How to Etch a Candy Tin with Saltwater and Electricity - FeltMagnet - Crafts
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How to Etch a Candy Tin with Saltwater and Electricity

Kylyssa Shay worked as a florist for eighteen years and has created and taught an assortment of crafts to adults and children of all ages.

A trilobite etched into an Altoids tin

A trilobite etched into an Altoids tin

Re-use old candy packaging to make practical art: a recycyling craft.

Many types of candy and lozenges come in tins. While they are an awfully great way to carry the mints or other hard candies around it's an awful waste to throw them out when the contents have been consumed.

But the good news is that you can re-use these handy containers to store things in or to assemble small kits of useful items. You can make up a tiny first aid kit in a candy tin or use one to store needles and thread. Empty mint tins have lots of uses!

I prefer such things be a bit more decorative or at least more interesting and I find I need a way to distinguish tins put to a new use from the ones with mints still in them. It's good to have some way to tell all of them apart and to distinguish them from the ones that still have sweets inside, so my solution is to decorate my old candy tins by etching images or designs into them.

This lens will give you step-by-step instructions on how to etch an image or design using saltwater and electricity. It's kind of like a craft and a science project combined.

Supplies for etching candy tins with saltwater and electricity

Supplies for etching candy tins with saltwater and electricity

Materials, Tools, and Supplies for this Etching Project

  • One 6V dry cell battery
  • Coarse grit sandpaper
  • Fine grit sandpaper
  • Crayons
  • One metal candy tin
  • Dust mask
  • Eye protection
  • Insulated copper wire
  • Wire cutters and stripper
  • A ballpoint pen or pencil
  • Hairdryer
  • A large glass or plastic bowl
  • Salt
  • Water

Choosing a Good Container

A smooth ginger Altoids tin found under my sink

A smooth ginger Altoids tin found under my sink

Choosing the Right Tin for the Project

A good candy tin for this project will be smooth rather than embossed and will have enough room on the front to draw the design or image of your choice. I like to use the packages that Newman's Own and Penguin mints come in as they are free from embossing or other raised designs, but any smooth tin will work just as well.

Altoids boxes used to work great because they were smooth, but the new ones are embossed. This old, smooth Altoids tin was a fortunate find from under my sink.

Step One: Sand Off the Paint

Coarse sandpaper being used to remove paint from a tin

Coarse sandpaper being used to remove paint from a tin

Use the Coarse Sandpaper First

Starting with the coarsest sandpaper, sand off all the paint on the surfaces you will be using. The paint can be left on the sides and back of the tin if desired.

Sand in a single direction to more easily achieve a smooth finish. It will take less work to sand out the scratches from the coarse sandpaper with the fine sandpaper if you do.

Step Two: Sand the Surface Smooth

Fine sandpaper smooths the tin

Fine sandpaper smooths the tin

Polish It Smooth With Fine Grit Sandpaper

Use a fine grit sandpaper to smooth the rough surface of the rough-sanded tin. Again, pick a direction and sand in it to avoid a grooving or crosshatching effect.

A Blank Slate

An Altoids tin with its paint removed and its surface sanded smooth

An Altoids tin with its paint removed and its surface sanded smooth

Once you've sanded the surfaces to the desired smoothness your tin is ready to begin the crayon wax masking process.

Step Three: Cover It with Crayon

A blank tin getting a coat of purple wax crayon

A blank tin getting a coat of purple wax crayon

Scribble Wax Onto the Tin

Use a dark colored crayon to color in the side you wish to create a design on. Any color will do because you are just going to rub it off later, but dark colors provide the best contrast so you can see what you are doing when you scratch an image into it.


Step Four: Melt the Crayon with a Hair Dryer

Tin successfully masked with melted purple crayon

Tin successfully masked with melted purple crayon

Melt the Wax Crayon

Once you've solidly colored in the side you wish to use, heat it with a hairdryer on high until it begins to melt. While the metal is still hot, fill in any thin spots of wax using your crayon. You don't need to get perfect coverage but keep in mind that all uncovered parts will get etched.

