Tuesday 26 March 2013

A new approach to etching metal

Quite a few people have been asking how I transfer such sharp designs to copper when creating my popper cuffs, so I thought I'd put it out there for everyone to share... Hope someone finds this useful! :)
I purchased everything I needed for etching a couple of years ago when a friend of mine kindly shared how to do it. (check out http://www.annamcdade.co.uk/ her work is incredible!)  I managed to make a couple of things, but never really got on with the process of transferring designs to the metal to be etched.
Part of the process involved taping up the back of the metal so that it would be protected from the chemicals… so during a brainwave moment, I realised that I could cut the designs from sticky backed vinyl and use that as a resist on the metal.
My designs are cut using a Silhouette Cameo. For anyone that doesn't know, a Cameo is a craft machine used to cut paper, fabric, vinyl and much more for all sorts of crafts. It's pretty much the same as a printer, but rather than printing it uses a tiny blade to cut out the designs. To find out more of the kinds of things you can do with the machine see here http://www.silhouetteamerica.com/?page=what-can-you-make I think you'll agree that you need one!!!
If your budget won't stretch that far, this process will also work with hand cut designs. Use a really sharp scalpel and medium pressure to cut the vinyl without going through the backing paper.

Here's a step by step of how I transfer a design to metal using vinyl...

  1. Copper blanks cut from sheet. Here they still have the protective film on. Leave this on while you sand and file the edges to make sure there aren’t any sharp bits. It will protect the copper surface from being scratched with your tools. Once you are happy with your finish, remove the tape and give them a good clean. I use a scouring pad and washing up liquid. You will know they are perfectly clean when the water sits on them like a skin. If the water breaks on the metal, you still have grease or dirt on them so keep cleaning! Leave them to dry on kitchen roll and try not to touch them as oils from your skin will create a barrier from the etching chemicals.
  2. While they’re drying out, open your designs up in Silhouette Studio (the software provided with the cutter), size them to fit your blanks.
  3. Here are the cut designs. these were then taped up with transfer paper ( like masking tape, but less sticky!) ready to stick them to the copper blanks.
  4. The designs were cut to size once on the transfer paper and pressed on to the blanks. Make sure to give them a good rub down so that they stick well. This is where your cleaning the metal helps, any areas that aren’t stuck down will allow the etch solution to seep underneath and spoil the design. Tape up the backs of the blanks with more vinyl to stop the etch penetrating both sides.
  5. To etch the designs, I use Edinburgh etch solution. This is made from ferric chloride and citric acid. It is a lot safer than other solutions used for etching, but safety precautions should still be taken and never empty used fluid down your drain!!! Once mixed up, it should last for a long time, it’s yellow when you start out, but mine’s turned green after being used so much. The recipe is based on the overall ratio of; 4/5 saturated ferric chloride solution (40%).1/5 citric acid solution which consists of 3/4 tap water and 1/4 Citric acid powder.The blanks are suspended with tape upside down in the solution. They are upside down so that the copper removed during the process falls off the blank and creates a nice clean design.
  6. Check every half an hour or so to see how they're progressing and when you're happy with the depth of the etch, remove them from the solution. Drop them in to a solution of bicarbonate of soda and water to halt the etching process. At this point, if you’d just like plain copper cuffs you can remove the vinyl design and begin to shape and polish them. But I want my cuffs to be coloured, so I dropped alcohol inks into the recesses and left them to dry.
  7. Once they’ve dried (I left these overnight) remove the vinyl design and give them a buff with a soft cloth to remove any flaky bits of ink and coat with renaissance wax to seal. I then polished up the backs and sealed again with the wax. They are now ready to be shaped in to cuffs. I set these with popper settings to use with my lampwork poppers, but you can leave them plain, rivet elements to them, or whatever takes your fancy :)
  8. Here they are finished off and ready to go!

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial, leave me a comment if you have any questions, and if you’d like to own one my cuffs, I will be taking lots along to the Flame Off show at Silverstone and listing afterwards in my Etsy Shop!

Caroline x


  1. Thank you for a fantastic tutorial, but pictures seem to be missing - can you upload please, I'd love to see the process in action

    1. Thanks Elsareth, this blog is no longer active, I moved everything across to wordpress. The full post is here http://blueberribeads.co.uk/a-new-approach-to-etching-metal/ :)


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