4 Decades of Making Metal Wall Art

Large wood and metal wall art of a fishing bear with the sun shining from behind on rock chimney wall.

Table of Contents

An Introduction to Metal Wall Art

Artists through the ages, sculptors, in particular, have looked at the characters of materials with intent to make art. 

Metal has been no exception. 

Artists have historically used clay, wood, stone, and the various metals and their alloys as materials for their art.

The broad palettes of color, workability, and available shapes of metal stock yield a corresponding array of techniques and interpretations from the hands of various artists. 

As the name implies, metal wall art encompasses a broad range of metal art that we display as we do paintings on the walls of our homes, offices, and public places. 

As a sculptor, my art initially consisted primarily of modeled or carved, ‘in the round,’ works, with a relatively small percentage of wall art.

This balance has gradually shifted over the last thirty years as I’ve developed and refined the innovative techniques I use for making brightly colored wall pieces.

I first encountered metal wall art as a child accompanying my mother to her art classes at the University of Alaska in the early ’60s.

I remember the large metal wall sculptures made by Professor Helmut VanFlien with their branching metal rods terminating in colorfully enameled rectangles.

Twenty years later, not long after returning to Alaska from the Naguib School of Sculpture, I was granted a commission to make my first piece of metal art.

The year was 1984, and I was living high on a hill overlooking Fairbanks in a couple of portable yurts I’d built and insulated appropriately for the cold Alaskan winters. 

The larger one doubled as a kitchen and studio, and it was there I hammered three copper repoussé relief panels using sandbags on the floor to support the emerging forms of an elk family.

It was a decorative piece, but also functioned as the centerpiece of a tile heat shield for their soapstone wood stove. 

Hammered copper panels of an elk family used as a heat shield for a wood stove.

The Adventure Begins

My real adventure with metalworking began in 1990 after moving to the mountains of North Carolina. 

I’d been fascinated with blacksmithing ever since I’d visited a California blacksmith in 1976 during a weekend break from Pond Farm Pottery School.

That fall, back in Alaska, I found Alexander Weger’s books on sculpture, blacksmithing, and toolmaking and began making wood and stone carving tools using my woodstove as a makeshift forge.

In this way, I learned about temper colors, the heat tints, or oxidation colors used by blacksmiths to gauge the hardness of a tool during heat-treatment. 

I’d done a fair amount of metalworking and run the colors many times on chisels and gouges, adze blades, and crooked knives, which I made for carving my wood sculptures.

All this experience came to bear when my neighbor gave me a large sawmill blade, and I didn’t even pause to think of painting a picture on it.

Instead, I thought, ‘How can I use it to make a round picture that retains the saw blade’s metallic qualities?’ 

I was at home making designs on circular forms after five summers at pottery schools decorating pots and plates. And so, I was familiar with making designs without a top or bottom. 

After drawing and engraving a circular design on the 52″ diameter saw blade, I tried to make a shallow relief by grinding the background areas lower. 

But the tool steel was so hard that it took no time at all to abandon the idea.

Then, I thought about coloring different sections of the design and attempted to coat the surface with brass. 

It may have been possible with the proper flux, an even heat, and lots of practice, but at this point, I had none of these.

Nonetheless, all was revealed. In the process of heating the bare metal to get the brass to adhere, the rainbow temper colors appeared. 

It didn’t take long for me to put 2 and 2 together.

That first piece of metal saw blade art was not particularly colorful though it had some subtle blues. 

Saw blade metal wall art depicting the animated cycle of a hammer blow. A blacksmith hammering in the forge.  Engraved steel sawblades with heat tints.

In my initial experimentation, I’d mostly worked to create subtle variations from the blade’s rusty brown patina, learning that wire brushing turned it black. 

The mountains of North Carolina were full of sawmills. For many years my bread and butter came from turning steel sawmill blades into large circular artworks for sawmill owners. 

I made most of these engraved wall pieces on older rusty saw blades. In one case, my client gave me a like-new saw blade, which I intentionally rusted to produce the dark browns for my design.

G and G Lumber sawmill scene. Engraved steel  saw blade metal wall art
 with heat tints.

