How to Paint Wood Panels to Look Like Rusty Metal

You don’t have to have to be a Michelangelo to paint convincing rust effects on wood, plastic, foam or just about anything! In this painting tutorial, I show you how to create a rusty metal effect on wood panels using techniques any beginner can master with some inexpensive spray and craft paints.

This particular project was for some floating corner shelves I was creating a while back and I wanted to do something a bit more interesting than just painting it a solid color or using wood stain. You can make faux metal panels out of wood to decorate your walls, ceiling or even floor (if you seal them well to protect against foot traffic). Painting wood panels to look like metal is an inexpensive way to enhance a steampunk, industrial or haunt attraction! You’ll notice the footage looks a little older but it’s still an effective technique I use to this day and the result is very convincing so I wanted to pull it from the archives for you.

The first step is to cut out your wood panels to the size or sizes you need. I used 1/4″ plywood from the home improvement store for mine. It’s less expensive to buy the 4′ x 8′ plywood sheet and cut it at home but if it won’t fit in your car, the store can cut it to a more manageable size.

I cut my plywood panels with a jigsaw before painting the wood panels to look like metal.
My pile of cut wooden panels ready for rust effect painting.

Sand Off the Wood Grain

Once you have your wood panels cut out, sand down the surface you intend to paint with 150 to 220-grit sand paper. You can either do this by hand with a piece of sand paper and sanding block or an orbital sander if you have a lot of panels to crank out. This helps eliminate the wood grain texture to give us a smooth finish. Otherwise, the visible grain pattern gives away the fact that these are indeed just wood panels we tried to disguise.

This is also the time to do a trial-fitting of your design or structure to be sure the panels you cut fit the way you want. Try to avoid having to make adjustment cuts after the paint job because you’ll have to touch up the edges.

Spray Base Coats

Apply three even coats of flat or matte black spray paint. The black color acts as a hidden base coat that will get painted over and depending on how much aging you want you can sand down the other layers to expose this layer.

Apply three coats of black spray paint to the wooden panels.
Apply thin coats of silver spray paint on top of the black base coat.

With the black paint layer dry, apply two even coats of the forged hammer in Antique Pewter or silver spray paint so it completely covers the black. Be careful not to apply too thick a coat or you’ll have a lot of sanding to do to create your scratch effects.

Create MEtal Scratches

To create some scratches in the silver paint layer and your initial aging effects you’re going to start sanding down the panel using straight back and forth strokes. You can try out different directions and stroke lengths to create different patterns along with different grits of sand paper ranging from 80-220. Then, in parts of the panel sand down until you expose a few black streaks here and there. Don’t over-do it or you may sand right through the black layer and expose the wood! This should give you a mix of dull metal areas, scratched areas and a few more aged spots with a little black showing through.

I'm using 80-grit sand paper to create scratch marks on the silver coat of the wooden panel.

Depending on your application, this may be all you need to whip up some aged metal panels but if you want more detail then proceed with the next steps.

Painting Rust Effects

For this next step, you’ll need a set of craft brushes of different sizes. I dry-brush most of these paints on. Dry-brushing is when you dip your brush into paint and wipe most of it away by either painting the excess off on your palette or wiping it with a paper towel so only a thin transparent layer gets applied. I prefer to wipe the paint off on my palette because I can then re-use that paint for the next strokes whereas if you wipe the excess paint with a paper towel, then you waste a lot of paint.

Darken the edges of the wood panel by dry-brushing black paint.
Add a few strokes working your way to the middle of the panel.
Add some pitting to the middle of the panel by tapping your paint brush

Starting with Black acrylic paint, I like to darken the edges of the panel. You can choose to darken the edges all the way around or just do a few areas. It’s best to start your brush stroke on the outer edge and brush inwards. Mix up straight strokes which creates a scratch effect with some stabbing movements that create smudges and pitting. Then take your finger and smudge your work. It helps eliminate the obvious brush strokes and also creates a translucent staining effect. Depending on how much of an aged look you want, add just a few brush strokes, pitting and smudges to areas in the middle of the panel. If you add too much black then the panel starts to get really dark.

I'm using brown paint to dirty up the wood panel corners just like metal panels would have.
I use the brown to add dimension to all the areas I painted black for a more realistic rust effect.

