How-To: Phototransfer Metal Etching by Lexi Erickson

22 Aug 2011

If you've ever thought etching was too difficult to do at home, think again! To show you to how easy and almost instantly rewarding metal etching can be, we're sharing this free etching project by Lexi Erickson, star designer of the new DVD, Jewelry Etching on Copper. Enjoy!

Etching brass and copper plates can result in interesting designs, and the metal may be used several ways. I plan on making this etched copper plate into a piece of jewelry. If I had etched the same design onto brass, it could be used as a texture plate: I could run it through the rolling mill several times and transfer the image onto a softer metal, such as copper or sterling. Copper, though, is too soft to transfer an etched design successfully onto one of the soft metals.

Etching metal using this phototransfer process is an easy way to incorporate designs from simple to complex. Anyone can etch with this simple process.  

Materials

Press-n-Peel (PnP Paper) Image Transfer Film
ferric chloride*
copper or brass sheet*
15 micron 3M Finishing Film or green Scrubbie
Scotch tape
packing tape
blue painter's tape
shallow dish not to be used again for food
Sharpie pen
non-acetone nail polish remover
3M radial bristle disc (optional)
paper towels
pH testing strips
safety clothing
laser photocopy machine/printer**
hotplate or stove

*You can do this technique with sterling silver (use ferric nitrate instead of ferric chloride for sterling), copper, or brass. Clean the metal by lightly sanding it with a 15 micron sheet of 3M finishing film or use a green Scrubbie with a bit of force.

** You may photocopy an image, photograph, or line drawing onto the PnP paper. You may also draw your own design on paper and photocopy that image onto the PnP paper. I check the clarity of the image first by photocopying it onto white paper. You must use a laser printer to photocopy your work. Inkjet or bubblejet printers will not work. The image must be copied onto the dull side of the PnP paper, so first determine which side to insert face up into the paper feeder. Also remember that the image will be reversed, so if it includes any printing, such as initials or words, the printing must appear backward before you transfer it.

Steps

1. Photocopy your image onto the PnP paper. The image will look dark blue because of the absorption of the ink onto the paper: this is what transfers onto your metal. If there are any unnecessary "fills" between areas, they may be lifted off with packing tape. Simply apply the tape to those affected areas and pull it off. The ink will come off the metal with the tape.
2. I was inspired by the designs on ancient Puebloan pottery shards and used them as a design source. Cut the image out of the PnP paper, but leave a border of approximately 1/4 to 1/2 inch around the image. To hold your image in place, use Scotch tape and tape the image face (dull side) down onto the metal. It's best to tape around the edges of the metal.
3. Heat a piece of metal, such as a steel plate, on a hotplate to 400°F. You may also use your glass stove top or an electric griddle with temperature settings.
4. Using either a piece of clean cloth or a paper towel to protect your fingers from the heat, burnish the image onto your metal with your fingers.
5. When the image appears dark, the metal can be removed from the hotplate or griddle and the paper gently peeled away from the design. Use caution when doing this, and remove the paper slowly.
6. The images are now transferred onto your metal (copper, in my case). If there are any unfilled spots, they may be filled in with a Sharpie pen, but this ink will be eaten away faster than the photocopy ink as the etching takes place.
7. Pour the ferric chloride solution into a shallow dish. Tape the back and side of the metal with Scotch tape to keep these areas from being eaten away. Cover the back of your metal piece with a layer of blue painter's tape, which holds better than other tapes, and allow enough length of tape so it can attach to the sides of the dish.
8. Suspend the metal in the solution, not allowing it to touch the bottom of the dish, yet allowing it to be submerged into the ferric chloride. Secure the painter's tape to the edges of the container.
9. More than one piece can be etched at one time. Periodically check the metal by removing it from the solution and holding it at an angle to estimate how deep the etch appears. It took this piece approximately 50 minutes to etch. When the desired depth of the etch has resulted, remove the metal from the solution, wipe with paper towels, and then remove the ferric chloride with a non-acetone polish remover or use a white 3M radial bristle disk to clean the piece. 

 

See, it's not rocket science! You can etch metal at home and achieve remarkable results. To learn more about etching on copper and make Lexi's gorgeous etched copper cuff, get her Jewelry Etching on Copper DVD.

IMPORTANT NOTES:

How to Dispose of Ferric Chloride
You may not put the solution down the drain! Because of residual copper ions left in the solution, it must be neutralized with sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide until the pH value goes up to 7.0-8.0. (Check this with test strips sold at drug stores.) Allow any solids to settle and drain off any liquid. Add water to the poured off, neutralized liquid to dilute it, then pour that down the drain. The remaing solids or sludge should be poured into a plastic container, clearly labeled, and disposed of at your local hazardous waste disposal facility.

Safety Precautions: Wear proper protective clothing, latex gloves, and always have adequate ventilation.

P.S. You can read some of Lexi's jewelry etching tips from her DVD on our sister site, Beading Daily!

Originally published in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, June 2010.

