This blog will take you step by step through the graphic etching process. Etchings are usually smallish in size, black on white paper, and intended for viewing at close distances. They could be large and colorful and created to look good with your drapes, but most etchers are a) too poor to afford large metal plates–especially copper– and b) could care less about matching your decor. The comment I get the most from viewers is “That must be a lot of work.” They think so because there are lots and lots of lines, but they really have no idea what’s involved in making an etching.
You can scroll through this post and just look at the photos if you’re only slightly interested. Then maybe you’ll come back to read the explanations. I hope so.
Etching is a printing process using metal plates. It’s sometimes called intaglio, which means the inked lines on the paper come from lines that lie below the surface of the plate. A woodcut is the opposite; the inked parts of a wood block are those that stick up. That’s why to print an etched plate you have to have a strong printing press that will exert a lot of pressure on the plate and suck the ink from the etched lines. Etchings are often confused with engravings. No acid is involved in making an engraving (at least no caustic acids like nitric–I can’t speak for the ingested kinds). Engraving tools are sharp and the artist digs lines straight out of a metal plate. The inking and printing steps of engraving, however, are the same as with an etching.
First step: prepare the plate. The next two photos show my grinder and the plate. It’s an eight by ten inch, 16 gauge copper plate, weighing about 1.5 pounds. The edges have to be beveled so the roller of the etching press will glide over the plate and not get hung up on the edge and rip the paper during printing. It’s possible to file the edges by hand, but a grinder makes it a lot faster and easier. I then hand file the edges smooth with metal files and sand paper.
Next, the plate has to be cleaned. A quick method is to submerge it in a tray of vinegar and salt. Copper polish works, too, and so does bathroom cleanser, but these leave residue. After cleaning, it’s necessary to wash the plate under running water until the water cascades down the surface without leaving too many droplets. This ensures the etching ground will adhere uniformly to the copper surface. The next photo shows the plate soaking in the vinegar/salt. Shiny isn’t it?
Once the plate is dry, it’s time for messy fun! This step is only semi-toxic, but it’s a smart idea to have plenty of ventilation! I’m showing you the liquid ground method. The alternative is to use “ball” ground, which looks like a piece of dark brown candle and usually does have some beeswax in it. (The stench makes me wonder why people living in the middle ages thought beeswax candles were so much more fragrant than tallow. I usually associate the adjective fragrant with nice smells…) Anyway, if you use the ball ground, you have to use a hot plate and heat the plate and melt the stuff on the plate and roll it across the plate so it coats evenly BEFORE it gets burned to a crisp. That’s a whole world of trouble all its own and everyone within 50 feet of where you did it will be grouching about the stink for an hour afterward. So my photo shows the tin of liquid ground, a funnel with filter material stuck inside (coffee filters actually work better than what’s shown) used to screen out larger lumps that lurk in the etching ground, the tray I use to catch the excess, and rubber gloves. Note the layers of newspaper which will be immediately thrown out afterward! It’s really not possible to screen out all the darn lumps and if too many make it through, there’s no remedy except to use a solvent to wipe the plate clean and try again. Ventilation is very important!
This next photo was taken with one hand holding my heavy camera so don’t complain if the focus isn’t great. In fact, don’t complain about any of the photos as long as you aren’t complaining about this one! See the etching ground pouring on the plate. Don’t see it running off the plate all over the newspaper… Once there’s enough of it, I tilt the plate at an angle to get coverage of the entire plate, letting most the excess drip off into the tray.
When the plate is coated evenly, I can let it sit against a wall for a few more minutes to drip off even more excess. Note the contact paper on the wall. Note the etching ground on the bulletin board… But hey, you should see the floor.
In five or ten minutes, the plate has to be placed horizontally to dry which takes about an hour. Then it’s time to draw on the plate. There’s no reason the entire drawing can’t all be done freehand, but I generally trace areas of a composition because it’s not easy to erase a line drawn into etching ground. It’s possible to use a paintbrush and go over a mistake with some etching ground, but chances are the filled in part won’t really keep the acid away later. It’s as if the acid knows you drew a line there and doesn’t care you no longer want it. There’s a lot of luck and chance involved in etching. Anyway, I use a type of “transfer paper” that comes in different colors. I use yellow because it’s very visible on the dark etching ground. The photo shows an enlarged detail, part of a tracing on the etching ground. The dark spots are areas where the etching ground looked too thin and I beefed it up with a thicker ground called asphaltum.
Now the actual drawing is started–FINALLY–using etching points. Below are the main tools used in etching. The etching point used for drawing is on the right. The two tools on the left are the scraper to remove mistakes after etching and a burnisher to further remove the mistakes and polish or for removing little scratches. There are several kinds of etching points, including diamond points. I mostly use the low tech, cheap one shown. This steel point is kept sharp with a grinding stone and elbow grease.
The next photo shows the equipment necessary for the acid bath. I use Ferric Chloride etching acid.
