Some sketching skills and some imagination can help you produce great looking weather vanes.

Many sheet metal workers have the necessary skills to design and create their own weather vanes.

Reasonable sketching skills will be enough for most projects. The subjects are limitless. The design of your vane can be from your imagination, your interests or the ideas of others.

Even if you copy another design, it will certainly become your own design. As you shape the metal, it will not be exact. This is more an art than a science. Your layout skills are not a priority here; your design ideas are.

There are different materials you can use for patterns. Many patterns have started on heavy poster board. After you are happy with the sketches, you can transfer the design to light-gauge sheet metal - specifically 26 gauge. It will last for years.

Vanes are a great piece of kinetic art. They are always moving.

Many people start out making vanes of galvanized steel sheets. As they become more confident, some start using copper sheets. Brass sheets also work well. Brass can be added to a vane for contrast. However, copper may be best: It forms easily and well.

Figure 1

Equipment needs

Here are some of the tools you may be using:

  • Slip rolls and brakes

  • If you have access to an English wheel, they are excellent tools for three-dimensional work.

  • Many vanes are done by forming and shaping with hammers. Modified or standard-body hammers work well - they add texture to pieces.

Generally, you don't want to make your vanes too thick or wide. You want them to "cut" the wind. If they are too thick, they will be clumsy and slow to move. Fish and marine mammals are two designs best suited for vanes. However, don't let that stop you from making anything else you want.

Most of the materials you'll need are readily available at local home improvement or hardware stores - shafts, wires, flat bars and even sheet metal is available there.

Some people use half-inch round stock for the shaft. No matter the material of your vane, it seems that a steel shaft is the industry standard. You are going to have to drill holes in the shaft. Again, this is easier done in steel. Many people suggest using stainless steel hardware. Otherwise, the hardware can corrode in a short amount of time.

Figure 2

Simple steps

Your patterns should be simple. Do not add laps to them. Use one pattern, and use dividers to add lap to the second side of a piece. Once the pieces are laid and cut out and ready for shaping, you'll need to figure how you intend to form them. If you can do it, hammer-form the pieces. Most pieces work well this way. For deeper shapes, you may use sand bags. Remember, there are no hard rules. This is far from the layout work of sheet metal shops.

Once your pieces are shaped, you need to form the tabs and laps to prepare for soldering and final assembly. Probably the most important point here is a "weep" hole for drainage. You must put a weep hole in the vane. Place it at the lowest point. Possibly a three-sixteenths hole. Not only could your solder joints leak, there is condensation to consider. Water or condensation in a vane will most definitely affect its operation.

Once the vane is done, you will want to patina the solder and polish it. When some people apply patina to the solder, they warm it up in the microwave. This is not necessary, but sometimes helps with the process.

No matter if you warm it up or use it at room temperature, apply it with a dedicated acid brush. Allow the patina to impregnate the solder fully and then rinse in cool and clean water. If you wish, you can spray it with clear lacquer after polishing. You don't have to do this. Copper ages gracefully. It acquires its own patina as it grows older. This gives vanes character. However, if you prefer to keep it shiny and new looking, either lacquer it or have it gilded.

Figure 3

Adding shine

If you do lacquer your piece, first test the product on a piece of copper. Some spray lacquers will not provide a smooth finish. When working with lacquers you have to be careful to follow product instructions, especially the temperature-use range. Copper is easily affected by temperature.

The shafts used for the vanes are often made of copper pipe. Depending on the design of the vane, the pipe can fully penetrate the vane, go partially in or attach at the bottom.

Care must be taken at this stage to be sure its plumb, level and square. Sometimes you may have to notch the pipe to fit onto the vane body. After the vane is attached to the shaft, you may use a half-inch brass washer soldered at the bottom of the pipe. Brass is smoother and allows the vane to move freely without the need for bearings.

If you are building a very large vane, you might consider using three-quarter-inch pipe.

To create the cardinals, also called the "directionals," which symbolize north, south, east and west, you might use light-flat bar. You could cut some letters on a plasma machine, but they could look like you bought them at a store.

If you prefer to make them by hand, you can use one-sixteen by half-inch flat sheets. You can form them around a piece of pipe. All but the "S" requires welding.

Figure 4

Mounting

Mounting brackets are dictated by the location of your vane. Some prefer to use a barge-plate style bracket. These provide distance from the structure and prevent the need for penetration, something that could cause problems.

Carefully consider where you will mount the vane, and design the appropriate mounting bracket. For your vane to operate properly, the shaft must be plumb. The best mounting will be a bracket that supports the vane independent of the structure. Rather than drill a hole in the structure, make a bracket that can be attached with bolts or lags. When you do attach the bracket to the structure, be sure to seal it to prevent water damage. Always provide a weep hole or other drainage designed into the bracket.

The actual construction of the vane ornament will vary. Obviously, boats will go together differently than roosters. A lot of the details on many vanes are single-thickness pieces. The main body of the vane is two-sided. This not only provides stiffness, but allows the vane to look good from either side. The sleeker the design and the straighter the construction, the better.

If you make vanes of galvanized metal, you probably already know you'll have a difficult time painting them. If you do paint your vanes, proper preparation is necessary. If you make your vanes of copper or brass you'll want to color the solder. You can get patinas at stained glass shops.

(San Diego resident Derk Akerson has been working with sheet metal as a hobby and vocation for more than 30 years. His work was featured in the May issue of Snips. He can be reached at www.akersonstudios.com.)