How-To: Phototransfer Metal Etching by Lexi Erickson

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.


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.


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 video.


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 video 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., 800-876-3434



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