How to Acid Etch Metal/Copper and Brass Blanks for Jewelry
Do you automatically assume that working with metal is difficult?
Have you ever thought of metal as your canvass? Probably not. But it is, and it's easier to create designs in metal than you think.
Acid etching copper and brass yields endless possibilities with impressive results. The materials needed are fairly inexpensive, and you may already have some of them at home. Acid etching metals allows you to create beautiful designs in relief. If you can stamp it, draw it, or write it, you can etch it!
Because brass is composed primarily of copper, it can be etching using the same acids that etch copper. Acids capable of etching copper to not etch steel, iron, or silver, though, so you'll be disappointed if you try. Copper is the easiest metal to etch, the easiest to cut, and less expensive than fine metals, so I highly recommend trying metal etching on copper first. There are a couple of different options for etching copper, but my favorite acid is ferric chloride because it is inexpensive and effective.
Materials Needed to Acid Etch
- Brass or copper to etch. You can cut your own pieces from copper sheet, or purchase pre-cut brass or copper stamping blanks. I highly recommend stamping blanks, unless you have a trusty pair of metal shears and a metal hole puncher. You can also find brass bracelet blanks. These are fun to etch, but I advise starting with something smaller.
- An abrasive cleaner. I suggest a scrubby pad and a cleaner like Penny Brite.
- Acid. As mentioned above, I use ferric chloride.
- Packing tape.
- A Sharpie, or similar, marker and/or stamps and StazOn ink. Stazon is a specially-formulated ink designed to adhere to metals and ceramics. If you use 'normal' stamp ink, it will come off in the acid solution.
- Baking soda.
- Rubbing alcohol.
- Optional but recommended - gloves and safety glasses.
How to Prepare Metals for Etching
Your metal blank needs to be totally clean before you can etch it. It must be free of finishes, varnishes, oils, waxes, tarnish, etc. The easiest way to clean your blank is by scrubbing it with a green kitchen scrubbie pad. This will leave slight scratches in the metal, which influences the end product. I really like the way these slight furrows look, but, if you want a smoother appearance, you can clean your metal with an abrasive metal cleaner like Penny Brite or Bar Keepers Friend and a regular sponge. Make sure to wash any cleaner residue from the blank and dry it using a towel or paper towel, and try to handle it the metals by its edges to minimize the risk of contaminating the clean surface with finger oils.
Decorate the Metal Blank
The medium you make your design in is called a resist. Permanent inks, like magic marker and StazOn, are resists, but many other resists exist, too.
Whatever you cover with your resist will not be etched. This means the ink design will ultimately be raised above the blank's surface because the acid will eat away at the exposed metal. You can draw pictures, write words, or (my favorite) use stamps to create designs for etching. Fine lines show up very well when you acid etch, so don't be afraid to use your most intricate stamps!
Prepare the Blank for Etching
After allowing your resist to dry, carefully cover the blank's edges with ink. It is easiest to simply use a permanent marker but, if you don't have one, you can use a StazOn ink pad, instead. Then, flip the blank over and cover its entire back with ink, too. This helps ensure only the blank's front becomes etched. If you do not protect the blank's sides, you will end up with uneven edges. If you do not cover the back, you may either end up with an uneven surface or accidentally etch all the way through a thin piece of metal!
After allowing the ink, or Sharpie, to dry on the blank's back, cut a several inch section of packing tape. Carefully place the metal blank face up on the tape and press it firmly in place. Then, flip the tape and blank and use your thumb, a plastic card, or even a coin to seal the tape to the metal blank as securely as possible. This tape serves two purposes: It helps prevent the back from becoming accidentally etched through any weak spots in the Sharpie/ink coating, and it allows you to easily retrieve the metal blank from the acid without hurting yourself!
Etching the Metal Blank
Carefully lower the blank, face down, on to the acid's surface. It does not need to be totally submerged. In fact, submerging the blank increases the risk that acid will seep under the tape, marking the blank's back.
After placing the metal in acid, mix a couple of tablespoons of baking soda in warm water and stir to dissolve it. Set the baking soda water aside for later use.
Every 10 minutes or so, shake the container of acid gently to agitate it. After about half an hour, lift the metal from the acid and take a look. Be very careful! I highly recommend wearing gloves and eye protection. Even the tiniest drop of acid can burn you. I discovered this the hands-on way when the end of a piece of tape touched a drop of acid and flung it in my face. A tiny, tiny drop landed in my eye. Luckily, I'm kind of a nerd and had a bottle of sterile eye wash on hand and was able to rinse my eye quickly and appropriately. It hurt less than the time I got habanero in my eye, but it was no laugh. Don't let it happen to you!
If you are satisfied with the etching's depth, remove the metal from the acid and proceed to the next step. If you want the etching to be deeper, return the metal to the acid and check on it again in about 10 minutes.
You can store and reuse etching acid, but it becomes less potent with time as etched metal fills the solution. Therefore, acid will etch more quickly the first time you use it, and will have difficulty etching, at all, by the time you need to dispose of it. A lot of other factors can influence how quickly a piece of metal becomes etched, too - only you can tell if its done!
Neutralizing the Acid
Once you are satisfied with your etching, remove it from the acid (using the tape!) and place it in the baking soda water. You will instantly see it fizz as the baking soda neutralizes the acid, making the metal safe to touch.
After the acid is neutralized and the metal safe to touch, remove it from the baking soda water and peel it from the tape. You will notice the metal's surface is, well, kind of weird looking (as shown below). Do not dismay! You just need to scrub it with baking soda until it looks pretty and shiny.
Even after a vigorous scrubbing, some of your Sharpie or StazOn may remain. Simply use rubbing alcohol and a paper towel to quickly remove any ink residue.
Patinas and alcohol inks are a little different from each other, but they are both easy to work with and can really make an etched design pop.
Acid Etching Is Fun and Easy
And there you have it! Your very own design, immortalized in metal. That wasn't too hard, was it?
Most etched designs look beautiful, as is, but a variety of alcohol inks, enamels, and patinas exist. These products allow you to color and weather your new creation. You can even use nail polish to decorate metal, if you would like. Alcohol inks are easy to find at craft stores, and check back soon for a hub on how to use liver of sulfur to create beautiful patinas!
Etched metal pieces are easy to turn into necklace pendants and earrings. Etched metal jewelry can make a fantastic personalized gift, and etching metal is also a really easy way to create your own piece of jewelry with whatever design you desire for that special night out or an important event. People will wonder how you found such a perfect, pretty piece, and you'll be able to proudly announce that you made it. Everyone assumes metals are very difficult to work with, so you'll look amazingly talented to your family, friends, and coworkers!
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and, as always, please leave me any questions! I'll do my best to answer them for you.