Tool Time Tuesday – Rolling Mill Textures

Today’s Tool Time Tuesday features one of my favorite machines in my studio… the Rolling Mill.

Rolling Mill

Rolling mills are generally used for reducing metal to make it thinner but it can also be used to transfer textures onto your metal. The rollers on the mill are made of steel and can be flat or grooved. The grooved portions can be used for wire. You will see on my mill there is an additional side roller that can be used to make 1/2 round wire. Today we will be working with the flat part of the rollers to create textures on copper.

This is not a tool that you will find in every shop, though most metalsmiths work hard to get some sort of mill into their shop at one point and time. This is not an inexpensive tool, but if you care for it right it will last more than a lifetime.

The mill should be placed and secured to a steady work surface. My mill is bolted to my table. Never get the rollers wet, they WILL rust. Never use steel, titanium, sand paper or other tough material with out first sandwiching them between brass or copper sheets. This will prevent your rollers from being damaged by the harder materials.

What materials can you use to add patterns?
Almost ANYTHING. This is where it really gets fun. You will see in the following photographs that I have used a number of materials. For the sake of time in working through this, I have patterned both sides of one sheet of metal, each side with a different material.

Always start with clean, dry  and annealed metal. Annealed metal is soft and malleable and will accept a rolled texture more easily. Also, if your metal is not annealed you run the risk of cracking the metal as it will be more brittle.

The following has been done in copper, but would easily work with silver and brass in the same way. Platinum, white gold, nickle and bronze are all too tough to take a good impression. Titanium and steel should never be used.

Rolling Mill- starting materials
This first picture shows some of the materials that I will be working with for this demonstration. Starting from the upper left corner and going clockwise I have some copper mesh, aluminum sheet with holes, sand paper, a penny, the bag from my clementine oranges, and though you can barely see it, some steel binding wire. You also see the small copper pieces that I will be working with.

The first example uses the aluminum and clementine packaging. I have cut each down to fit my metal a little better. I will create a sandwich with the two outer pieces of copper. This sandwich will protect the rollers of my mill.

I feed the sandwich into the mill and adjust the height of the roller so that the metal will be compressed enough, but not too much. You want to be able to turn the handle but if it is too easy it means there is not enough pressure to give a good impression.

As the metal rolls through it is being thinned and that will change the shape of the metal. It also gets very hard as it goes through the mill.

The outer plates are also textured. I am using a relatively thin piece of metal, I think about 24 gauge, and you can see that the texture from the aluminum passed through to the front side where I had the Clementine packaging. My outer plates probably started around 18 gauge.

This picture shows the side that was up against the aluminum.

I can generally use my outer sandwich plates for about 2 or three rolls before I need to anneal them. You saw how they got a curved shape from the rollers, well, if I can’t flatten them relatively easy with my hands it is time to anneal them. I am using a large tip on my Acetylene/air torch.

How do you know if your metal is annealed?
One trick I like to use is to draw on my metal with a sharpie. When the sharpie disappears, the metal is at the proper temperature. Let it cool for about 30 seconds to 1 minute and then quench in water. From here I pickle, and clean it back up so that it is prepped to go against the rollers again.

We will talk more about annealing your metal in another Tool Time Tuesday.

Next  up, my good friend Abe.

I didn’t use too much pressure on the mill this time around, but still got a fairly decent impression. Notice that the penny has been reshaped just a bit. I don’t think it will work in any bubble gum machines from here on out.

I decided to try using a rubber band. I figured I would try it without the outer plates this time as the rubber band is very soft. BIG MISTAKE!

First of all, I moved my rollers together too tightly. D’OH!  I succeeded in cracking my metal by trying to roll it too thin, too quickly. The rubber band completely mushed apart and I had a bit of clean up work to do on my mill before I could go on. Next time, I will use a sandwich of metals.

Oh, here is a little tip I learned today. Never use rubber bands on your silver. It will eat away at it, not right away, but it will eventually.

All is not lost, I took the previous rubber band fiasco and used it to texture two other pieces of metal. These are going to be a great background for something.