Types of Metal Artwork I Make

A quick google search reveals myriad kinds of metal wall decor created by historical and contemporary metal artists alike.

Below I go into more detail about the various types of metal wall art you’ll find throughout my website.

 Colored Metal Wall Art

After engraving that first steel saw blade, which I titled Circle of Fire, I began refining the technique, experimenting with different abrasives, engraving burrs, and torches.

I began to realize I could make colorful metal wall art using only the colors I could achieve with heat from a large propane torch.

The beauty of these colors, as opposed to chemical or pigmented patinas, are as follows:

  1. They are integral to the surface of the metal.
  2. They color the surface without obscuring it.
  3. They maintain the reflective quality of the metal.
  4. They have subtle variations based on the qualities of the metal surface.
  5. They vary with the angle of the grinding patterns and the light source.
  6. It’s possible to create subtle rainbow blends.

Some of the challenges I encounter when producing heat tints are:

  1. Achieving an even heat and, therefore, color, over a large area.
  2. Easing the temperature up to just the right color without overheating.
  3. Having to regrind and texture the area all over again if the colors run too far.
  4. Dealing with quickly dissipating heat when working in cold weather.
  5. If I accidentally slip and grind a spot, I have to regrind and color everything with a lower temperature color in the area of the touch-up.

 Layered Wood and Metal Wall Decor

After making several pieces of large round metal wall art, I had the opportunity to apply what I’d been learning in three dimensions, creating multi-layered wall pieces made from sheet steel and wood.

I made my first such piece of wood and metal wall art towards the end of our time in North Carolina.

After years of honing my skills on engraved steel saw blades, I received a commission to make a sculpture for a Florida interior designer’s Linville Ridge home. It was to be a freestanding metal wall piece looking down from a high alcove in his foyer.

I was inspired to turn the project into a layered wood and metal wall sculpture by some uniquely shaped maple slabs I’d collected.

I had a strict deadline for this commission. The owner was returning to Florida in two or three weeks. If I was able to complete the piece within this timeframe, I had the job.

I’ve never conceived of a design so quickly. Everything fell into place, and a day or two later, he’d approved it. 

Fishing bear and raven in an Appalachian rhododendron thicket in this engraved and heat tinted steel metal wall art.

The finished sculpture, ‘Fishing Bear with Raven,’ is one of several metal wall pieces I’ve made of black bears. 

My inspiration for this piece was a remarkable photo of a bear straddling a waterfall. The photographer had captured one of those perfect moments.

Back in the day before google images, I perused stacks of animal reference books littered with bookmarks and thumbprints. 

The finished sculpture depicts a black bear straddling boulders in a mountain stream. A fish rises out of the water as it strives to clear the falls. 

A raven cavorts overhead in the rhododendron branches, and we’re left to wonder about the fate of the fish.

I was able to integrate the multiple layers of wood and steel into a colorful work of custom metal wall art. 

After cutting each layer to shape, I engraved and textured the surface of the metal, then heated it to produce the torch colors. 

The frontmost layer of the waterfall curves out and over the edge of the wall, enhancing the 3-dimensional effect and drawing the viewer into the story

Engraved and heat tinted steel metal wall art of a fishing bear and raven in an Appalachian rhododendron thicket.

Single-layer Wall Pieces

Making single-layer metal wall art is akin to making a picture on a flat canvas, though the nature of metal doesn’t limit me solely to rectangular shapes.

By cutting the metal to match the outlines of my design, I can create a sense of three dimensions while retaining a two-dimensional flatness.

The resulting creative edge adds interest, catches our eye, and allows the piece to integrate with its surroundings.

Multi-Panel Wall Art

As with any medium, size becomes an issue when it comes to handling the work during its creation. 

Both the weight and unwieldiness of large pieces of metal pose challenges for me, as I do the grinding in my studio and the heating outside.

For this reason, I’ll divide larger pieces into multiple panels during the design process. 

‘Seal Moon Rising” is an excellent example. It’s a 12’ wide steel engraving for an Alaskan hospital. I made the piece in four panels, which I mounted adjacent to each other to give the feeling of a single piece. 

