Posts Tagged ‘chemical etching’

DIY copper etching tutorial

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

It is easy to etch your own designs into metal for jewelry. This tutorial will teach you how! (Check out our etching kit too!)


Rubber stamp designs etched into brass sheet metal.

Before you begin, please read the safety considerations for etching metal with chemicals blog post.

You’ll also probably want to read the design considerations for etching metal blog post too!

Now, here are the steps for etching metal with ferric chloride:

1. Choose your metal(s). Ferric chloride works on copper, brass and nickel silver. It will not work on actual silver (fine or sterling). Do NOT use ferric chloride on aluminum. Metal as thin as 24-gauge can be etched – just leave it in for less time than you would for thicker metal. If you want to etch both sides or etch really deeply, use at least 20-gauge metal.

2. Clean metal with Penny Brite (our favorite) or an abrasive cleaner and scrubbie. The metal must be very clean. Water will sheet off (not bead up) on the surface when it is truly clean.

3. Apply resist. Stazon ink, Sharpies, toner transfers – there are many options! (Read the design considerations.)


A combination of rubber stamps and hand-drawn Sharpie doodles decorate the large copper sheet. The “C” was done with a PnP blue toner transfer.

4. Cover all areas that should not be etched with ink or durable tape. This includes the back, sides and inside any holes.


It would have been less messy to ink the edges before putting the tape on the back.

5. Pour 3/4 – 1″ of etchant into a non-reactive container (glass or plastic). If you are etching more than one type of metal, use a separate container for each. If desired, add a teaspoon of citric acid to “boost” the etching action.


A little citric acid (from the grocery store) accelerates the etching action, but is not required.

6. Attach metal to a styrofoam float “boat” and place in etchant. Suspending the metal into the bath with tape is another option. Just make sure the metal is submerged yet isn’t touching the bottom of the container.


A boat ready to float!


Boat floating with metal face-down in the chemical bath.

7. Allow to float for 30-90 minutes, depending on depth of etch desired. Nickel silver tends to take longer than copper or brass because it contains just 65% copper. (The rest is nickel and zinc.)


Etched design is clearly visible – this piece is ready to be cleaned.

8. Scrub metal clean in a tub of water. Use baking soda to neutralize the acid if desired. Some people use a weak ammonia bath to really make sure the acid is removed. Cleaning all the etchant off is important, as it will stain.

That’s it! You’ll probably want to patina the metal with liver of sulfur or another oxidizer to really bring out the definition in your design.


Using steel wool to buff the patina off the high points.

Ferric chloride can be reused several times. Once it is exhausted (typically after about 3 uses), consult your local waste management system for guidance on disposing of it.

rita's etched bracelet

Rita wrote on a copper washer with Sharpie to make the etched center link on this bracelet.

Happy creating! Use the “print friendly” option to print these instructions – with or without pictures! Questions are always welcome too. ~ Cindy


Editor’s Addendum: Many people have asked “Where do you find these supplies?” So here is a linked list of sheet metal and etching supplies:

Roofers use 19- to 27-gauge copper sheet, but surprisingly the prices from most roofing supply places are higher than our prices. Fortunately, you can often find left-over roofing scrap at a local recycler, like Earthworks Recycling. The size of reclaimed copper scrap can be random, so bring a measuring gauge and gauge conversion chart to make sure you get the size of scrap or remnants you want, such as 20-, 22- or 24-gauge.

For more tips about etched copper, brass or nickel jewelry: Various designers at Rings & Things have etched jewelry designs (with free how-to’s — no login required!) in our Design Gallery.

Safety considerations for etching metal with chemicals

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Using chemicals doesn’t have to be dangerous, so long as you take basic steps to set up your work area to avoid problems. For chemical etching, you need:

  1. Rubber gloves (latex or nitrile).
  2. Safety goggles. The etching solution might splash, and you don’t want that in your eyes.
  3. Apron. The etchant will stain your clothes and anything else it touches.
  4. Good ventilation (open a window if possible or run an exhaust fan). Never etch in a small enclosed space. Chemical fumes and gases that aren’t noticeable in the proper setup can build to dangerous levels in a small space. Outdoors is a great place to etch, weather permitting.
  5. Plastic or glass containers for the etchant “bath.” We like using the clear plastic tubs from spinach or salad mixes.
  6. Baking soda to neutralize the acid.
  7. Secure screw-top plastic container to dispose of used etchant.

Metal with designs applied, ready to etch!


See how the acid has eaten away the metal? Keep your work area safe and don’t get chemicals on you!

The basic rules for working with chemicals are simple, but worth revisiting:

  1. Keep pets and children out of the area.
  2. Don’t get it on your skin or in your eyes. Wash any splashes off immediately.
  3. Be careful about heating any chemical – there is a potential for toxic gases to form. Ferric chloride works faster when it is slightly warmed. You can accomplish this by putting the bottle in a warm water bath or a heat-plate set on low. Don’t try to heat it up on a stove top or in a microwave.
  4. Get plenty of fresh air.
  5. Don’t breathe in fumes or dust. It is best to clean the etched metal under water to avoid distributing particles into the air.
  6. Use disposable scrubbies or steel wool to clean your etched metal to avoid contaminating your good brushes, for example, with chemical residues.
  7. Soak up any spills with baking soda and/or kitty litter.

I know a guy who doesn’t really have any feeling left in his fingertips. You probably know someone like this too. Years of hard work have left his hands extremely callused and insensitive. For this reason, he can grab hot things with his bare hands, somehow not get splinters doing things where normal people would get splinters. I (and most anyone else) need oven mitts and work gloves for tasks he takes on bare handed.

I tell you this because sometimes I worry a bit about some of the advice on the internet. Take chemical etching. The chemicals used to etch metals are called mordants. By nature they are caustic – they eat through metal. Yet, for whatever reason, some people are extremely casual about their usage. For example, not using proper ventilation, sticking their bare hands into a chemical bath, not bothering with safety glasses, pouring the chemicals into their gardens … I’ve seen a lot of stuff that just isn’t safe. Maybe the guy on YouTube hasn’t gotten hurt doing what he’s doing – yet – but it is way better to be safe than sorry!

Obviously, it is up to each individual to determine the level of risk he or she is ok with. Some chemicals – such as the ferric chloride we use for etching copper and brass –  are relatively safe, but they are still chemicals and need to be treated with care. It isn’t complicated.

In case you are wondering, ferric chloride is much, much safer than ferric nitrate and nitric acid, two mordants which are used to etch silver.  While you don’t want to get it on you, ferric chloride will not eat through your skin (muriatic/hydrochloric acid, which is used in some etching recipes, will!).

And, ferric chloride in liquid form, like Rings & Things sells, is much safer than dry ferric chloride. Ferric chloride can be used more than once. Once it stops etching, follow the hazardous waste guidelines for where you live. Spokane’s are found here: Please be responsible and do not pour chemicals down the drain. (Note: all etching, even “chemical-free” etching, leaves bits of metal in the etching solution and must be disposed of properly.)

Now that you’ve read the safety guidelines,  read the DIY etching tutorial and start etching!

Be safe – and have fun! ~ Cindy