This is one of my favorites. I used some 100 grit sandpaper and thin copper mesh. Again, just sandwiching them in between two larger pieces of copper.

The mesh leaves a lovely crisp impression.

I am afraid I didn’t get a very good picture of the sand paper texture, but it looks like it had little bubbles in it. It was so cool. And, because my metal was fairly thin, you can also see a ghosting of the mesh. I can’t wait to use this in one of my pieces, double sided of course.

This is the last of them. I had some thick craft paper that I just used a paper punch to create some cutouts. And of course, because it is me, I HAD to use swirls. I used the cut outs and laid them in the center to create a different relief. On the other side of the metal I am using thin steel binding wire. I think it is probably around 24 or 26 gauge, so it really is thin. I have just twisted it up in to this shape, actually, my friend Valerie did that for me.


Once more, I created a sandwich and the results were so cool. You can see the impression of the wire in both pieces of metal. But I wasn’t expecting the wire to be so smashed into the textured piece. It does come out easily, but I think perhaps I wi
ll try that with silver sometime. It might be a fabulous way to do some Inlay. The swirl pieces that I put in the center of the paper are all still there. They are just so flat now you cannot see them other than a ghosting. But they too, lift right off.

This last picture shows the side of the metal that was up against the paper. You can see some of the swirls. The lighting didn’t work out so well for this picture, but there is a soft and subtle texture to the entire piece. You can see the swirls that were laid in the center, but the ones that were cut out have the best impression. It is also really cool the way that the wire pushed its way through to the front side of this metal. In addition, I had re-used the outer plate and the combination of the mesh and steel wire impression is just beautiful and it will no longer be used for an outer plate. I will cut this up and use it in one my  pieces.

How many times can a piece be used to texture the metal? Typically you will only have one or two rolls until the piece is stretched or it loses its texture.

The possibilities are endless. This isn’t even a drop in the bucket. I am sure we will touch on other techniques with the rolling mill throughout the year on Tool Time Tuesday.

Many Thanks to my friend Valerie Heck for doing the photography for this project. I am so glad to have you as a friend.

Please let me know if you have any questions and I will do my best to answer them for you.

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16 thoughts on “Tool Time Tuesday – Rolling Mill Textures

  1. Terri

    Wow! This is REALLY cool when you tell your computer to ADD THE PICTURES! Takes it to a whole new level. I just LOVED your friend Abe!

  2. Melissa Muir


    I am a hopeless tool junkie. Can’t you tell? It not, just wait. You will see as I go through more and more of these tutorials.


  3. Cindy

    What an informative and thorough tutorial! I really knew nothing about mills before reading this. You are truly the metal sheet expert! 🙂

  4. Lyle

    I like your experiment. Especially using the destroyed and distorted piece of copper to print from. I hope that you can play with your mill more in the future. It seems like a tool who’s only limit is your own imagination. Lately I have been experimenting with rolling different types of paper with copper, silver, and mokume gane as a way to finish the metal that is quicker and different from a sandpaper polish.

  5. Melissa Muir

    Thanks Lyle. I took some time to look through some of your work yesterday and I am simply amazed by the iron work you do. I can’t figure out my favorite pieces and your Knives are amazing. I also love the textures that the papers leave on the metal. I need to do more of it. One of my friends has a pattern roller for her mill that leaves the most amazing texture. It almost looks like the sand paper texture only much more defined.


  6. Catherine

    Thank you for providing this info. I just ordered my rolling mill and I was looking for info on texturing the right way and with various materials. You hit on some great items.

  7. jessie

    Have you tried rolling aluminum and putting textures in it? Do you work it the same way as silver. I came across some aluminum and have been wondering how it is to work with.

  8. Melissa Muir

    Yes, I have done some of that it helps to anneal it first. I did a video on that a while back. Basically you want to take a bar of soap, like dove, and mark on the metal and heat it until the soap turns black. 

    Be sure that you use different tools with aluminum than you would with your silver. It has a lower melting point and will burn holes into your silver if it crosses over to your silver. 
    Aluminum is a softer to cut, but it is more stiff than silver. 

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