Wood and metal wall art of a native hunter watching at a seal's breathing hole in front of a rising seal moon. Created when Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. decided to commission art for the new health center in Bethel, AK.

Other times such as with a diptych or triptych, leaving space between the metal panels might be appropriate.

Sculptural Metal Reliefs 

Artists cast, carve or fabricate metal to create 3-dimensional pictures called reliefs. 

These reliefs range from low, or bas-relief, to high relief panels modeled fully in-the-round such as Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise

In real bas relief, we see a single view of the subject from every viewing angle.

The artist suggests form through careful modeling and attention to the depth and relationship of shapes, surface planes, and their corresponding angles. 

Achieving a convincing 3-dimensional effect within a shallow depth is one of the significant challenges a relief artist faces. 

The metal bas-relief sculptures found in my online gallery are cast in bronze. 

I modeled the originals for the bronzes in clay or carved them in wood.

I was introduced to many relief artists as I browsed the library at sculpture school. 

The harmonious design of many of the wood and stone reliefs carved by Ivan Mestrovic stood out in particular and continues to inspire me.

Functional Art in Metal

Art needn’t be merely decorative, nor functional objects only useful, and artists and craftspeople have incorporated art into functional items from the earliest point in history.

The artist can accomplish this through the shape of the overall form or by applying decoration to certain elements. 

In the case of a decorative coffee table, the top could be a piece of metal wall art displayed horizontally.

Here’s a list of some of the functional artwork I can make.

  • Decorative Tables
  • Screens and room dividers
  • Door panels
  • Heat shields for wood stoves
  • Sink splash backs
  • Signs
Metal wall art as a tabletop. Denali National Park; the mountains, rivers, animals and animal tracks. Engraved steel saw blade with heat tints.

Decorating with Metal Wall Art

There are many reasons to choose metal art for your decorating projects. 

 

The bottom line, though, is whether you resonate with the work of art as a whole. 

 

After that, the medium may be of secondary importance.

 

Nonetheless, metal offers unique characteristics that make it desirable.

  • It is durable and provides a sense of permanence. 
  • Its reflective qualities make it very dynamic.
  • It provides an excellent substrate for bright and earthy colors alike.
  • When properly sealed and maintained, it is durable in exterior locations.
  • It can be cut into virtually any shape.
  • It provides a pleasing contrast when combined with wood.

 

A beautifully made piece of metal wall art never fails to be the source of conversation and admiration.

Designing for Metal Wall Decor

Something about the flatness of a sheet of steel leads me to make designs for my metal wall art differently than I might for other media. 

Though I’ll suggest the 3-dimensional form within each element, I’ve tended to make the overall design with a 2-dimensional feel rather than implying perspective.

My recent work has begun to include pieces with a more painterly character, which at some point may lead me astray.

One of the most critical parts of my metal art is the original design.

As you browse my portfolio, you’ll find that I’ve included the proposal drawing along with process images and pictures of the finished artwork.

Viewing the original drawing beside the finished work will show you the transformation between them and what to expect should you decide to commission a piece of metal wall art from me.

Denali National Park; the mountains, rivers, animals and animal tracks. Engraved steel sawblades with heat tints.
Denali National Park; the mountains, rivers, animals and animal tracks. Engraved steel  saw blade metal wall art with heat tints.

What Shapes do I Make?

You’ll find there are many shapes of metal wall art. I’ve gravitated towards the creative edge rather than plain rectangular as I prefer curves to straight lines for the most part. 

I like to cut the edge of the metal to follow the shape of different elements of the design.

The fact I prefer curves is as readily apparent in much of my work as it is in the architecture of our place here in Homer. 

Though working with a rectangle or square can be convenient, it’s not always the most pleasing shape to the eye, though in some cases, the confines of a rectangular may best present our concept. 

How I Make Metal Wall Art

Since making my first saw blade engraving, I’ve continued to develop a technique unique among metal artists.

It combines steel engraving, surface grinding, and torch coloring in sophisticated and innovative ways. 

I do this by engraving and grinding pictures into metal using specific abrasives to create the effect I’m after.

The colors are produced with a large torch and are integral to the surface of the metal, coloring but not covering the grinding patterns.

