Create Pattern, Texture, Depth, and Contrast When You Etch Metal for Your Jewelry Making
Different Keeps Us Coming Back
Interest is largely about contrast. An endless expanse of the same thing may be remarkable for its continuity, but things that are different invite us to explore and keep us looking, listening, or otherwise engaged for a lot longer. One of the most popular and low-tech ways to create contrast in jewelry is to etch metal. It’s an easy way to reproduce a pattern with great accuracy and give your metal a wonderfully tactile feel. Patterns, textures, variety of color: these are fabulous elements of contrast and visual interest.
The simplest way to etch metal for jewelry makers is etching copper using the phototransfer technique. Several years ago Lexi Erickson wrote up this straightforward demo on this process for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist. It’s as timely now as it was then, so here it is again!
Phototransfer Copper Etching
Incise a favorite design in your metal
By Lexi Erickson
Process photos by Mark Erickson
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.
- Press-n-Peel (PnP Paper) Image Transfer Film
- Ferric chloride
- 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
- Metal to etch
- Laser photocopy machine/printer
- 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, www.reactivemetals.com, 800-876-3434
Wear proper protective clothing, latex gloves, and always have adequate ventilation.
Clean sterling, copper, or brass 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The images are now transferred onto your metal, copper, in this demo. 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.
Prep for Solution
Pour the ferric chloride solution into a shallow dish. Tape the back and side of the copper 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.
Place in Solution
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.
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.
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 remaining solids or sludge should be poured into a plastic container, clearly labeled, and disposed of at your local hazardous waste disposal facility.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT. I wish to thank Fabiola Allen and Richard Sweetman for the use of their Denver-based Sweetman/Allen Studios, and for teaching me this process. I had done photo etching 18+ years ago, using photographic negatives and different chemicals. They provided me with the much needed refresher course, with more modern materials, and allowed me access to their studio and all of its equipment. I am very grateful.
LEXI ERICKSON is a Contributing Editor to Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist and blogger at www.Interweave.com/jewelry. She has taught high school through university level jewelry and is the author of a number of best-selling videos for Interweave. She also teaches in her Denver studio and can be reached at www.lexierickson.com.
If you enjoy etching copper for jewelry, you’ll love the Southwest Spirit Etched Pendant Lexi made with the copper she etched in this demo.
Also check out her video Jewelry Etching on Copper.
Two Metals, More Contrast
But don’t stop there! Take etching beyond copper and try working with bimetals next. Noël Yovovich explores just some of the design possibilities of this approach in her instructional and inspiring video Color Contrast Metal Etching Using Copper/Silver and Other Bimetals.
Get these metal etching resources in our shop.