Don’t you just love the look of rusty metal? For me the earthy tones and pitted, textured appearance tells such a beautiful, tactile story. You can almost feel history embedded in every groove and color shifting crevice. Here’s the thing though, Mother Nature takes her sweet time when she’s breaking down metal. Me, I don’t have that luxury. Instead, I use my cheap paint tricks to create a faux rust effect in minutes.
To demonstrate how it’s done, I’ll be giving square cardboard boxes a grungy, rusty makeover.
And just for fun we’ll turn them into letter blocks and add some lights too.
You can use the technique to create a faux rust effect on almost anything. I’ve used it on wood, cardboard, foam, plastic, and even a glass bottle.
What you need
For the rust paint effect
To create the faux rust effect, I always use inexpensive craft paint. Cheap, water-based paints (aka acrylic) work best. You only need three colors:
- Reddish Brown (Burnt Sienna)
To make the rust stand out I chose different shades of blue to create contrast. You can use whatever colors you have in your craft cupboard.
You’ll also need:
- Texture paste (homemade recipe here)
- Paintbrush (optional)
Light-Up Letter Blocks
To illustrate how the rust effect can be used, I’ll be transforming these small square cardboard boxes into letter blocks that light up.
If you’re keen on doing something similar, you’ll need:
- Sharp craft knife
- Nail scissors (optional)
- Double-sided tape
- Fairy lights
What’s covered in this tutorial
I was originally going to make two tutorials; one that shows you how to make letter blocks and another that just focusses on the faux rust effect with cheap craft paint. But it seemed like a bit of a waste and you’d end up hopping all over the place, so they’re bundled together. If you’re only here for the rusty goodness, skip the boxy bits below and scroll down to the “Cheap paint tricks for adding a rust effect” heading.
Turning boxes into letter blocks
I wanted to add a little rusty LOVE to our décor for a while now and this tutorial gave me the perfect opportunity to do that.
Turning boxes into block letters is really easy to do. Start by printing out the letters you want to “carve” into the boxes. Simple fonts are easier to cut unless you have one of those fancy cutting machines. Tape the printed letters to the lid of the box.
Make sure the letters line up neatly before cutting them out.
Cutting the letters out
Flatten the boxes and cut the letters out using a sharp craft knife. I found a pack of 3 pencil craft knives with a micro blade that I love using for something like this. I’ve put an affiliate link at the end of the post just in case you need one.
For round letters (or shapes) a small nail scissors works best.
You should end up with something like this once you’re done.
Glue the lid to the box to form a block. I kept the back of the box open for later.
Making corner protectors
Square boxes tend to be a little boring, so I dressed them up with easy cardboard corner protectors.
This quick video will show you how to make them.
Glue the corner protectors on.
Since I’ll be opening and closing the back of the blocks to switch the lights on, I didn’t use a full protector on those corners.
That looks much better.
Right, so that’s the letter blocks done, and we can move onto giving the blocks a rusty transformation.
Cheap paint tricks for adding a rust effect
Have I already mentioned how easy this technique is? If you look at rusty metal, it’s got a slightly rough texture where the oxygen molecules have chewed into the metal. The rust colors vary from a reddish brown to dark brown with random flecks of orange scattered throughout.
Did you know: The word ‘rust’ comes from the Proto-Germanic word rusta, which means “redness.”
The trick to getting the faux rust effect right depends on two things:
- Creating a rough, pitted texture
- And using the right paint colors combinations
Adding a rough texture
To create that pitted effect, I mixed up a batch of our homemade texture paste. You can use the store-bought version too. Apply a layer of the texture paste all over the cardboard. While the paste is still wet, use your finger, or a sponge, to dab or pounce the paste.
You want the paste to form bumpy, uneven peaks and bobbles which resemble the texture you often see on rusted metal. Leave the paste to dry before applying a second layer. Try and create a random pitted effect especially on the corners and edges of whatever you’ll be rustifying.
Mixing the rust colors
Just like everything else in life, rust ages. Areas that have been oxidizing for the longest are darkest, while the outer edges are lighter and tend to be more orange than red. To achieve the same effect, put large dollops of orange and brown paint on a plate. Add a teeny bit of black and swirl them around with a toothpick or skewer.
Lightly dip a clean, dry sponge in the paint and randomly dab the colors onto the cardboard. Focus on those areas where you want to create a rust effect. Don’t worry if the paint makes little peaks, it will add to the textured look later.
Try to vary the colors. Too much pure brown can make the finished piece look muddy rather than rusty. For those areas where a sponge doesn’t give you the right coverage, use a paint brush and then dab and pounce with the sponge afterwards.
Repeat until you’re happy with the effect. You can add as many layers as you want to create interest and depth. Leave the paint to dry between layers to avoid “lifting” the previous one. Just play around and have fun. Almost everything can be fixed with a new coat of paint.
To create contrast and really make the rust pop, I added various blues and greys to “un-rusted” areas on my blocks.
For a super quick demonstration on how it’s done, click on the video below.
To finish off, use an earbud dipped in black paint to add screws to the cardboard corners.
And that’s all there is to creating a faux rust effect with cheap craft paint. Now I just need to hide the gaping holes where the letters have been cut out, add lights, and turn the rusted boxes into letter blocks..
Finishing off and adding lights
To finish off the block letter light boxes, cut a sheet of translucent paper into squares.
Using double side tape, stick the paper squares on the inside of the blocks and pop battery-powered fairy lights inside.
To close the blocks I used masking tape. Not a very elegant solution, but it works for me and it makes it easier to switch the fairy lights on😉
Once the blocks with their faux rust effect are stacked you’ll never know what’s happening behind the scenes.
I’ve added a few more real rusty bits. This little bird cage……
And a framed paint brush that’s full of grungy, rusty deliciousness.
And when the lights go on, the rust junkie inside of me does a little happy dance.
While I absolutely love this technique, it’s best suited for indoor projects. If you want to use your rustified piece outside, I would apply a polyacrylic sealer and avoid using cardboard as a base. Just a heads up, most sealers have a satin or gloss finish which will change the look.
If like the idea of giving old cardboard boxes a gorgeous rusty texture, don’t forget to pin it for later.
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And if you prefer to buy rather than DIY, then maybe these beauties will appeal.
And as always, wishing you a wonderful, crafty week filled with lots of love. Thank you for popping in for a visit.