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!
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.
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
"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
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 . . .
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.
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).
your license plate up into manageable pieces. I use an old paper cutter to do
this but a
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
frame and a
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.