Transfer an image to metal with paper

I’ve wanted for years to be able to transfer an image to metal from paper. I experimented with it a lot in the 2004 timeframe, but I was never happy with the results and I eventually gave up. Until now. Today, the materials you need to transfer an image to metal with paper are readily available, work well, and are inexpensive.

The trick is to print a reverse image on a laser printer (color or black and white) onto paper that the toner doesn’t stick to very well. Apply a thin coat of adhesive to your metal, then stick your image down and smooth it out. Let it dry, then peel the paper back to leave your image behind. Apply a clearcoat and enjoy.

Why to use a laser printer for image transfer to metal

transfer images to metal from paper
Can you transfer an image to metal from paper? I just that after I made this building for my train layout out of aluminum. I need to go back and re-transfer some of the windows where it transferred poorly, but overall I’m happy with the look.

First things first: I use and recommend laser printers for this. The reason is durability. Inkjet ink has a tendency to fade after just a few years, even on paper. I don’t expect it to fare any better on metal.

Toner doesn’t fade. I have laser prints from the early 1990s, and photocopies from a decade earlier than that, that are still in perfect condition. The only danger with toner is that if you store it touching certain plastics, it can bond to that plastic and detach itself from the paper. We’re going to take advantage of that characteristic here. But if you clearcoat the transferred image after you’re done, that will eliminate even that weird case.

Materials you’ll need

With that out of the way, here’s what you’ll need:

  • Laser printer
  • Software to edit or create images
  • An image to print
  • Half-sheet mailing labels, Avery #5126 or equivalent. Kenco 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 labels are a good choice.
  • A piece of metal
  • Water-based polyurethane, such as Minwax Polycrylic.
  • Paint brush
  • Old hotel key card, gift card, or another smooth, straight piece of plastic
  • A round wooden dowel

Transfer your image to metal from paper

First, you need an image. The possibilities are endless. You can put a picture of a loved one on a piece of metal for artistic effect, making it look sort of like a daguerreotype. My interest is putting images on metal so I can imitate the look of vintage toy trains, which used lithographed images on metal.

Whatever your motive, find or create an image. Load it into an image editor and flip it so it’s the reverse of the original. Paint.NET and GIMP are two examples of free, very capable image editors. If you won’t be doing any editing and you only need to flip the image, you can get by with Irfanview. With Irfanview, just select Image > Horizontal Flip to flip an image.

Got the image flipped? Good. Now size it to fit your metal. Irfanview makes this easy. Hit Ctrl-R to resize, and set the new size in pixels, inches, or centimeters.

Now, for the one weird trick that makes this work. Take your mailing label sheet and peel off the labels. Place the paper backing in your printer, shiny side up, and print the image. Handle the print very carefully, as it’s fragile. You can cut the image out to make it easier to handle.

I like to print out several images to work with, since the labels are expensive. Rather than printing straight from Irfanview, paste the image into Word or even Wordpad, then paste in additional images and arrange them to fill the page, then print. If you’re going to try to transfer a large image, print spare copies, so you can fix the transfer if part of it goes wrong.

Applying adhesive to the metal

Apply a thin coat of water-based polyurethane to your metal with the brush. It feels like painting with glue. That’s OK. A thin coat works best for this, so make sure you cover your metal completely, but with a thin layer. Hold the metal up to your light to make sure you coat it completely. It helps to brush side to side once, then follow up with up and down. The brush strokes will tell you if you missed anything.

You can use other adhesives besides water-based polyurethane, but I found the polyurethane works really well. In the past I’ve used acrylic medium, which is what artists use to thin paint, but polyurethane works better and it’s cheaper, especially in large quantities. You can get water-based polyurethane at almost any hardware or home improvement store. It will be in the same aisle with the wood stain and other woodworking products. Be sure to get water-based, rather than oil-based. Oil-based polyurethane has harmful and unpleasant vapors. The water-based polyurethane isn’t completely odorless, but its smell won’t bother anyone and you can safely use it indoors.

