I’ve wanted to have a go at rust printing for ages – I love the colour of rust, especially the sort you get on iron by the sea, which seems to have the best rich bright orange colour.

A big element of my work involves combining natural processes with printmaking, it is fun to play with random and accidental effects and then work on understanding the process so you can influence it. I don’t want complete control it but like the idea of working with nature to create prints that are a synthesis of the artists’ vision and nature’s processes.

Rust printing is a natural process that is affected by different factors, some of which are beyond your control. You may think you are repeating the same procedure twice and get different results each time; working out what just happened is part of the fun of discovery.

steel plate partially rusted
a mild steel plate with rust

After putting some of my experiments on social media I had requests to get it on the blog so here it is……

My aim was to get the strongest boldest colours using the simplest process. I have tried a variety of methods and stripped out any stages that didn’t seem to affect the end result to arrive at these instructions. I am sure once you start experimenting you will personalise this basic method and add your own rusty habits…

I tend to dive in and just do stuff, then look at the instructions afterwards to work out what went wrong. My first haphazard attempts were surprisingly encouraging and gave me lots of ideas for more things to try. I hope this post will do the same for you….

If you want a quick go at rust printing try this method 

Things you will need for rust printing

any vinegar will do

Some vinegar – any sort will do so check the back of the cupboard before going to buy any.

Paper that has wet strength – i.e. won’t collapse when it is soaked in water.

A tray to soak paper in and wash the prints after 

A flat piece of metal that will rust. (Steel or iron)

A sheet of plastic or plastic bag

A board and something heavy to weigh it down.

Preparing the acidic solution

Mix a bit of vinegar with water in a tray big enough to soak your paper. For these experiments the quantities don’t matter too much; the more acidic the solution the faster it rusts. I think I put about 25% vinegar to water.

Preparing the metal

You need ferrous metal, (containing iron) to get rust; check it with a magnet, if the metal sticks to it, its iron. If it is already rusty that is an encouraging sign that you will get some good prints from it.

I used mild steel bought from an engineering firm. (Try asking for offcuts, they often have small bits they will give you) I had planned to use these for etching plates but never got round to it. Once you start looking for rusty steel you will surely find some lying around; old baking tins, catering tins, fridge doors….

If you are using new sheet steel wipe it well to remove any oil or grease, if you are being very thorough you can use meths or other degreasing agents.

degreasing steel with meths
Wipe the steel to degrease it

Make a rust sandwich

First soak your paper in the water and vinegar solution

Then lay the wet paper on the steel sheet.

Add a second sheet of paper; the rust patterns can soak through more than one sheet, giving you a paler print on the second piece. If you have more steel keep layering flat pieces of metal with the vinegar soaked paper.

Keep it soggy

Wrap your steel/paper sandwich loosely in plastic to keep it damp. The rust reaction needs to be wet to work properly. Also if it dries out the paper may stick to the plate, which is very annoying as it rips. (Actually I quite like the way this one has torn.)

the paper stuck to the plate and ripped
the paper ripped

Press the wet sandwich

The reaction works best if the damp paper is in close contact with the metal. Cover the pile of metal and paper with a board and put a weight on top

Let the rust breathe

Keep it exposed to air – do not wrap it so tightly and press so hard that air can’t reach it. I am speaking from experience here – some of my wetted paper was wrapped in plastic and clamped hard in a nipping press against a very rusty sheet; nothing happened. It took a while to work out that in my enthusiasm to press it really hard I had made it air tight and thus prevented it rusting.

lack of air prevented rusting
lack of air prevented rusting

Let it rust

Leave it for anything from a couple of hours to a few days for the rust to develop. This is a nice slow process, but take care not to forget your prints!

Un-pack your new rust prints

This is like Christmas for printmakers. Prise a corner up and peek into the bundle to see what has happened – if the colour looks strong enough for you, unpack the papers.

a rust plate with the print
rust plate and print

A magic transformation has taken place and you should have several interesting rust prints with nature’s designs in shades of orange. 

Rinse your prints in clean water to remove the vinegar before drying them.

washing rust prints in water
washing rust prints in clean water

Keep track of your experiments

If you are like me your first experiments will have got you hooked and raised more questions than answers.

I strongly suggest you document your experiments with photos and notes as you go along because if you get a good result it can be difficult to remember just what you did. 

Here are some of my notes and observations

Clean steel surface

a dark rust print from a clean steel plate
a dark rust print from a clean steel plate

The metal does not have to be rusty – prints taken from clean steel also rusted and the steel was not rusty afterwards. Could be magic I think.

Old rusty steel

Cleaning rust off with a wire brush
remove the rust with a wire brush

You can keep using the same plates over and over without cleaning the rust off – it just keeps going. You can however clean it off with a wire brush to reveal bare metal again. 

Masking with grease

Masking the steel plate with Vaseline
mask the steel plate with vaseline

Deliberately adding grease to the plate protects the metal and prevents areas rusting. These thumb prints on the plate on the left were done with Vaseline, and show as white on the print.

Masking with vinyl

masking the steel plate with sticky back plastic
mask the plate with sticky back plastic

Masking the plate also prevents rust – here is an example with sticky back plastic (black triangles) which remain light on the print.

Where next?

This post is called ‘get started with rust printing’ and it really is just a start. I will be doing more posts exploring different things you can do with rust.

If you have any suggestions for things to try, things that didn’t work, or other observations about printing with rust I’d love to hear from you.