Sunday, April 4, 2010

Use #6 plastic to make jewelry

Shrink and Be Merry

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel April 3, 2010


Keep your reading glasses on and let’s take a trip to your refrigerator. Open it up and grab the first plastic container you see. Hold it up in the air and squint at the bottom until you can make out the tiny number inside the triangle. Check out a few more containers and you’ll find that there are a whole lot of #1s (soda, juice, salad dressing) and #5s (yogurt, syrup, ketchup), and an occasional #2 (the milk jug) or #7 (“other” like Tupperware). You probably won’t see too many #3s (PVC pipe, outdoor furniture, vinyl siding) or #4s (plastic bags). But there might be a #6 in there, holding a dozen eggs or those leftovers you couldn’t finish at the restaurant the night before.

Polystyrene (also known as #6 PS) comes in a white, foam variety (packing peanuts, Styrofoam cups, meat trays), but also in a clear, rigid form, most commonly used by the food-service industry for to-go clam-shells and disposable drinking cups. Because the foam variety is full of air and the more solid variety is molded into throwaway containers, it’s very lightweight and easily carried away by wind and water currents. For this reason, and because it’s so commonly used away from home, #6 is an abundant form of trash accumulating across the American landscape.


Stay with me here, as I attempt to explain why polystyrene, unlike many other plastics, is an amazing material for crafts (the clear kind, NOT the foam variety). All the plastics we create from petroleum are formed from chains of polymers linked together in a variety of ways. A thermoplastic is a polymer that turns to a liquid when heated and solidifies to a very glassy state when cooled. Thermoplastic polymers differ from thermosetting polymers (Bakelite) as they can be re-melted and remolded. Polystyrene is a unique thermoplastic, in that, when heated, its chains of polymers will stay in the same conformation as they melt and solidify. So, you don’t just end up with a plastic blob after heating, but a shrunken replica of your original shape. A rectangle will still be a rectangle—it’ll just be smaller and thicker.


Shrinking #6 plastic for crafts (again, not the foam variety) is a really cool thing to watch. As it heats up, a flat piece will roll up, twist this way and that, and finally, resume its original flat formation. What starts out as a flimsy piece of brittle plastic is magically transformed into a shiny, glass-like trinket. Colors can also be added in a number of ways, and become quite concentrated after shrinking.


To cut the plastic: Scissors and hole punch

To decorate the plastic: Sharpies, stamp pad ink, acrylic paints, colored pencils, fine-grit sandpaper

To shrink the plastic: Oven and non-corrugated cardboard

To avoid breathing any fumes created in the heating process: Use a toaster oven and do your heating outdoors on a patio table.

To see what’s possible: Go to and search for “shrink plastic jewelry” to see what artists are creating with shrink plastic.


Start with a clear, clean, flat piece of #6 plastic. Cut into any shape you want. Amount of shrinkage will vary, but count on a 3-inch piece shrinking to about a 1 ¼-inch piece, or to 45% of its original size. Use a hole punch (for stringing as jewelry), decorative scissors or punches as desired.

Color the plastic piece with rubber-stamp designs (heat set and permanent pigment inks hold best on the slippery surface) or Sharpies. To get color pencils, acrylic paints or other inks to adhere better, sand one side of the plastic with fine-grit sandpaper.

Preheat the oven to 300-350 degrees. Put the plastic on a piece of non-corrugated cardboard in the oven. Watch through the oven door and remove the piece (with a potholder) on its cardboard tray once it is done shrinking and is again flat.


There are a whole lot of ways to vary this basic technique. Here are a few:

To make a bead, roll up a long strip of decorated shrink plastic on a thin, metal knitting needle, wooden dowel or skewer, securing it in place with a twist tie. Using a heat gun (found in craft stores for about $15), heat the rolled plastic on a tile until it shrinks completely. To add texture, wrap the hot beat with an unmounted rubber stamp and press.

To add texture to a flat piece of plastic, layer two or three pieces together and cover top and bottom with a Teflon ironing sheet (found in notions section of fabric store). Iron the plastic with a medium hot iron until it shrinks, waves and then flattens. Remove the top Teflon sheet and immediately press a rubber stamp into the hot plastic.

To make a ring, heat a strip of plastic about 7½-inches long by ¾-inch wide. Use a paper cutter for straight cuts, and round the corners off with scissors. Decorate the plastic. Find an object about the diameter of your finger to mold the ring around, such as the handle of a wooden spoon, market pen, or lip balm tube. Preheat the oven and heat the strip on non-corrugated cardboard until shrunk and flattened. Wearing leather gloves or mittens, take the cardboard tray out of the oven and quickly shape the plastic around your mold. If the plastic hardens before it is correctly shaped, reheat it in the oven.

Shrink plastic is also sold under a variety of brand names, with different opacities, colors and finishes. It also comes in an ink-jet printer variety. Some has a frosted (sanded) finish so that you can decorate your pieces with colored pencils, chalk, fingernail polish, felt tip pens, make up, spray paint, pastels, and other inks. Chalks and pencils or any water-soluble colorant will need to be sealed with varnish or lacquer after baking.

