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I lucked out and got an old license plate showing the expiration
month. This is now in the collection of Melissa May.


Alphabet Soup: License Plate Alchemy

A little fancy sawing gave this key ring added visual interest

Beads drawn on wire with a torch and then riveted every quarter inch bring lug nuts to mind – note the smaller letter cut from a California motorcycle license plate

This color magazine picture looks great framed by the letter G

Issue # 14

Christine Cox was a regular contributor to ARTitude Zine. This article originally appeared there and is reprinted here with permission. Unfortunately ARTitude is no longer published.


License plates aren’t inherently beautiful but this issue’s theme “Alphabet Soup” inspired me to experiment with them. I wanted whatever I made from the plates to somehow relate to driving -- thematic functionality. While I love the colors and shapes of license plate pieces, I feel that the letters are too recognizable to not use in context – KEY CHAINS!

A quick trip to the garage yielded 5 or 6 wonderful license plates (or ‘tags’ as collectors call them), all in great shape. This turned out to be a more valuable find than I knew as I’ve since learned that old plates are hard to find and few people want to get rid of them. In our area, the going price for license plates at antique stores is $12.

The most valuable resource I’ve found is towing companies. You may have to take a bunch of plates and throw away the more bent up or chipped ones (out of the sight of your generous donor, of course) but towing companies seem to have several lying around and they’re happy to give them to you (until this becomes popular, of course, then they’ll go the way of cigar boxes and we’ll have to pay for them).  Different states have different laws about keeping plates. Some let you keep the front plate when you trade in your old plates, but some states won’t let you keep either plate. A quick call to your DMV will give you all the facts.

While "distressing" can be a plus, I try to choose the best plates that I can. I look for embossed (raised) letters and numbers, paint that’s in good shape and a flat plate. The paint tends to crack when you try to straighten a plate out, so starting out with a flat one is a good idea. I’m fortunate to live in a state with good-looking license plates, some of which have graphics with gradated colors. Until the 1920s all plates were flat and some states still have flat plates (not embossed). The graphics process for embossed plates is much more expensive to produce. My favorite plates are those from other countries. Some are made using different fonts than U.S. plates and the letter sizes are different.

Newer plates are made from aluminum, but older plates were made from steel. The first license plates were made from porcelain (like Grandma’s stove). In California we have motorcycle plates that are a great size for these key chains. The letters are about 2/3 the size of regular car plates. Quick searches on the Internet yielded lots of custom plates with flags, hearts and other symbols, and also available are several sorority, Boy Scout and other organizational logos. It wouldn’t make much sense to have a plate custom made just to cut it up but if you had something old lying around . . .

Until recently, I never paid particular attention to license plates, but now I see wonderful colors, interesting shapes and logos and raw art waiting to happen.

How to Make One

To make these fun key chains start by cleaning the plates in hot, soapy water or use window cleaner (bugs can make this a disgusting job, so I wear gloves).

Now chop your license plate up into manageable pieces. I use an old paper cutter to do this but a saw frame would also work, though it would take much longer. Next, draw the design for your key chain right onto the license plate. I use a Sharpie marker for this and then polish it off later. Be sure to leave enough room around the design to accommodate any rivets you’ll be making.

Now use a saw frame and a 5/0 saw blade to cut out the letter or number from its background. My favorite key chains have had frames cut out of them to allow pictures to show through. Once the letter is cut out, use a rubber or rawhide mallet to flatten it out, if necessary. Do NOT use a steel hammer. It may crack the paint and is far too hard for the job.

Now use the letter-form you’ve created to draw the same shape onto another piece of metal. I like to use 22-gauge nickel for the back piece. Saw out the back piece with your saw frame and a 2/0 or 3/0 blade. Now is the time to use alphabet stamps to stamp your name, the date or anything else you’d like to have on the back of your key chain. One reason I enjoy making these key chains is that I have lots of room so that I can stamp out whole sayings on the back.

File the edges of both pieces with hand files and then finish with 400-grit sandpaper. Remove any Sharpie ink left over with fine sandpaper or polishing paper. Be careful not to remove any paint! If the paint starts to come off, use finer grit polishing- or sandpaper.

Now you’ll use a drill bit that corresponds to the wire gauge you’ll be using for rivets. I like to use either a #65 bit with 20-gauge wire or a 1/16” drill bit with 14-gauge wire. The wire size I choose depends on what type and how prominent I want the rivets to be. Center punch and drill the holes and install the rivets through both pieces of metal. Note, drill one hole, make the rivet and then drill the next hole. Your holes may not line up if you drill them all at once.

When making the hole for the key ring to pass through, I like to use a round punch from my dapping block set and a hammer to make an indentation where the eyelet will be set. It gives it a nice, finished look. Set the eyelet as normal. You’ll need a long eyelet for this as it has to go through not only the thickness of both pieces of metal, but it also must accommodate the depth of the embossed letter.

One of my favorite ways to make rivets is to draw a bead on one end of the wire using a torch. Since I would flatten the nice beaded rivet head if I placed it on a bench block while riveting (technically called ‘upsetting’) the back of the rivet, I hammer the rivet in a nail set held in a miniature vise. Nail sets come in sets of 3 and are available at most hardware stores. Just choose the one that’s about the same size as the bead-head of your rivet, anchor it in a miniature vise and then rest the head in the nail set’s cup as you balance the key chain and hammer the back of the rivet.

If you are going to have a frame in your key chain, you do not need to saw the frame out of the back piece (unless that’s part of your design). Use either a color copy, magazine picture, photo or whatever you’d like in the frame. I usually use a piece of acetate over the top to protect it from the wear of daily life.

Did you know that there are not only license plate collectors but also plate restorers? If you are interested in learning more about license plates than you ever thought possible, check out the ALPCA (Automobile License Plate Collectors Association) website.

Christine Cox teaches metalsmithing and bookbinding classes in our studio in Volcano, CA.

Copies and transparencies look fantastic framed with color coordinated numbers and letters. This key chain is in my mother's collection.

I made this key ring for my husband, Gene. One of his favorite bars in San Francisco is called “Zeitgeist” – on the back of the Z is the definition of Zeitgeist

Removing Stickers: Goo Gone, brake/parts cleaner (automotive stores)

Cleaning Plates: Dishwashing soap and hot water, car polish (be gentle or you’ll remove the paint), WD-40, orange cleaner

Protecting Key Chains: Carnauba Wax (automotive stores)