All That Glitters May Be Wood

A finishing job shop makes wood look like bronze, iron, copper or other metals by applying a spray-on composite metal coating.

By Greg Landgraf

     
 

Metallacoat transformed a $19.95 cast resin lawn gnome into a gently aged copper statue through its sprayable metal coating process.

 
     

The fairy pictured to the right looks like she was made by a skilled metal sculptor a hundred years ago and then allowed to weather gracefully to her gentle patina.

She wasn’t.

The “elegant” piece of garden statuary is in fact just a lawn gnome from K-Mart. Approximate retail value: $19.95.

It was finished, however, by Metallacoat to give it its expensive look. As its name suggests, Metallacoat uses cold sprayable composite metals to coat wood, cement, concrete and other substrates in bronze, brass, iron or other metals.

Metallacoat is a division of Sierra Stair Co., and both share a facility in Loomis, CA. Sierra Stair started Metallacoat about three years ago as a result of an enormous custom residential staircase job in Lake Tahoe.

High-end staircases are the company’s specialty, but this one had a catch. “The problem was that the original balusters were all malleable iron,” says Elden Lewis, CEO of Sierra Stair. The design called for 502 of these cast iron balusters. Sierra Stair normally outsources its cast metal work, but the cost and weight associated with such a large quantity motivated it to find a different technique.

One of Sierra Stair’s lumber vendors told it about composite metal coatings made by LuminOre Inc. Sierra Stair looked into the process, took the training classes, and decided to make the balusters in maple and coat them with metal instead of outsourcing solid cast metal.

Lewis says that the iron-coated maple balusters on that first job weighed 2 pounds apiece, virtually identical to the unfinished maple balusters. Their cast iron counterparts, on the other hand, each weighed 20 pounds. By using the metal-coated wood instead of solid metal, the company saved more than four and a half tons in weight.

Even better, Lewis says the detail turned out to be crisper than cast metal. “When I took it to the owners, their eyeballs just went ‘Wow!’” he says.

The process is also environmentally friendly. LuminOre won a Sequoia Award at the AWFS Fair in Anaheim this August for its low VOC content and energy requirements.

“After starting to spray balustrations, we realized the implications of the metal coating could be far-reaching,” says Preston Saunders, supervisor of the Metallacoat division. “We started experimenting with it to find out what the applications could be.”

     
 

Mouldings at three stages of the Metallacoat process. At far left is the bare wood, the middle piece has been primed, and the moulding on the right has been coated with LuminOre but not treated to bring out the metal’s characteristics.

 
     

Those experimentations opened a wide business path. Saunders found the metal coating suitable for use on most substrates, including wood, plastic, ceramic and stone. And while balusters remain the core of the company’s business, the metal coatings can be used with good effect on architectural elements, accent pieces, bath fixtures, and even cabinet doors.

Metallacoat will finish them all, although it does not build any parts itself. “We provide mainly a service, rather than a product,” Saunders says.

A Labor-Intensive Process

Applying the metal coating is a labor-intensive process. Saunders says there can be as many as 17 steps from preparation to finished product.

Despite the large amount of effort required for the metal coatings, Saunders says the process compares favorably in price to solid cast metals. As an example, he describes a cast medallion that weighed about 20 pounds and cost $300. Spraying the same piece made in wood cost about $50.

Before coating, Saunders sands the substrate and rounds any sharp edges in the design. This prevents burn-through later when he sands the metal coating. “If I press too hard on a sharp edge, the metal would burn through,” he says.

After sanding, Saunders applies a specialized primer to the piece. Then, the part goes to the spray room for coating.

Saunders uses an HVLP sprayer from AccuSpray to apply the coating. He holds the gun about 6 to 8 inches from the piece in a very fine spray, coating the part with about 12 mils of a composite metal.

“When I’m spraying the details, I’ll put the piece on a lazy Susan, so I can spray it from several different directions to get in all the little pockets,” Saunders says.

The metal coating is liquid at room temperature. Spraying has to be done quickly, however. The coating contains a hardening agent that keeps pot life down to 30 minutes. After that point, the coating can start to harden and destroy the gun.