Undisturbed areas of this wax covering will seal the saltwater solution away from the surface of the tin except in the areas you choose to scratch it away. That's how you'll end up with a picture or design of your choosing instead of just a pitted-looking old tin.

Step Five: Use a Pencil to Scratch in an Image

A trilobite scratched into purple crayon on an Altoids tin

A trilobite scratched into purple crayon on an Altoids tin

Draw the Image of Your Choosing By Scratching Away Wax

Use a pencil or ball-point pen to scratch out a design or picture. Don't try to scratch into the metal, just scratch through the wax. I like trilobites so I scratched one into the wax this time. You can also lay a drawing or printed image over top and trace it, pressing hard, if you don't feel confident drawing something freehand.

Simple line drawings work best for this project.

Step Six: Hook the Wires to the Battery

Copper wires hooked up to a battery

Copper wires hooked up to a battery

Prepare and Attach the Wires

Cut the wires about a foot long, strip about an inch and a half (about three centimeters) of each end on each wire. Test the wires to see how you need to bend them to stay on the battery's contacts without allowing their stripped ends to touch each other or the other contact.

Step Seven: Put the First Wire Into the Salt Water Bath

photo by Kylyssa Shay

photo by Kylyssa Shay

Mix Up the Salt and Water Bath and Lay the Positive Wire in It

Mix table salt into a glass or plastic bowl of warm water until you can dissolve no more in it. Remove the negative terminal's wire, leaving the positive terminal's wire attached. Lay the positive wire's end in the saltwater bath.

Step Eight: Attach the Second Wire to the Battery and Submerge the Tin

photo by Kylyssa Shay

photo by Kylyssa Shay

Give Your Tin a Shocking Bath

Set one stripped end of the negative wire into the saltwater bath. Then set the tin into saltwater bath so the side to be etched is in the water above the negative wire end and touching it. Then attach the negative wire to the negative battery terminal. This will make a stream of bubbles come up from the wire's tip under the tin. This is normal and desired.

The gas made is hydrogen which is flammable so perform this part of the project away from open flame and in a well ventilated area.

Allow the tin to sit there over the bubbling negative wire for five to ten minutes then remove the negative wire from the battery.

Step Ten: Remove It from the Bath and Dry It Off

photo by Kylyssa Shay

photo by Kylyssa Shay

Dry It and Rub Off the Wax Crayon Mask

Remove the tin from the saltwater bath and dry it off. Then scrub off the crayon wax with a washcloth and polish it with the fine-grit sandpaper. Wash it gently with warm water to remove any metal dust and dry it gently with a towel.

The Finished Etching

Trilobite etched into an Altoids tin, photo by Kylyssa Shay

Trilobite etched into an Altoids tin, photo by Kylyssa Shay

Put on a Coat or Don't. It Looks Cool Either Way.

You can now either coat the tin with a clear varnish or allow the natural patina of oxidation to age and enhance your etching.

Do You Re-Use Food or Product Packaging?

Do you re-use any of the durable packaging your food or household products come in?

Whether it's using margarine tubs to store leftovers, jars to store paperclips, or candy tins to make art and storage, it all helps to keep these things out of landfills. Re-using product packaging also helps the environment in other ways - it saves you from buying something else to serve the same purpose, something which would have to be manufactured from raw materials and brought to you using more fossil fuel.

What Fun Things Do You Do to Turn Product Packaging Into Recycling Art?

Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on January 27, 2015:

The need for the idea came from having a partner addicted to Altoids and a need to distinguish between tins with candy still in them and tins with things like pushpins or matches in them. The idea of this kind of etching came from my seventh grade science teacher, Mr. Harper, who had us make hydrogen in class and kicked it up a notch by having us etch our initials into these little metal disks we used during the process. It was brilliant teaching because I still remember it over thirty years later.

The little bubbles coming up when you do the etching are hydrogen gas. I suggest not mentioning that if you do this project with kids because they'll want to do what we all did which was to catch the hydrogen underwater in an inverted cup, bring it out, and light it.

Daphne D. Lewis from Saint Albans, West Virginia on January 27, 2015:

A great project for recycling my Altoid tins! Thanks for sharing!!