I can make intricately colored designs by grinding and heating areas of the picture sequentially, working the colors from hot to cold. 

Using this innovative technique, I make dynamic pieces that change with the light and viewing angle giving them a range of characters not found in art made from other materials. 

I stretch the boundaries in each new piece with the rich layers of color in my recent work bordering on painting with heat.

Stay tuned for a dedicated post about how I make my metal art. I’ll go into more detail about the colors, their nuances, and how I create them.

I’ll also explain which tools I use, and how I choose abrasives for the variety of textures I can achieve.

Until then, here’s a brief list of some of what I use.

The Tools I Use

  • Suhner flexible shaft grinders of all sizes
  • A variety of straight and angled hand pieces
  • Suhner pneumatic pencil grinder and engraver
  • 3″ Snap-on pneumatic sander
  • Cutoff wheels
  • sanding discs
  • flap sanding wheels
  • flap sanding discs
  • carbide and high-speed steel burrs
  • rotary wire brushes
  • Cratex rubber abrasives
  • mounted stone points
  • Surface conditioning wheels, flap discs, flap wheels, and bob
A happily breaching humpback whale interrupts a seagull's evening meal in this layered steel and wood relief.

Where to Hang Metal Wall Art

Outdoor Locations

Aside from pierced steel saw blade signs for North Carolina sawmills, my first piece of metal wall art for outdoors was Summer Sailing.

It’s a rust-colored abstract design of a sailboat, a fish, and a bird.

I’ve intended for most of my wall art to be displayed indoors. My first piece of colored metal wall art for outdoors was also the first percent for the arts commission in an Alaska State Park. 

It is installed in the Kesugi Ken Interpretive Center in Denali State Park. 

This 9.5′ x 13.5′ steel engraving is on the outer wall of the central multi-purpose room in the Interpretive Center which, has a broad overhanging roof but no walls.

When I make these pieces for outdoors, I coat them with a durable protective transparent sealer designed to withstand the elements with minimal maintenance.

The bright diffuse light produced on a cloudy day can show off the heat tint colors most advantageously.

Another example of metal wall art for outdoors is this layered wood and steel relief. It hangs on the gable end of the entryway porch roof. In this case, I used a color stain for the wooden elements, which matches the trim color on the house.

Engraved steel wall piece of a grizzly bear chasing a ground squirrel who escapes on the back of a golden doodle.

Using Metal Artwork in the Kitchen

When I traded a piece of metal wall art of three salmon for a new washing machine, the store owner had the perfect spot to display it in his kitchen. 

It hangs between the cabinets on the wall above his kitchen sink. With the proper protective clear coat, I can make metal wall decor that functions as the sink back splash.

Focal Point Art for the Dining Room

The proud owners of my third version of At the Breathing Hole were happy to find the layered, wood, and metal wall piece to hang beside their dining room table. 

The adjacent picture window is an excellent light source to show off the colors of the metal and wood in all their glory. 

In the photo below, you can see how well it matches their preferred color scheme. 

Because of the open layout of their home, you also have excellent views of the piece from the kitchen and living room. 

Large Metal Wall Art for the Living Room

I’ve completed several significant works for my client’s living rooms. Many of these are hanging on the chimney wall above the fireplace mantle. 

These pieces have ranged from single layer engraved saw blades, to large metal and wood artwork, to decorative coffee tables with engraved steel tops

I made one of these tables for the great room in a fishing lodge when the owner felt there was no more wall space for art.

In Fishing Bear with Sun, an example of rustic metal and wood wall art, I used remnants of wormy chestnut bark siding shingles to create the texture of the bear’s fur.

Large wood and metal wall art of a fishing bear with the sun shining from behind on rock chimney wall.

This semi-abstract, pierced steel silhouette of mountains and a stream with fish hangs beside the stairway on a living room wall in a Boone, NC home.

The rays of the sun break through the clouds over an Appalachian mountain trout stream. Pierced steel metal wall art

Decorating the Walls of Your Business

Focal point art plays a vital role in establishing an atmosphere of quality in both public and private areas of a business. 

Thoughtfully designed artwork can convey your brand image instantly, and enhance your client’s first impressions in ways beyond the scope of other means.