Applying the paper to the metal

Position your paper over your metal, starting with one corner. You don’t get much in the way of a do-over with this, so try to get it right. Press the paper down onto the metal firmly, making sure you get it smooth. Then rub your hotel key card or gift card over the paper to press it down to the metal and work out any air bubbles. Follow up by rolling over it with the dowel. You may see a bit of the polyurethane bleeding out through the edges. That’s OK. Be sure to get all of the corners. Pull the corners tight to get rid of any wrinkles. Wrinkles in the paper will result in incomplete image transfer.

Let it dry. About 45-90 minutes should be adequate. Once it’s dry, peel the paper off. The paper shouldn’t give much of a fight, and underneath you’ll see your image holding tight to the metal. It won’t be absolutely perfect, but that’s part of the appeal. The inevitable small flakes and smears give the image an organic quality that we don’t normally see with modern printing methods.

For extra protection, I recommend applying a clearcoat over the image. You can use the polyurethane if you wish, or use a spray clearcoat. Some solvent-based clearcoats may cause the toner to bubble, so test any spray-can clearcoats first before trying them in a project you care about.

You’ll probably want to experiment with different finishes. Using gloss can give a very different overall look than a satin or flat finish.

Can you use regular paper?

You can use regular paper to transfer an image, but it’s more work. You’ll have to wet the paper down after the polyurethane dries and scrape off the paper, which runs the risk of taking toner with it. You’ll also end up with paper fibers that just won’t come out. After you apply a clearcoat, the paper fibers will fade, but you’ll still have a less-than-smooth surface.

You’ll probably find using label backing paper gives better results overall, but feel free to try both ways.

But if you don’t own a laser printer, having a copy shop laser print your image and then transferring it from regular paper is better than not being able to do this at all.

Reasons you might want to transfer an image to metal with paper

I transfer images to metal with paper to make metal buildings for my train layout, or to fix lettering on lithographed cars that were damaged by rust. I’m sure you can think of other things to do with the technique. Perhaps putting photos on metal to imitate daguerreotypes appeals to you. The only real limit is your imagination.

If you’re trying to fix damaged lithography on a tin train or another old tin toy, you’ll probably get better results if you paint the damaged area white before the transfer. You’ll get a better color match.

Troubleshooting image transfer to metal

This process works, but it doesn’t always go perfectly. Here are some problems I ran into, and how I fixed them. Hopefully this will help you not run into them, or at least point you to a solution if you do.

Incomplete printing on the label backing

When your image doesn’t print right on the label backing, it’s because the toner went on too heavy. Lighten up the image. You can do this by increasing the brightness. The lighter image will stick better to the label backing, and ultimately, it will transfer better as well.

Incomplete transfers

Sometimes, parts of the image don’t transfer. This is often due to wrinkles in the paper. The paper will want to wrinkle due to the moisture in the polyurethane. Pull the paper tight, work out the air bubbles, and when you get a tight fit, weigh it down with some books. When the paper bubbles up, you’ve got about a 50-50 chance of the toner bubbling up with it, and I don’t like those odds.

Some brands of polyurethane dry really quickly, so try putting a little bit heavier coat on the metal. If you get the coat too thin, it can dry with gaps in it. The thinner the coat, the faster it dries, but there’s definitely such thing as too thin of a coat.

You may also want to change brands. Especially if you use acrylic medium instead of water-based polyurethane, some brands of acrylic medium just don’t do well. Liquitex Acrylic Medium works well.

If you just can’t get a good, complete transfer, try changing to a different brand of acrylic medium or water-based polyurethane.

I’ve found doing small transfers works rather well. When I try to transfer an image of 4×6 inches, I’m more likely to have problems with parts of it not transferring. Print extra copies for when this happens. Then, when part of the image doesn’t transfer, cut out the part that messed up from a spare copy, apply more polyurethane, line up the touch-up piece, and stick it down.