Other plastics that can be heated for amazing effects are Tyvek (ironed between Teflon ironing sheets) and sheet-protectors (beads can be made with yarns, fabric, or thin paper rolled up inside before ironing between Teflon sheets). A great book featuring these plastic crafts and more is Creative Embellishments for Paper, Jewelry, Fabric, and More by Sherrill Kahn.

Home Depot vs. DIY Academy

Two cities; two days; two workshops

Which class teaches you “How to paint a wall” better?

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel March 6, 2010

The Home Depot class started out badly. First, the manager couldn’t allow me to take pictures. This was expected since I had forgotten to call ahead for corporate clearance. But then they didn’t start on time. The instructor seemed harried and put out. She was the only one working in the paint department on a sunny Saturday morning, there was still a long line of customers, and although she apologized, she wasn’t sure how soon the class would start. So I roamed around the store, and finally, 20 minutes later, she had set up a table and supplies near the color chip display, and was ready to begin the Interior Painting class.

Then things started to get a lot better. First, I was the only student in the class, so she asked me exactly what I wanted to learn—basic painting or faux finishes?--and she was willing to teach directly to that. Second, she shook off the distress of a busy morning of paint mixing, and expressed a very real enthusiasm for paint. “I’m really passionate about color,” she said. Kristina Revetria has worked in the Watsonville Home Depot paint department for 2 years and really knows her stuff. “I pretty much live here,” she said. When another shopper asked if she could join the class and learn about faux finishes, Kristina very willingly added specific decorative painting techniques to her basic demonstration.

By the end of the one-hour plus class, she had opened 6 gallons of paint, 2 containers of spackling, 1 pint of glaze, used several brushes, rollers, sponges and paint trays, and had answered every question her two students could come up with. She had clearly learned a lot about paint and painting from personal experience, but also from teaching the class itself. “The cool thing is, I get contractors in these clinics and they show me a whole new way of doing things.”

Not only did I learn the basics of painting a wall, but I also learned some painting tricks such as:

  • Although sponging creates an interesting decorative texture, just using a simple plastic bag for dabbing on a paint looks even better
  • Although you can buy expensive textured rollers for faux painting, you can also simply wrap an old t-shirt around a roller, fasten in on with rubber bands, and create similarly great effects
  • If you have a gallon of paint in a color you’re tired of, you can bring it back to Home Depot and have them add new tints to create a new color you’d rather have
  • From fellow student Judy Kirker: If you’re not sure what color will look good on your walls, the Buena Vista Landfill in Watsonville has a recycling center with cans of paint you can take home and try out for free (you can also bring unwanted cans of paint there for someone else to try)
  • As work permits, Kristina is willing to set up impromptu classes to answer customer questions with a demonstration

I took the Home Depot class to provide counterpoint to another class I took earlier the week called “Paint Like a Pro,” offered by the recently opened DIY Academy in South San Jose. This small, strip-mall facility offers classes in a number of home-improvement areas, including painting, tiling and wiring.

The fun thing about DIY Academy is that its classes are completely hands-on. Their website ( says “expect to get dirty,” and so everyone shows up in their grubbies and is assigned a partner and a tiny room to “finish” by the end of the class. The Drywall a Room and Trim Out a Room classes had obviously happened before ours, since there were nails to be set, holes to be filled and sanded, and gaps to be caulked before we could start priming and painting—just like in real life. Each team was given just the right amount of time to master each technique in their room, before gathering for the next demonstration.

The class was taught by a veteran paint contractor, Santa Cruz native Chad Buckner, with 17 years of experience. The two Academy founders, Jeff Vasek and Steve Gross, were also on hand to help late arrivals catch up, answer questions, and wash brushes and buckets between primer and paints. The class was geared to beginners, but even a somewhat experienced painter might be surprised by all the time-saving techniques practiced by professionals—things as elemental as using the appropriate brush or roller, or properly loading a brush or roller with paint. The instructor had a more efficient way of doing just about every step.

My favorite part of the class was learning how to clean a brush. I’d always considered buying expensive brushes a waste, since I could never wash out enough paint to keep the brush flexible for the next job. But in this class, the instructor recommended buying the $15 brush, and then showed you how to property wash and store it to keep it like new indefinitely. (Sorry, you’ll have to take the class for this trade secret.)

You can see a complete listing of classes and schedules, and enroll, on the DIY Academy and Home Depot websites. Some of the DIY Academy workshops, like Basic Home Electricity and Tile a Bathroom Floor, are all-day weekend classes, while others, such as Tile a Backsplash and Paint Like a Pro, are half-day or evening classes. By contrast, Home Depot usually teaches one-hour workshops that are repeated every weekend, and sometimes geared to the seasons.

Since the 1-hour Home Depot class was free and the 3 ½-hour DIY Academy class was $150, I was afraid the former would pale in comparison with the latter. But, they turned out to be two very different classes that actually complemented each other in content and style. I would recommend the Home Depot class if you have a very specific question about a painting technique or product, and the DIY Academy class if you want to improve your painting skills overall and become a more proficient painter.