piece of particleboard. Position the punching tool on one of the dots. Tap the end lightly with a hammer to make a groove in the metal; then tap again, more forcefully, to pierce. Repeat, making more holes to complete your design. Once done, the metal will be slightly warped. With a rawhide mallet, pound gently on the back to flatten. Trim sheet with metal-­cutting scissors to the size you need. Smooth any rough edges with a metal file.

Try it, and you'll find yourself decorating lanterns, aluminum boxes and cans, and enameled metal trays. See what you can upcycle from antique finds: A vintage pie plate will reflect the flame of a candle beautifully—and look lovely even when the candle isn't lit. Diminutive tartlet tins come in all kinds of shapes worth showing off; delicate punched patterns make them even more charming as magnets for a bulletin board. There are all kinds of possibilities.

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