Once you’re happy with your black detail layer, it’s time to move on to the next color. Go over the areas you dry-brushed in black with Burnt Umber acrylic paint using the same dry-brush, pit and smudge technique. Don’t completely cover the black. If you want some dirty-looking areas like in the corners, stab some of the brown directly on the silver layer and smudge with your finger. Again, going overboard here will also make your panel look dark and dingy.

If you added some black streaks, pitting or smudges in the middle of the panel, go over those areas with the brown too.

I'm lightly highlighting the brown areas with Red Oxide and this is the most important step to making wood look like metal with rust.
Tapping a little Red Oxide in the rust pitted areas I painted on the wood panels really sells the metal panel look.

Finally, it’s time to add some rust with Red Oxide acrylic paint! Repeat the same techniques but more sparingly over the areas you painted with Black and Burnt Umber. These three colors blend together very nicely over each other and the Red Oxide makes the rust areas pop.

The painted wood panel that now looks like metal.

Faux Metal Rivets

Depending on your design or application, adding rivets around the edges really sells the metal panel look. My rivets were actually thumbtacks! If you’re doing a few panels, it’s more economical to buy them in large packages.

I sanded the heads of the thumbtacks to remove the shine.
I trimmed the stems so they wouldn't punch through the wooden panel.
I trimmed about 2/3 off the total length of the thumbtack stem.
With a hammer and nail, I created small pilot holes for the thumbtack rivets.
I added a drop of glue to the undersides of the thumbtacks before installing them.
I hammered each thumbtack into place.

In most cases you’ll have to trim off some of the pointed tip so it doesn’t poke through to the other side. This is easy to do with a sharp pair of pliers. Then sand the thumbtack heads a bit to remove the shine. I used a nail and hammer to create starter holes for the thumbtacks in the panel and then added a little wood glue to the undersides of the thumbtack heads before hammering them into the pilot holes.

The completed wood panels that now look like rusty metal panels with rivets.

Build Rust Texture

Since I was using my “metal” panels as the top and bottom surfaces for my wall shelving I didn’t add any 3D rust texture to them so it would be easy to slide items on and off the shelves. There are a few ways to add rust texture to your flat painted wood panels that will enhance your paint job depending on how coarse you want the rust to look.

Sawdust Rust Technique

If you’re a woodworker, save that sawdust and wood shavings! It’s great for creating rust texture. Just mix it with some glue into a coarse paste. Use only enough glue to keep the saw dust and wood shavings together. Then dab the mixture with a craft brush on the panel where you want rust spots to appear. Allow it to completely dry and if you want to pile on more, then add more layers until you get the build up you want.

After everything is dry, paint your rust piles with the same three colors we’ve been working with so it blends seamless with your panel.

Coffee Grounds & Cinnamon Rust Technique

If you don’t have any sawdust, a quick and inexpensive solution is coffee grounds and cinnamon. Grab an old craft paint brush and dip it some glue (that dries clear). It can be simple craft glue and dab it in areas on the panel where you want to show rust accumulation. If you added rivets to your panels, then adding some rust texture to a few of them looks really good.

Start with the coffee grounds and sprinkle them onto the glue spots. Let it fully dry and then take your panel, turn it on its edge and tap in gently on the table top. Loose coffee grounds will fall out and I usually collect these to use again. Repeat the process if you want to build up more rust in certain areas.

After you’re happy with the coffee grounds, lightly dab some glue over them and sprinkle the cinnamon on top. Just like with the Red Oxide paint, a little goes a long way. You don’t want to completely cover your coffee grounds.

As a bonus, I like to create a little transition between the texture and flat painted panel. Take a little of the Burnt Umber and water it down until it’s the consistency of skim milk. Then lightly dab the outer edges of where your coffee ground piles meet the flat panel. This will create a nice transition between the texture and paint effects.

Clear Coat for Protection

Finally, after everything is dry, apply a few coats of clear spray paint to seal in your texture and provide a protective layer against scratches on your “metal” panel.

This is by no means the only way to make wood look like metal. I’m constantly experimenting and finding new tricks and techniques, along with plenty of facepalms too! From home decor and accent walls to haunts and attractions, these wood panels painted, riveted and textured to look like real metal can be as clean or grungy as you want to make them. Going this route made a huge difference in giving me the industrial look I wanted for my corner floating shelves.

My completed shelves with the wood panels that look like metal installed.
Wooden panels that I painted to look like rusty metal panels.

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