Fire mesmerizes and bewilders me. I find it amazing that it can come from virtually nowhere. You can’t really touch it even though you can feel it, and it makes things disappear into thin air. Heavy things - really, really heavy things - like a whole stack of wood, can be gone in no time.
I know this, of course, because I have burnt a lot of things in my lifetime, including my last shop (a complete accident, by the way). What was amazing about it was the fact that just the day before, I had a shop filled with tools, and the next day I had a shallow pile of charcoal mixed with rusty metal. I remember going there the morning after the fire and looking for anything to salvage and being amazed at how rusty the metal was. It looked like it had set out in the rain for years and it was only hours since the fire department was there. (Read about the fire to my shop.)
At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I was just cleaning up the debris and throwing the chunks of rusty steel into the scrap pile. But it didn’t take long for things to click. You see, rusty metal is a very desirable finish in these days of worn, industrial, antique, distressed furniture – a style that I find myself doing on a regular basis. Even if it’s not officially a rusty finish that I am looking for, it is usually something that looks not new in some way. And, I have to tell you that burnt, rusty metal does not look new. It looks very, very old.
All of this was a welcomed revelation because I have spent lots of hours in the past trying to get the “not new” look. I had used paint stripper to remove the protective clear finish from new hardware. I soaked steel directly in salt water and in salt water towels so it would get more air, and hopefully, rust faster. I’ve tried a lot of things on brass too, like ammonia and vinegar. But, I never considered heat until the shop burned down.
Heat makes sense. Heat is what they use to make the metal, so it seems like it could work to “unmake” it a bit. And after I saw the magic that happened to all of the metal in my former shop, I gave it a go. The first batch worked great. I was doing a cabinet with very small hinges, so even if I destroyed them it would only cost me a few dollars. I made a little fire and threw them in. I put the fire out with a lot of water and just let it sit in the water-logged charcoal mix for a day and it looked just like the rusty metal from my shop.
The second attempt was as amusing as it was informative. Now that I had one burning under my belt, I confidently came home, started a fire in the fireplace (it was winter time), and nonchalantly threw them in like I had done it a thousand times. Chris (my lovely wife), of course, questioned my actions and I, of course, acted like she was the idiot this time. Turns out, I was the idiot again. Why do I always have to be the idiot? Mostly, because in this case, I threw what appears to have been aluminum or some other metal that easily melts into the fire. It burned in a beautiful rainbow of colors, which told me that the metal was actually being consumed by the fire. After the fire died down, I dug around and found only the screws. Everything else vanished. I made myself feel better by saying that they were cheap and I didn’t want them anyway.
Because of that, I now make sure that my victims are made of steel or something like steel, something that can take the heat. I would recommend testing one piece before you throw them all in the fire if you aren’t sure about their metal content. Besides that one bit of caution, all you have to do is build a fire and throw your hardware in. Make sure that you act like you have done it before and don’t even bother to take it out of the packaging (it all disappears).
Let the fire burn until all of the wood is charcoal and the metal looks discolored. While everything is still hot, put out the fire with plenty of water, just like the firefighters would do it. At that point, you can immediately dig out the hardware if you don’t need the metal to rust, or you can let it sit in the wet charcoal for a day or two and get rusty. The amount of time will depend on the metal. Better steel, hardened steel with more carbon, will rust quickly.
When the hardware comes out of the fire it looks very different. If you like the look you are done, but for me it looks a little rugged on most pieces. I usually put a thin coat of lacquer on the hardware to make it look more like an old piece, but one that has spent more time indoors than out. Depending on how it looks when it comes out of the fire, it may only take a little bit of cleaning to have the right look.
The beauty of the burning process is that each piece comes out different and looks authentically aged. Compared to “antiqued” hardware from many large hardware makers, which often look like a lackluster attempt at aging, the difference is night and day. And, the best part is I have a reason to burn things. Now, I need to find a reason to blow things up.
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