Metal Wall Decor for Hospitals

Hospitals are increasingly turning to decorate with large focal point art. 

It helps to make patients and visitors feel more at home and comfortable in what is often a stressful situation.

In 1993, Caldwell County Hospital in Lenoir, NC, commissioned me to make a sculpture for their foyer. 

Lenoir was a furniture town, so I made a black walnut carving of a seated man carving the shapely leg of a chair.

In 2017 I was commissioned to make a large piece of metal and wood wall art for the foyer of Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, AK. 

The 10′ x 4′ wall sculpture titled ‘Seasons of the Sockeye,’ depicts a salmon stream in engraved and heat tinted steel surrounded by curving cottonwood slab riverbanks.

The long S-curve of the artwork welcomes visitors to River Tower and compliments the shape of the decorative cable hung ceiling panels.

I mentioned ‘Seal Moon Rising,’ the large wood-framed steel wall piece I made in 2019 for the Dr. Paul John Calricaraq Project, a new Hospital in Bethel, Alaska.

The hospital worked diligently with the architect and designers to create a space that represented the Yup’ik, Cup’ik, and Athabascan cultures and identity. 

The artwork greets visitors and patients in the Primary Care Waiting area. I was honored to have my design chosen for such a prominent spot in the health center.

I offer several metal photo prints from this piece.

This design aspires to convey the age-old patience of the hunter and the elusiveness of the seal. A man kneels near his kayak on a barren ice flow, patiently watching the water through a well-worn breathing hole.

How to Hang Metal Artwork

Size and weight both influence the choice of methods for hanging metal wall art.

When I design a piece, I’ll consider both of these factors and also the location where it will hang.

Sometimes I’ll choose to mount individual panels with strategically placed screws.

I often use aluminum Z-clips, attaching one half of the set to the back of the metal, where it’s ready to hang from the matching extrusion fastened to the wall.

Z-clips provide sturdy support and are easy to install.

I’ve also used wire cables fastened securely to the artwork as you would a picture wire on a painting.

My round metal saw blade engravings hang from a bracket attached to the central hole. The bracket hangs on a fastener mounted into the wall surface or framing. 

These brackets make it possible to rotate the artwork to display it in any orientation.

A Variety of Subject Matter

As with other art forms, subject matter for metal wall art is pretty limitless and at the discretion of the artist, and in the case of commissioned works, the client.

As you’ll see, when you browse the photos on this page, many of my pieces depict animals. 

These include black, brown, and polar bears, salmon, and other fish, whales, eagles, seagulls, foxes, and seals.

I’ve also made designs with rivers, mountains, volcanoes, and various representations of the sun, moon, and stars.

When it comes to people, I’ve used them in designs for sawmill and logging scenes, pictures of blacksmiths, and most recently of a Yupik hunter.

 

Where to Buy Metal Wall Art

Though not as prevalent as painters and printmakers, there are many artists working in metal.

Where you choose to buy metal wall art will depend a lot on what you are wanting. And, to some degree, on your budget.

Many of the larger home decor stores online sell a wide variety of relatively stamped out, and generic-looking, metal wall decor.

If you’re looking for something more unique, and with the artist’s personal touch, seeking out an individual artist, or finding their work through a quality online gallery, may be the better source.

Much depends on your taste, your budget, whether you want original work, and resonate with the artist’s style and technique.

I currently have a variety of original metal wall art for sale in my online gallery. If you’re in the Homer area, you can experience its dynamic qualities in person at The Dean Gallery. 

Many of my designs are available by special order. I can make them in an optimal size to fit your space and as either single or multi-layer wall art.

I’ve also made many of my steel engravings available as brilliant metal photo prints in a range of sizes for every budget.

Conclusion

With each new piece I make, I open up new possibilities for making metal wall art. 

I discover and refine techniques for working the metal and creating heat tint color variations. I experiment with new ways of using the wide variety of abrasives and grinding tools I have in my toolkit.

After nearly 40 years of practice, I’m looking forward to the next 30.

Click any image in the sidebar to visit a page with images of the finished artwork and of how it was made.

 
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