Canned magic

From luminaries to vases to planters, recycled cans transform

Linda Turner Griepentrog / For The Bulletin /

Published May 21, 2013 at 05:00AM

Ideally, you're an environmental steward and recycle all your metal cans. But, besides tossing the cans into the recycle bin, there are lots of ideas for how to best reuse those humble tins to create useful objects around the house. So start saving — from the flat tuna-size cans all the way to the giant warehouse store rounds — and read on for some creative ideas.


First, rinse the can inside and out to remove any food residue. Allow the can to dry thoroughly. Remove the paper label (unless you want to make it an embellishment for your project) and get rid of any stubborn glue using WD-40. A can with the label printed directly on the metal can be used as-is or covered.

If any edges are sharp, use pliers to crimp and flatten any troublesome areas.

Most cans have a ridged surface, though some aluminum cans are smoothly formed. The ridges can help to hold embellishments in place, but the texture may take a bit of extra effort for painting.

To paint the can, use steel wool to rough up the metal surface so the paint will adhere easily. Select a spray or brushable paint made specifically for metal. If you're spraying, be sure to protect the table surface with plastic or paper. Paint one can surface at a time — either the interior or exterior — and let the paint dry before you tackle the other portion.

If you're painting two different colors, do the lighter one first. Depending on the project, you may need to paint the bottom of the can as well if it's visible.

Faux finishes can be used to add patina or an aged look to the metal, and don't forget about metallic, mirror, glitter and faux stone paint options. Spray the painted can with clear finish for protection if you plan to use it outdoors.

Stencils can be used for additional patterning, as can stickers or decals.

Not all craft projects require painting; many look great with the exposed metal, or the can may be covered with another material like fabric or paper.

Punching picks

Some items like luminaries, lanterns, candle holders, glow-stick containers, nightlights and lampshades look great with a punched design allowing the light to show through the metal can wall. Punching a design takes only basic skills.

To keep the can from denting and becoming deformed in the punching process, fill it with water and freeze for a day before you work on your project.

Adding a design to the metal requires a large nail and a hammer or a metal drill bit and drill. If you want a specific motif, draw the design on paper and mark the hole spacing on the pattern. Adhere the design to the can with a temporary adhesive or a wrapped rubber band. Then grab the tools and pound or drill at the designated spots. Note that both techniques will leave rough edges inside. Once the design is punched, remove the pattern.

If you're using the punched can as a candleholder, remember not to punch too near the bottom of the can as the melting wax may run out, or put the candle in a glass holder inside the can.

To add a handle to a can (think lantern or trick-or-treat bucket), punch two holes at the can's upper edge on opposite sides and use wire to fashion a handle. A large can makes a great bucket for berry picking — just punch two holes in the upper edge to add a wire or rope handle.

It's a wrap

If you want all or part of the can covered, use scrapbook paper, wallpaper or fabric and cut a band that will fit between the can rims (the slightly extended portions at the can's upper and/or lower edges). The decorative band doesn't need to cover the entire metal surface and can be held in place with glue, tape, ribbons or decorative elastic bands. Cover a can with thin cork for a bulletin board in the round.

Wrapped cans make ideal storage containers, canisters, desk organizers, vases, planters, etc. Add a plastic lid with a slot cut in it, and the can becomes a great bank for vacation saving or a holder for reusable plastic bags. A plastic lid without a slit makes the can an ideal container for cookies or other food gifts.

A wrapped can also makes a cute holder for a picnic lunch, filled with cutlery, napkins and perhaps a small soda or juice bottle. Personalize the wrap with the recipient's name. Wrapped tuna-size cans are also great for organizing desk drawers to hold paper clips, rubber bands, etc.

In addition to fabric and paper wraps, cans may be embellished with cord or rope to create elegant storage containers. Simply use a hot glue gun to place beads of adhesive up and down the can surface before wrapping, and tuck the cord ends in for an invisible finish.

To make a natural-looking planter, cover a can with brown paper and top it with twigs glued vertically around the entire can. For a shallow plant holder, use a tuna-size can and simply clip wooden clothespins around the entire can.

Put some fine gravel in the bottom of the can if you're planting directly into it, or punch a drainage hole in the bottom.

In the raw

A can is also a good baking pan — perfect for gift-size banana bread or other fruit breads. Just coat the inside with nonstick spray so the round loaf will slide out readily after baking. Use a can opener to remove the bottom of the can and gently push the baked bread out the top, or slice it against the can edge.

Tube tactics

If you remove both ends of a small can, it's ideal to use as a cookie or biscuit cutter.

A tubular shape with partial ends (cut open the lids only half way and fold back) can also be hung horizontally and used as a bird feeder — the partial ends hold the seed in place and give the bird a place to rest.

Larger cans without ends can be glued together and mounted horizontally to make a handsome wine or towel rack, either freestanding or wall mounted. These structures can also hold extra toilet paper, newspapers or magazines, depending on the can size.

Higher callings

To make tall pillar candle holders, glue cans together end to end. Paint, or wrap them as one or individually, and make several for a candle grouping.

Other uses

Paint large cans to look like animal feet (think elephant), punch the top to add strings for handles, and you have a pair of stilts for a child's playroom.

Tie cans together for an outdoor garland, or to tie to the back of the bride and groom's “getaway” car.

Use cans as hair rollers for loose curls.

Place the legs of your picnic table in cans — they help keep ants from crawling onto the table.

Group cans of different sizes together and hang to make wind chimes. Metal bottle caps and can lids can be used to enhance the noise-making capabilities.

Flat cans are perfect for spoon rests near the stove.

Use tuna-size cans to make pincushions. Cut a large circle of fabric, fill with polyester stuffing and pull up the circle around the filler. Glue inside the embellished can.

Paint 10 cans, add numbers and use them as bowling pins for a child's play set.

Hang painted cans along a fence to grow herbs or other small plants outdoors.

Assemble multiple can sizes on a lazy Susan as a desk or art supply organizer.

Attach can ends to the wall to organize yarns, sewing supplies, colored markers, etc., or put them in the mud room to sort gloves, hats and scarves.

Most cans can be adhered to a magnetic board for a wall organizer.

Join two cans with string so kids can play telephone.

Use recycled empty paint cans or warehouse-size food tins as wastebaskets.

Stand tuna-size cans on their side and fill with a holiday scene to make Christmas ornaments. They can also be used as wall sconces for tea light candles.

Super shapes

Don't forget about flat cans with church key and pull-tab openings, like those for sardines, smoked oysters and canned hams. These shapes are ideal as organizers, sewing kits and even as a small bed for a child's toy animal.

Very tall drink cans are great for vases and holding dried flowers. If the cans have a plastic lid, consider storing long spaghetti in them.

Did you know?

Steel cans are completely and endlessly recyclable without loss of durability or strength. Every minute, approximately 20,000 steel cans are recycled in the United States. Recycling aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy used to make cans from virgin ore. Every minute averages 105,800 recycled aluminum cans.

Source: Can Manufacturers Institute,

Who knew?

There's actually a museum where you can view cans — The Museum of Beverage Containers & Advertising, 1055 Ridgecrest Drive, Goodlettsville, Tenn., 615-859-5236. For more information, visit

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