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on January 26, 2015:

Most interesting! How did you ever come up with this idea? The only etching I've ever done is with an acid paste on glass, using stencils made for that purpose.

It never would have occurred to me to try to etch metal tins, though I do re-use them. I don't get many candy tins; most of mine are cookie tins, and I re-use them for the same purpose.

Voted up, interesting and useful.

Virginia Kearney from United States on January 26, 2015:

Very interesting technique--I've done lots of different kinds of crafting but never tried anything like this. Pinned.

Marilyn from Nevada on January 26, 2015:

Very interesting, and I also find uses for containers rather than throw them out. The candy container you show in your photo, I use for safety pins, push pins, paper clips. There is a multitude of ideas. Thank you for sharing yours!

Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on January 26, 2015:

Very creative and useful process for converting candy tins into useful decorative storage containers. Your steps were well explained and beautifully illustrated.

Claudia Mitchell on January 26, 2015:

Now this is really cool! Glad I came across it.

Heidi Vincent from GRENADA on June 01, 2014:

Very interesting project!

Lynda Makara from California on April 25, 2014:

This is so interesting! I was expecting you to use etching cream. I've never heard of using a battery for this.

bpratt lm on April 25, 2014:

Wow this is awesome! I never knew you could do something like this :) Thanks for sharing!

ChocolateLily on March 04, 2014:

I usually just remove the labels and use them for various types of storage. This is so neat!

James Jordan from Burbank, CA on February 13, 2014:

This is awesome! You should sell them on Etsy! Etsy Etched Tins!

burntchestnut on February 12, 2014:

Such a neat project! Usually I reuse tins to store small items like other candy, safety pins, paper clips, etc., or I use it to hold something small I want to mail that I don't want to get crushed (put the tin inside a padded envelope).

Stephanie Tietjen from Albuquerque, New Mexico on February 11, 2014:

I too have done glass etching, but love this idea for tins. I love your trilobyte. Great lens!

Lee Hansen from Vermont on February 10, 2014:

I love to recycle tins, boxes and interesting glass containers. I've experimented with glass etching but never tried this metal etch technique. Great home school lesson for a science project.

anonymous on February 09, 2014:

Terrific lens, very creative. Congratulations on getting LotD!

ottoblotto on February 09, 2014:

I use plastic coffee tubs to make easy bird houses.

Kim from Yonkers, NY on February 08, 2014:

Ooh I LOVE this & have to figure out what lenses of mine. (def. one would be on of the journaling pages as some use the altoids tins for mini art kits & added a video there) I the smaller Altoids tins may be great for sewing needles (well the small hem & safety pins I should say) (as well as a few others including the 'poem' lens below to my Epic Ballad of Poetry lens

CrazyHomemaker on February 08, 2014:

Congrats on LOTD and Purple Star! Great lens! I have change in an OLD Sucrets tin and quilting pins in an Altoids tin. I love recycling containers. This will be a new project for me.

Tanya Jones from Texas USA on February 08, 2014:

this is an interesting project. i'll have to file it away for future use.

Amine from Doha, Qatar on February 08, 2014:

great idea. just with a simple little things you managed to bring something really beautiful.well done

Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on February 08, 2014:

@tfsherman lm: Thank you!The battery would probably not be appropriate for littles to use and the drawing probably requires too much co-ordination. If you prepped a bunch of tins with the wax or crayon coating and let the kids etch them and did the part with the battery and saltwater bath yourself, kids as young as second or third grade could participate. The drawing part could be made easier by using some kind of image on paper as a template over the wax.

Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on February 08, 2014:

@Coleton LM: Thank you!It works with most kinds of tins used in food packaging and also works on copper and brass for certain. I'm not entirely sure about how it works on other metals. I remembered saltwater etching from an eighth grade science class and I was fiddling around with things I have at home that I could make crafts with. The crayon was something I had handy and I knew that anything that sealed all but the design area and wasn't water-soluble would work to mask off the area I didn't wish to etch. My hobbies of arts, crafts, and tinkering often intersect in odd ways.

MarcellaCarlton on February 08, 2014:

I'm going to try this one out. This looks incredible, Kylyssa. Another great lens!

irminia on February 08, 2014:

Fantastic idea, thank you for showing the steps how to do it!