Where to get metal

You can buy K&S brand metal at many hobby shops, and even some craft stores and hardware stores. K&S makes a sheets in 4×10 and 6×12 sizes in a variety of thicknesses and metals, including brass, aluminum and tin-plated steel.

Home Depot locations vary greatly in what they carry. The store near me carries 26-gauge (.01875 inches or .48 mm) zinc-plated steel in 12×24-inch sheets for about $7. Home Depot also carries a 5×7-inch aluminum shingle for 40 cents. At 30 gauge (.0125 inches or .32 mm), it’s considerably thinner.

I’ve also used rolls of aluminum flashing. It’s really thin, at 32 gauge (.010 inches or .25 mm), so exercise care when handling it, but I can get it both bare and in pre-painted rolls that are already painted white. If your image needs white, this lends itself well to those kinds of projects. And 32-gauge aluminum is super easy to cut.

You won’t find a lot in the way of metalworking tools at most hardware or home improvement stores. The Harbor Freight chain carries a number of inexpensive basic metalworking tools, including a handheld electric shear, if you’re going to do a lot of cutting, and a bending brake if you want to shape your metal after you transfer your image to it. By transferring an image to a piece of metal that’s a bit long, you can put a bend in it and make a metal picture self-standing. Harbor Freight’s stuff isn’t pro grade, but for hobby work its metalworking tools work reasonably well, and they are affordable.

Once you get your metal, here are some tips for cutting metal using inexpensive tools.

Related questions

How thick is an aluminum can?

Aluminum cans are thinner than they used to be, to cut down on shipping weight. A modern aluminum can is about .097 mm thick, or .004 inches, about equivalent to 38 gauge. Aluminum cans are a tempting source for metal for projects like this, because the metal is smooth and you can cut it with ordinary scissors, but I don’t recommend it. The tetanus shot you’ll need after you cut yourself will pay for a lot of metal.

How thick is a tin can?

Tin cans vary in thickness, depending on how big they are and how heavy the product inside will be. But tin cans are generally between .12 and .49 mm, or .004 to .019 inches. This means the thickest tin cans are about 35 gauge. Large tin cans can be safe to work with, but don’t try to salvage metal from the 15-ounce can of vegetables from dinner. If someone gave you a large tin can full of popcorn at Christmas, that’s the kind of can that’s a good candidate for home metalworking projects.

Are tin cans safe for crafts?

Edward Thatcher built this wonderful toy truck out of tin cans and described it in his 1912 book. Combining his methods with today’s image transfers would be tantalizing. But if you seek to replicate his work today, use appropriate safety measures.

There was a book, first published by Edward Thatcher in 1912, that encouraged the use of tin cans to make toys. Keep in mind the tin cans of 1912 were thicker than today, and tin cans were much more readily available in a wider variety of shapes and sizes a century ago, which reduced how much cutting and forming was necessary.

Not only that, the book was written a decade before the first tetanus vaccine was produced, and more than two decades before widespread tetanus vaccinations started.  So when Thatcher wrote that making toys with tin cans was safe, he was talking about different cans than today, and his understanding of safety was different from today.

It is entirely feasible, even likely, that my grandfather made toys out of tin cans as a youth, and gave state-of-the-art treatments for tetanus as a doctor in adulthood.

To keep Thatcher’s book in context, keep in mind he discusses using a soldering iron heated with a flame. In 1912, he couldn’t assume all of his readers had ready access to electricity in their workshops. It’s likely he was aware of electric soldering irons but they were so new he may not have had the opportunity to use one himself when he wrote the book.

Thatcher’s book is ingenious and wonderful, as are the toys he describes, but consider how much has changed in 100 years when you read it.

Why not just glue your paper to the metal?

Some people ask why not just glue the paper to the metal. It gives a different look. Transferring the image to metal takes more time, but once you master the technique, it doesn’t look like you just glued a piece of paper to the metal.

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