Jennifer Savo didn’t even consider traditional housewarming gifts like a plant or bottle of wine when her brother Thomas — a former Navy sailor — bought his first house last December. Instead, she surprised him with a three-foot-tall portrait of President Abraham Lincoln, below, which she crafted out of vintage metal license plates.
“I know Thomas likes American history, and he’s living near Washington, D.C., which made me think of the White House,” says Jennifer, who has been experimenting with license plate art for a few years. “Abe is an iconic face that would translate well and would be a fun historical person to do.”
Her starting point was an 1863 photograph of Honest Abe. Using photo-editing software, she posterized the photo, which converted it to four tones only — black, white, and two greys. She enlarged the manipulated photo to her desired finished size of 24x36 inches and printed it out on regular copy paper. She then cut it into paper puzzle pieces that served as patterns for the portrait’s metal sections, which she cut from both license plates and a smooth sheet of aluminum.
Jennifer is inspired by artist Michael Kalish, whose license plate artwork sells for thousands of dollars and is collected by celebrities such as Muhammad Ali, Kid Rock, and Ringo Starr. Jennifer’s art budgets are likely smaller than Kalish’s, however, and she gives most of her art away. The 10 vintage Illinois plates she used to make Abe cost her $40 on eBay. The rest of the materials — including wood backing board, glues, paint, primer, carpet tacks, and metal frame — cost about $200.
I am not ashamed to admit that when I first saw the Abe artwork, I wanted it for myself. But then I remembered that I don’t have any room left on my walls. You see, Jennifer is my younger sister, and she gave me a terrific housewarming gift too: an enormous five-foot-wide American flag, below, made out of (what else?) license plates.
Are you inspired to take this art technique for a drive? Follow Jennifer’s tips for buying and working with license plates.
- Ask friends and family members for castoffs. You’d be surprised at how many folks have old plates tacked up in their basements or garages.
- Shop eBay. Jennifer buys plates online because she can search easily for the states, colors, and condition she wants. But, she advises, buy in bulk. “The thing with eBay is that you can find a lot of great plates, but when you buy them individually, the shipping adds up.” One of her favorite eBay sellers, Plate Dog, allows auction winners to combine multiple single purchases into one shipping package, cutting postage costs dramatically. Many eBay sellers will do this too, if you ask.
- Steer clear of rust. Rusty plates require more cleaning, sanding, and priming than ones without significant wear and tear. “Some people take good pictures on eBay, but some don’t show the front and back,” Jennifer says. If you’re unsure of the condition, ask questions.
- Go for dimension. Metal plates with embossed or raised lettering add interesting texture to artwork. Jennifer passes on screen-printed license plates with flat letters and numbers.
- Invest in heavy-duty metal shears. “My husband got a pair for me for Mother’s Day one year, and it was best gift I ever got,” says Jennifer, whose other must-have tool is tin snips for precise metal cutting.