Treatment After Spraying Brings Out Metallic Look

The metal coating does not look much like metal immediately after it is sprayed. “Once you get through spraying, then there’s several steps you have to do to really make a quality finish,” Saunders says.

The parts air-dry overnight, although Saunders says they could go under a heat lamp if necessary to speed the drying process.

Saunders then sandblasts the dried parts, which dulls the coating. If the customer wants an antique look, Saunders applies a spray-on patina. Several colors of patina are available, including black, brown and a green verde. Within each color, Saunders can achieve different shades by adjusting the length of time he allows the patina to set before rubbing it off. The lightest shades stay on for a few minutes, while darker ones can take several hours.

After the patina, Saunders sands the part using standard sandpaper or sponge-type abrasives, rubs it with steel wool, and finally buffs it. Here once again he can achieve several finishes depending on how he carries out these processes. “Depending on what the client wants, we can buff it to a real shine, or a totally clean shine, or we can dull it out,” Saunders says.

At this point, the metal coating is complete and Metallacoat can ship the part for installation. If desired, Metallacoat can also apply additional metal-finishing techniques, giving the part a brushed look or an additional antique effect, for example.

Metallacoat is still experimenting with such specialized finishes. Saunders is also testing out alloys by mixing two types of metal coating and spraying them.

Training a Must

Working with composite metals is technically demanding. “This is not a product for the average Joe,” Saunders says. “You need to have schooling in it, and if you don’t, it’s going to show real obviously in the finished product.”

     
 

A few of the balusters from the residential job that launched Sierra Stair’s Metallacoat division. The balusters are hand-carved hard maple with LuminOre brass coating and barrels painted in satin black.

 
     

The initial LuminOre class that Saunders took lasted two days and covered basic spraying of the product up to more specialized information on achieving specific finishes. “I felt like they really took the time to train us,” Saunders says.

Saunders says educating potential customers about Metallacoat is one challenge he faces. “They treat Metallacoat as a paint rather than a real metal application. When we get done with that product, it will react just like real metal — it will age, it will patina naturally, and so on,” he says.

On the other hand, if the customer does not want the metal to age naturally, Metallacoat offers a way around it. It works with Matthews Paint Co. of Kenosha, WI, which produces 20-year clear finishes for outdoor signage.

“We can offer the Matthews finish over our product to make it last unchanged as long as that finish is on there,” Saunders says.

A Versatile Process

Metallacoat does baluster work for both residential and corporate clients. But Saunders says the metal coatings’ uses range much farther than that. “We’re also working with designers, where we get architectural elements,” like ceiling tiles, wall hangings, or sculptural elements, Saunders says. “If you’re a designer and you need some kind of metallic application, this is definitely the way to go.”

Multiple metal coatings, or metal coating and uncoated wood, can be combined in a piece by simply masking sections off, making it possible to produce work like panel doors. “The value of that is tremendous. If a customer wants to remodel their kitchen, instead of trading out the cabinets, they could just have us spray the door panel, and it totally changes the look,” Saunders says.

One client brought Metallacoat his bathroom fixtures to re-do. He liked the fixtures, but not the chrome finish they had. “I sandblasted them and turned them into antique bronze, and when he got them back he didn’t realize they were his own,” Saunders says.

Metallacoat functions as a job shop, finishing whatever a client needs, but Saunders says that the company’s mainstay is the balustrations. Sierra Stair is Metallacoat’s largest client, but it does produce for outside companies as well.

So far, Metallacoat is a one-person division. Working alone, Saunders can produce about 50 to 60 balusters per day. But he envisions Metallacoat’s future a full-production shop, with eight to 10 workers.

“I think that we’re at the beginning stages of a take-off,” Saunders says. “It’s obvious that the product has value; it’s just a matter of getting it over that first hump and getting people to see that this is something that can really enhance architecturally anything that they do.”

Saunders says that while he is attracting plenty of interest from designers, architects and builders, many are hesitant to take a chance on a new kind of product. Saunders’ sales pitch to them is fairly simple.

“We’ve already proven the product, because we’ve installed projects with it,” he says. “We’re saying, jump in and give it a shot, because you’ll be one of the first ones on the list to have something really special.”