Resources: Ferric chloride is available from scientific supply stores and some jewelry supply stores. Press-n-Peel is available at some office supply stores or from Reactive Metals Studio, Inc., ReactiveMetals.com 800-876-3434

 


Featured Product

Metalsmith Essentials Jewelry Etching on Copper DVD

Availability: Out Of Stock
Price: $29.95

DVD

Create your own unique designs and textures while you master etching basics and create stunning pieces of jewelry.

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Comments

Bethiem wrote
on 22 Aug 2011 5:04 PM

Okay, I've been doing the PnP etching, and have filled in the missed spots with black nail polish. If Sharpie pen ink will do the fill in, why not just draw your design on the metal with a Sharpie? Have you tried that? I will try it out and see what I think. Thanks for all your videos and blogs. (I also had a recent brainwave about painting on the metal with the black nail polish, but haven't tried that yet, either.)

Elisabeth

MarEquus Studio

TammyJones wrote
on 23 Aug 2011 2:54 PM

That's a good idea, Elisabeth. I haven't tried it but I just might now! Please let us know what you discover!

kathiepow wrote
on 27 Aug 2011 8:52 AM

I've had great success drawing designs with a sharpie. Also with using semi-glossy colored newsprint from newpaper inserts instead of PnP. Laser print on it and transfer in the same way. Soak in cold water then peel off the paper. Pretty amazing.

TammyJones wrote
on 30 Aug 2011 2:57 PM

Kathiepow, that's a great tip for using glossy newsprint! I just learned about that from someone else on our Facebook page today as well. Thanks for sharing!

Bleux666 wrote
on 21 Aug 2013 12:07 AM

So I just wanted to clarify one thing. Sterling silver can be etched with ferric chloride?

I was told it could not be etched with that particular acid.

TammyJones wrote
on 21 Aug 2013 2:31 PM

Hi Bleux666,

Thanks for asking--you can etch silver with this same process but you're right, you do need a different acid. You need to swap the ferric chloride with ferric nitrate to etch silver. I'll make a note of that in the blog above, too. Thanks for pointing this out and for being part of JMD!

Tammy

on 14 Jan 2014 9:51 PM

Hi everyone. My name is Tony and I'm a 44 year old guy from Ky, been self employed for 19 years, and finally at a point in life where I can slow down and find a hobby. In an effort to find something that my wife and I could do together, I have decided upon etching.  I have an interest in working with sterling silver because that is all my wife can wear without breaking out, but I am concerned about polishing it with the 3m paper.  My question is, after the etching process is done, can the sterling be polished so that no scratches or lines show?  Sterling isn't cheap so I don't want to "test" with it lol...  I have been reading many of the blogs and forums on here and I'm excited to get started in etching. (Never thought in a million years I would say I'm excited about making jewelry, but it's a nice break from the grind of daily life)  Thanks in advance for your thoughts and input.

Jason Lawson wrote
on 20 Jan 2014 1:49 AM

Hello, tonycrouch1183 glad you have tried your hand at making jewelry! As for an answer to your question. To finish a piece of jewelry you start with sand paper. Depending on how deep the scratches are in the piece your working on will determine what number you start with. If the scratches are really deep, start with 120 grit moving your way up. 120, 220, 320, 400, 600, I like to go up to 1200 before I buff with a cotton buff using a rouge polishing compound. Finishing in a rotary tumbler with steel shot. I suggest sanding in one direction with your starting grit and removing all visible scratches before moving up to another grit sanding across. Alternating directions as you move up through grits. For most pieces, you can start with the red or gray 3m sanding pads(320 grit, 400 grit). Sterling is quite expensive to use when experimenting. I suggest starting with copper and brass, until your comfortable to use silver. Hope this has helped, and have fun!

Jason Lawson wrote
on 20 Jan 2014 2:10 AM

I'd like to add that I have great success using glossy paper from magazines for toner transfer. I bought a laminator to transfer the toner. I had to open it up and reverse the gears to make it pass through slower. It works really well, although I've started doing larger etchings 8 x 11. Doesn't work as well on pieces that large because the metal cools too quick for the toner to transfer... Wish I would have read this article thoroughly before I started. Had to figure out on my own that an electric griddle works very well. I use a metal spoon to burnish. Two other tips that make etching go smoothly. When submerging the piece to be etched, tape the metal to be etched face up to a piece of foam so it floats face down in the solution. Also, aerating the solution with an aquarium pump and air stone make for a very professional finish if you will...

on 23 Jul 2014 12:51 PM

Hello, I love this tutorial. I am making a wedding band set for myself. I have blacksmithing experience forging metals but no solid experience finishing and etching. I want to etch a fingerprint pattern on my rings. My ring will be silver because it is easy to work with and I can oxidize it later to look black, but my boyfriend likes a titanium ring featuring a black dual finish. Do you have recommendations on which acid type I should use for the titanium, and with that finish how long should I keep the ring submerged? I just need the image visible on the ring not a deep carved look.  any advice?