Something different - 
A memorial plaque
by John Duncan

LAST YEAR it was decided that a memorial plaque was needed to adorn the seat in my Mam’s garden. The general layout and wording were agreed with her - it had to be something a bit special as it was to commemorate my Dad’s life. A search of the internet commenced for a suitable manufacturer but I could not find what I had in mind or of the appropriate dimensions. Many of the plaques I looked at were all much the same in appearance, cast lettering somewhat roughly finished and lacquered and with the fixing screws visible… not what I had in mind. I set to wondering what I could make myself ?  If I could make something  then surely it would also be a little more special than just buying something, anyway.

I have always quite liked cutting intricate shapes with a piercing saw, so had a go at cutting out a letter in 1/8in. free cutting brass strip. Conclusion? time-taking but totally do-able.

 The overall dimensions of the back plate were decided as 13in. long by 1 ¾in. wide by ¼in. thick. With the ¼in. thickness this would enable a 1/8in. deep recess to be milled for the lettering and enough material left to attach threaded bosses from behind to enable the fixing screws to be hidden. Fixing screws which go through the front face of things such as this can be a pain, you get something nicely painted or lacquered and then some paint chips off when you tighten the screws!

My experiments made me decide that a few items of ‘tooling’ were needed to ensure success and to save wear, tear and cuts to my fingers, there being (gulp) 53 letters/numbers and two full stops to produce as well as the back plate. 

Three things were needed. First, table stops for the cross slide of the mill to enable a neat recess to be machined in the back plate.  Secondly, some means of holding the brass strip easily while piercing the letters and, thirdly, some sort of mini vice to hold the letters for filing/cleaning up after cutting. All three items were well worth the time and effort and the stops on the mill table have been especially useful for a number of jobs since. See photo of the piercing ‘pin’ (I think that’s the jewellers’ term), as well as the mini vice sitting on the milling machine, with the new stop arrangement just visible.

 After a few more experiments the following sequence of operations gave a workable means of  producing, setting out and fixing the lettering.

  1. Using a PC and laser printer, print out the lettering on good quality, thin paper.

  2. Stick printed out lettering to brass strip using a thin even coat of Araldite/rapid epoxy.

  3. Apply thin coat of clear cellulose/acrylic lacquer to stuck on paper ‘transfer’ for durability.

  4. Cut out and file letters to shape. (Sounds easy if you say it quick !!)

  5. Remove remains of paper and Araldite from letter faces.

  6. Attach laser printed script to recess in back plate exactly where letters are to go using Araldite.

  7. Drill 1mm holes through each printed out letter on the back plate, two per letter.

  8. Super glue all letters to the paper script that’s on the back plate.

  9. Clamp the whole job upside down onto a piece of ply wood and drill through all the 1mm holes     to half the depth of the letters.

  10. Remove all letters, not mixing up where they all go and fully clean up everything.

  11. Pin all letters into final position and soft solder to back plate.

  12. Promise to never do anything as mad as this again!

After the usual sort of cleaning up following soldering, the job was ready for finishing. Readers may be surprised that after making something from brass I chose not to polish and lacquer the faces of the letters and  decided on a painted finish. I have generally experienced a lack of durability with lacquered brass work that is outside in all weathers.

Finishing comprised a light grit blasting, thorough cleaning and degreasing, two light coats of 1 pack etch primer, two light coats of  Honda gold acrylic base coat and two light coats of  clear acrylic lacquer. It incidentally seems vital not to apply more than the minimum thickness of  any cellulose or acrylic clear lacquer to avoid cracking and crazing.

Once all this was fully hardened the background was sprayed with two quite heavy coats of black gloss synthetic enamel, sprayed in rapid succession.  After the black had become ‘tacky’ the faces of the lettering and border were wiped clean of the black paint using a lint free cloth moistened with white spirit.

The other photo shows some partially finished letters sitting on the back plate and the  finished job. 


ED: This article first appeared on the excellent Tyneside SMEE website.