Faye Rutledge from Concord VA on February 08, 2014:

Hmmm, very interesting! Congratulations on LotD! Great tutorial.

lesliesinclair on February 08, 2014:

Really great idea for the do-it-yourselfer. I especially like that it creates a permanent etch without using harmful products. Thanks.

tfsherman lm on February 08, 2014:

Yesterday we made arm bands out of TP rolls and tinfoil in my pre-k art class, but I don't know if I dare tackle this with a herd of youngsters. Very, very cool though, thanks!

Coleton LM on February 08, 2014:

Very nice! Does this work with all metals, or just specifically the metal used in mint containers? Also, where did you come up/come across this? It's awesome!

philipcaddick on February 08, 2014:

This was GREAT, so simple and looks fun. Thanks very much.

seahorse60 on February 08, 2014:

What a great idea, I've never seen this done before! I re-use tins and containers for storing anything from buttons to cookies, but haven't tried using them for a craft project yet.

Joan Haines on February 08, 2014:

As a teacher, I need to reuse free things a lot. For instance, I use screw off caps from soda bottles as game markers or counting chips, etc. I love this project. I'll pass it along to the art teachers I know.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on February 08, 2014:

Great process. Now I just have to try it for myself!

Renee Dixon from Kentucky on February 08, 2014:

I use the big diaper boxes to store toys in, and my favorite change jar used to be a can of formula. This looks like a fun project!

psiloveyou1 on February 08, 2014:

That is so cool! I've used etching cream before, but I didn't know that you could do it like this. Your instructions are great as well. Congrats on LOTD.

Angela F from Seattle, WA on February 08, 2014:

I've made other items with Altoid tins but this is new... and cool! Pinned to my Crafty Peeps board

Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on February 08, 2014:

Wow, cool project! What a great personalized gift idea, too.

Happimess LM on February 08, 2014:

WOW this how-to is very different from what i expected, how cool! Great combination of upcycling, art and science. Love it.

Linda F Correa from Spring Hill Florida on February 08, 2014:

Wow, what a fun project. I am a huge reuser of these tins, so I will be trying this in the near future. Congrats for your LOTD

andreea22 on February 08, 2014:

I don't use to turn product packaging into art, but I think I'm gonna start doing it now! Congratulations on LOTD - you deserve it!

tonyleather on February 08, 2014:

Cannoy say that I really see the point to this, though it does look good!

Lynn Klobuchar on February 08, 2014:

This is super cool! I wish I had known about it when my kids were younger --they may still think it is an interesting way to reuse tins. Congrats on LotD.

Merry Citarella from Oregon's Southern Coast on February 08, 2014:

This is amazing! It's such a clever idea and came out so beautiful. Congrats on LotD! I can see why you got it. Nice, clear instructions too with great photos.

RoadMonkey on February 08, 2014:

I try to have as little product packaging as possible, by using my own bags and asking NOT to have a bag from the shop. Any cardboard or aluminium is recycled.

Samantha Lynn from Missouri on February 08, 2014:

How Cool!

susan369 on February 08, 2014:

How fascinating! The battery part is a bit scary, but I might try it. Congrats on Lens of the Day - thoroughly deserved!

Corrinna Johnson from BC, Canada on January 24, 2014:

What a great project! I must do this with my kids, maybe for a school science or art project! Very cool!

Monica Lobenstein from Western Wisconsin on September 15, 2013:

I love this project! This is definitely at the top of my list of science/art projects to do with young people in the coming year. Thanks for sharing!

Ellen Gregory from Connecticut, USA on January 15, 2013:

What fun. I thought we were going to be etching tins using a tool, but this is far more interesting.

Jeanette from Australia on September 24, 2011:

Oooh. I like this! This lens has been blessed on the "I Love That Word" quest and added to my Upcycling Ideas lens.

Sherry Venegas from La Verne, CA on July 25, 2011:

Kylyssa,This is a superb how to and I like the science in it. How good is this for Girl and Boy Scouts?Does the image rub off? Stays forever?Yeh, I reuse product packaging for the greeting cards I make.

