Metal Etching 101

Published on
October 26, 2021 7:28:28 PM PDT October 26, 2021 7:28:28 PM PDTth, October 26, 2021 7:28:28 PM PDT
Etching is a method of using chemicals to cut a design or pattern into a metal surface. Etching your own designs into metal is easier than it may sound, and it can be a fun and rewarding way to make your own jewelry! Learn the basics of how to choose your metals, choose your etchants, create or transfer your images with resists, and complete the etching process. Discover how to make a float boat for suspending your designs in etchant — plus find basic etching safety precautions, design considerations, and free projects. You may also want to shop our etching chemicals & supplies, including our exclusive etching tool kit.

What Metals can be Etched?

Because chemical etching actually cuts into the surface of the metal, you want to make sure your plate or sheet of metal is thick enough to hold an etched design well. We recommend using 22-gauge or thicker metal sheet and pre-cut metal blanks. Options we carry that will work with ferric chloride (see next section) include:

22-Gauge Copper Blanks

18-Gauge Copper Blanks

22-Gauge Brass Blanks

20-Gauge Copper Sheet

14-Gauge Copper Blanks

20-Gauge Brass Sheet

19-Gauge Copper Blanks

20-Gauge Nickel Silver Sheet

24-gauge sheet metal and 24-gauge pre-cut blankswill also work — just be sure to leave 24-gauge items in the chemical bath for less time than you would a thicker metal. See all gauges of metal blanks for more options.

Choosing the Right Etchant

Etchant is the chemical (or mixture of chemicals) that you'll use to cut into unprotected parts of your metal and create the finished etched design. It's important to match your metal with an appropriate etchant, because the same metal will react differently to different chemicals (and vice versa).
  • Copper, brass and nickel silver can be etched with ferric chloride.
    To avoid order delays and extra shipping charges, please read and follow the shipping restrictions listed with chemicals such as ferric chloride.

  • .999 fine silver & .925 sterling silver can be etched using a ferric nitrate solution or nitric acid. Both these etchants are more dangerous to use than ferric chloride.

  • Aluminum etchants include hydrofluoric acid, Kellers etch, and homemade solutions made with copper sulfate and sodium bisulfate.

Types of Resists

A resist is what you use to protect certain parts of your metal from the etchant. Resists are typically inks (and tapes). You will apply a design or pattern to the metal with your resist. Then, when you dip your metal into the chemical bath, the covered areas will "resist" being eaten away. Those covered areas will be the high points of your design once the etching process is complete.

Different artisans use different resists, and different resists work better with different aesthetic styles and methods — for example using rubber stamps, making a photo transfer, drawing by hand, etc. With practice and experimentation you'll figure out which mediums and methods you prefer, too.

Resists that work on copper, brass, and nickel silver include:

StazOn® & Perfect Medium™ Ink Pads work great to add rubber stamp designs to metal. StazOn Cleaner allows you to removed smudged immpressions and start over till the image comes out to your satisfaction.
Press-n-Peel Transfer Film provides an easy way to create detailed photo etched designs. Use a laser printer or copier to print onto the paper, then transfer the image to metal with an iron.
Sharpie Permanent Markers are a great resist for hand-drawn designs. Just keep in mind that etchants can undercut designs a little. Don't draw with too fine a line, or details could be lost.
Duct Tape works great to cover the back of your metal (unless you want both sides of your metal to be etched), and or to create a frame/border around your design.

Etching Tutorials & Projects

Use our blog post below to take you through the full process of etching a design into metal — including the innovative use of a "float boat" instead of tape to suspend your designs in the etchant! Find more helpful hints in our safety precautions and design considerations. Get inspired with free projects.

DIY Copper Etching

Blog Post

Safety Tips for
Metal Etching

Blog Post

Design Considerations
for Etching Metal

Blog Post

"Pleasant Dream"
Etched Barrette

Gallery Project

Etched Metal & Leather Bracelet

Blog Post

"Sonya Snow Skater"
Etched Necklace

Gallery Project

For an illustrated step-by-step guide that's easy to print, see our Metal Etching 101 PDF.