Nitric acid can be used but the fumes are very, very, very strong and nitric makes lots of bubbles which can interfere with the clarity of the lines when it’s biting the plate. In fact, even with the special gas mask (seen in photo) and doing it outside, I can still smell nitric. So I don’t use that stuff very often. Once when I was just learning the etching process, I had to grab a foaming tray which was rapidly heating up and run outside with it. In my panic, I regret to say I dumped the whole thing into the snow. Nowadays I take used acid to the city’s toxic waste collection site. Anyway, in less than three minutes the nitric had etched more than I wanted. I’ll show you the difference later between those lines and more gently etched lines. Both ways are acceptable, but it’s nicer to have it planned.
I usually draw the main areas of the composition first leaving out details, then put the plate into acid. Every time a plate is etched in acid, and a print of this is made, it’s called a “state.” Until you get an actual paper print, it’s difficult to see what you’ve got and where you want to go with the etching. If you go to a print gallery in a museum you’ll see on the label, “third state” or even “fifth state” quite often because most artists work a bit at a time. A famous etcher named Rembrandt often went as far as to scrape away major areas of a plate and redo them. He must have had very strong fingers. If you believe copper is a “soft” metal, try scraping out etched lines.
Here’s the etching plate sitting calmly in the Ferric Chloride, which hardly fumes. The gas mask is more for the solvent than the acid in this case. In fact, this type of acid doesn’t sting or burn either if you touch it, but will dye skin or clothing an ugly shade of gold. It will also permanently stain a sink or a bathtub, as a friend of mine found out once to his landlord’s great chagrin. You now know one major reason I’ve never gotten into home decorating. I tend to be a very drippy artist even though I try to confine inks, chemicals and paints, etc. to one area. I came to realize: “Nope, can’t live there, it’s too NICE and I’ll wreck the place.”
How long does the copper plate have to stay in a tray of acid? Ah, here’s a true difficulty of etching. If the acid’s used more than once, the usual situation, with each use it becomes slightly weaker. Temperature also affects the strength of the acid. How wide the lines are drawn (tool type) and how many of them there are in close proximity also affects how the acid bites into the copper. Also, as the acid eats the metal away, the metal bits lie there and build up in the lines and then the acid won’t bite evenly. My preference is to remove the plate from the acid every few minutes and wash it off to get rid of any build-up and then put it back into the acid bath.
Ballpark time estimate, using Ferric Chloride, is between 8 and 15 minutes to bite a copper plate. Zinc plates are much quicker to bite but they don’t print completely clean and I don’t like the lines as much. The longer in the acid, the darker and thicker the lines will print on paper. It takes a lot of closeup squinting under a bright light to see how the lines are biting. When my eyes and inner sense tells me it’s time to stop (this is an art, not a science) I wash the plate off again and remove the etching ground with solvent. Photograph below.
This is when I really get my first look at what I’ve got. There are various ways to get a variety of lines in a print. One is to remove the plate after the minimum time to etch any lines at all and “stop out” the lines you wish to be the lightest with a heavier type of liquid ground. After allowing this to dry well, the plate is put back into the acid. The lines that will print heaviest/darkest will have been in the acid for the longest time. There is some guess work involved. So, I usually draw only “main” lines first, bite the plate and print it for the first state and take a look at what I really will have. So, next step, printing the plate!
Finally! I am very fortunate to own an etching press which was given to me by an artist friend who moved to Japan and didn’t want to take his etching press. I’m so glad he’s never asked to have it back. It’s big enough to print plates that are 11 inches by 14, and I usually don’t work larger than that. Fortunately, the press can be taken apart and has thus moved around the country with me several times. If you’re the inquisitive type and you’re trying to figure out what’s on the wall behind, it’s Yankee stuff, a vent, a light switch and a corner of a very bad acrylic painting. The press is shown here:
Etchings have to be printed on damp paper, so before I ink the plates, I soak the paper. After a sheet is thoroughly soaked, it has to sit between blotters to have excess water removed. Etching paper is special and expensive. Cat hair and other extraneous materials should be excluded from the water. Easier than it sounds.
The ink is applied to the surface of the plate, then rubbed into the lines. The trick here is that the surface of the plate has to be wiped clean but the ink that’s caught in the etched lines has to stay put.
Here are photos showing the ink being applied and the beginning of the gradual removal of the ink. I use a stiff type of cheesecloth to wipe the plate.
When the surface of the plate is clean enough (not shown) it’s time to print. The plate is set on the bed of the etching press and the moist paper is laid on top. Then a few felt blankets are laid over the top and the whole thing is cranked through the press. Just once. Then the damp print is lifted off the plate. The plate can be inked again and more prints made without cleaning the plate. One copper plate can print about 150 prints before it gets worn out.
The wet print has to be either pinned up flat or pressed in blotters to dry flat. Then it’s DONE. Below is the second state of the etching. It’s not finished yet.
This is the etching printed from the plate I had to dump into the snow.
This is a print done from a plate with normal acid biting. See the difference in the line quality?
Hope you enjoyed or endured my exposition.
Mickey Hoffman is author of two mystery novels, Deadly Traffic and School of Lies. Please leave comments here!