This three part post on etching is in conjunction with my upcoming demo for the Metal Clay Artisan Guild in Connecticut.
1. Prep Your Designs & Your Metal
Start by figuring out what you will eventually use the piece for. Will it be the actual piece of jewelry? Maybe it will be a stamp for polymer work? Maybe it will be a plate for embossing paper? Or maybe it could even be a texture plate for metal clay? In any case, you want to determine your size and draw or print the original artwork or copyright-free image you are using the exact size and shape you will eventually etch. The cleaner and sharper your image is, the better it will work in the end.
Prep your metal by first cutting it to a size slightly larger than the design you want to etch, it also must be flat. Next, clean it with a super fine steel wool pad to remove any oils that might disrupt the resist or the etch. After this point, be careful not to touch it with your fingers, only hold it by the edge. Immediately before you apply any of the below resists, wipe the piece down with rubbing alcohol.
2. Create Your Resist
You will need to create a "resist" on the surface of the metal to protect the part of your design you would like to keep raised. The etching process removes the metal that is left exposed. You can etch sharp clean lines or large backgrounds can be removed. This needs to be decided during your design. There are many ways to create a resist on the metal, here are three simple and safe materials to use as resists.
PnP Resist (Press-n-Peel blue acetate film)
If you have a very precise image or are trying to transfer a photograph, one of the best ways to get your image on the copper is using PnP paper. You can photocopy your image to the matte side of the PnP paper using a copy machine with a carbon based toner. In my experience, printer ink does not generally create a successful resist. You will then iron it on to the metal with the matte side facing down to create a resist, as you iron and the image becomes more and more visible through the acetate, the resist is transferring. When the metal has cooled, pull up a corner of the PnP to check your design, if you need to you can lay it back down and keep ironing. If there are small areas that need to be touched up, you can fill them in with black permanent marker or nail polish. You will need to protect the back of your design with contact paper or electrical tape and then seal the edges with nail polish to prevent them from being etched.
There is a great article on PnP you can find on the Ganoskin Project site that you can follow a link to here.
Tips for PnP Resist:
-Run the copy machine until you can get the darkest (and cleanest) copy possible on white paper before copying on the matte side of the acetate.
-Be prepared to test your iron on scrap metal. Since every iron is different, you will need to have some extra PnP and scrap metal to do test strips. My iron at home requires the highest setting for almost 10 mins to get the small size transfers in this post, the iron in my classroom requires a lower setting and less time. Begin on your highest setting and move the iron in circles until the image becomes clearly visible or the acetate buckles. If it buckles, turn the iron down. Hold the acetate with tweezers down in one corner and peel up with another pair of tweezers from another corner to check transfer. Continue ironing as needed. I generally time my test strips in 3 minute increments.
Using either masking tape or clear plastic packing tape, make a "tape sandwich" with your metal in the middle. Make sure to seal all the way around the edge, this will stay in place during the etch to protect the back and sides. Rub the tape down to remove any air bubbles. Then either draw or tape your design on top of the tape, leaving a border of tape to protect the edge. You will then use an exacto knife to cut out your design. In this case, I am cutting the design and removing it in order to etch the lines of the designs. The tape will be left on the background area to protect it.
Permanent Marker Resist
Choose a high quality permanent marker and draw your design directly on the clean metal. Make sure it is a rich, solid black with no transparent areas. Make sure there is a border to protect your edge and seal your back with either electrical tape or nail polish.
Aquatint Texture Resist
The same technique used to etch printmaking intaglio plates to create a stippling effect is great to create a texture background to hold a patina. You can either use it to create a simple texture piece or in the background of any of the above resist methods. Simply spray a mist of spray paint LIGHTLY across the back of the piece of metal in a quick sweeping motion. This should leave "dots" randomly across the surface. Experiment with the density of the spray and the effect you get from the etching, this is another time you will need to do test strips to get your desired effect. Here, I drew an image with permanent marker and "swept" it with spray paint to create the dots in the background which will be our texture later on. You can see how light it is, the darker it gets, the more you are blocking out the etch. Don't forget to protect your edges and your back.
If you want to learn more about etching methods in printmaking, check out the great site artist Julie Niskanen has on intaglio process by clicking here.
3. Etching the Metal
Once you have prepped and applied your resist to the metal, visit my next blog post (here) to learn how to complete the etching process.