Kerri Bee from Upstate, NY on May 25, 2011:

It looks like an sweet science experiment! I love it.

Muzzie4848 on April 16, 2011:

Thanks for your great lens. I have feastured it on my 10th wedding anniversary gift ideas. The 10th anniversary year is tin and aluminium. Thank you.

tandemonimom lm on April 01, 2011:

LOVE IT!!! April Fool's blessings today, and featured on Blessed by Tandemonimom!

anonymous on December 22, 2010:

can this work on any other metal?

EmmaCooper LM on October 21, 2010:

Ingenious :)

Robert T Gasperson from South Carolina on September 29, 2010:

I took a printmaking class in College but never thought the etching methods could go towards a mint tin. interesting.Thanks for the great information. I am going to have to try this one soon.

anonymous on May 27, 2010:

I love this tutorial and technique! I used a variation on one that I already did and yours. I just posted a tutorial on it and linked to yours since you gave me the inspiration to use crayon as the resist. Thanks so much!http://rootsandwingsco.blogspot.com/2010/05/crayon...

VarietyWriter2 on May 02, 2010:

Cool and fascinating. Blessed by a SquidAngel :)

Lee Hansen from Vermont on March 26, 2010:

I collect tins of all sorts - I love the artwork and functional reuse possibilities.

enslavedbyfaeries on March 24, 2010:

This is very cool and fascinating tutorial! My girls cover old tins in polymer clay and would be totally into the scientific process of this method. You are a fantastic artist and have done a beautiful job providing clear instructions here!

Heather Burns from Wexford, Ireland on February 26, 2010:

love it! I save tins because I like the artwork on them, but this is a cool idea!

The-Java-Gal on February 22, 2010:

Loved your step by step tutorial! 5*s plus and faved. I save tins - candy, cookie, whatever. This has opened a whole new art form. I am thinking this would even be a great project to do with the grandkids.

Jimmie Quick from Memphis, TN, USA on February 08, 2010:

Wow! Art project and science experiment all wrapped in one activity plus a side of recycling. ABSOLUTELY perfect tutorial.

Everyday-Miracles on February 07, 2010:

Oh Kylyssa, this is just terrific! I absolutely love this lens and am going to add it to my favorites straight away (though they seem to have disappeared from Squidoo, so I'm going to bookmark it on Tagfoot as well lol). This is just spectacular, these would make terrific gifts!I reuse tins for storage all over the place, though I probably should just go ahead and recycle them since I wind up with so much extra "stuff" laying around that I don't need. We've got a huge carton for recyclables and take them in once there is enough of a stack to make it worth while to wait over an hour in line. What do you do with these when you're done? Are you selling them somewhere? I *love* the trilobite sketch!

Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on January 27, 2010:

@SoyCandleLover: I think that would work great. You might be able to mask the tin with something like clear packing tape, print or draw an image on paper, and use another piece of clear packing tape to hold it on top of the tin as you cut through it. You could probably use a thick, sharp needle to scrape away the masking, too. That would give you tighter fingertip control of the cutting tool even if you might have to go over the design more than once.

Beth Webster-Duerr from Henrietta, New York on January 27, 2010:

I have always save tins, nd now you've shown me something I can do to actually make them look good. You're a great sketcher, so I might have trouble with that. I might try using tape or contact paper to be the resist. That way I could probably trace a design and use a knife to cut it out. Do you think this might work?

Treasures By Brenda from Canada on January 23, 2010:

Great how to lens!

Rhonda Albom from New Zealand on January 18, 2010:

Etching candy tins looks like an awesome project.

bdkz on January 15, 2010:

This is very interesting and beautiful!

Danielle713 on January 15, 2010:

What a great idea! I love your step by step instructions! The only thing I do with the candy packages are sometimes save them to put small items in.

Superwife on January 15, 2010:

this is one of the neatest hobbies I've ever seen - very cool lens

clouda9 lm on January 14, 2010:

Your steps to re-create a unique candy tin by re-using is realistic and very economical! Appreciated the time that you took to show the process. Thank you!

Carol Goss on January 14, 2010:

Wow, i never thought of using old candy tins :) cool lens

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