What the heck is an etching?

This blog will take you step by step through the graphic etching process. Etchings are usually smallish in size, black on white paper, and intended for viewing at close distances. They could be large and colorful and created to look good with your drapes, but most etchers are a) too poor to afford large metal plates–especially copper– and b) could care less about matching your decor. The comment I get the most from viewers is “That must be a lot of work.” They think this because there are lots and lots of lines, but they really have no idea what’s involved in making an etching.

If you are interesting in photo etching, that is a beast of a different kind, which I will briefly address at the end.

You can scroll through this post and just look at the photos if you’re only slightly interested. Then maybe you’ll come back to read the explanations.

Etching is a printing process using metal plates. It’s sometimes called intaglio, which means the inked lines on the paper come from lines that lie below the surface of the plate. A woodcut is the opposite; the inked parts of a wood block are those that stick up. That’s why to print an etched plate you have to have a strong printing press that will exert a lot of pressure on the plate and suck the ink from the etched lines. Etchings are often confused with engravings. No acid is involved in making an engraving (at least no caustic acids like nitric–I can’t speak for the ingested kinds). Engraving tools are sharp and the artist digs lines straight out of a metal plate. The inking and printing steps of engraving, however, are the same as with an etching.

First step: prepare the plate. The next two photos show my grinder and the plate. It’s an eight by ten inch, 16 gauge copper plate, weighing about 1.5 pounds. The edges have to be beveled so the roller of the etching press will glide over the plate and not get hung up on the edge and rip the paper during printing. It’s possible to file the edges by hand, but a grinder makes it a lot faster and easier. I then hand file the edges smooth with metal files and sand paper.

Note: The plate you see has an enamel backing. If you ever want to use that back side of the plate, the backing can be removed by soaking it in a bath of lye and water. Note: I use plates that have been “polished”. If you have to create a smooth, mirror like surface yourself on a piece of copper that’s scratched, you will need to do a lot of hand work with a burrin and pumice-like sticks or use a power tool to create a smooth surface you can draw on. Or you might choose to use the flaws to your advantage; sometimes those scratches can add interest.

filed plate

Next, the plate has to be cleaned.  A quick method is to submerge it in a tray of vinegar and salt. Copper polish works, too, and so does bathroom cleanser, but these leave residue. After cleaning, it’s necessary to wash the plate under running water until the water cascades down the surface without leaving too many droplets. This ensures the etching ground will adhere uniformly to the copper surface. The next photo shows the plate with polish on it. If you use polish, do the vinegar after that.

Cleaningwith Polish

Once the plate is dry, it’s time for messy fun! This step is only semi-toxic, but it’s a smart idea to have plenty of ventilation! I’m showing you the liquid ground method. The alternative is to use “ball” ground, which looks like a piece of dark brown candle and usually does have some beeswax in it. (The stench makes me wonder why people living in the middle ages thought beeswax candles were so much more fragrant than tallow. I usually associate the adjective fragrant with nice smells…) Anyway, if you use the ball ground, you have to use a hot plate and heat the plate and melt the stuff on the plate and roll it across the plate so it coats evenly BEFORE it gets burned to a crisp. That’s a whole world of trouble all its own and everyone within 50 feet of where you did it will be grouching about the stink for an hour afterward. So my photo shows the tin of liquid ground, a funnel with filter material stuck inside (coffee filters actually work better than what’s shown) used to screen out larger lumps that lurk in the etching ground, the tray I use to catch the excess, and rubber gloves. Note the layers of newspaper which will be immediately thrown out afterward! It’s really not possible to screen out all the darn lumps and if too many make it through, there’s no remedy except to use a solvent to wipe the plate clean and try again. Ventilation is very important!

ready to pour ground

This next photo was taken with one hand holding my heavy camera so don’t complain if the focus isn’t great. In fact, don’t complain about any of the photos as long as you aren’t complaining about this one! See the etching ground pouring on the plate. Don’t see it running off the plate all over the newspaper… Once there’s enough of it, I tilt the plate at an angle to get coverage of the entire plate, letting most the excess drip off into the tray.

There are some new products which claim to be less toxic. One of these is BioLac etching ground. It comes with almost no directions. You’re supposed to brush it on and then when it’s dry, use a hair dryer and blow hot air on it. No details are given about how hot the air should be or for how long you expose the plate to the hot air. I chose to pour the ground on to the plate, letting the excess drip off. I saved the run off and poured it back into the bottle. This seems to be fine. Then I shot hot air on the wet coating until the plate felt warm. Drawing in this ground is quite easy, but this ground is completely transparent! I took a photo of a plate with the ground on it. In the photograph, the plate looks dark, but these are reflections from the room. If you look closely, you can see the reflection of the bottles of BioLac and the solvent. Drawing on a plate with BioLac on it is a little like drawing in water on a mirror and expecting to see the lines you just drew.

BioLacTwo Another drawback of this product is the weird smell, a bit like maple syrup that has been lying in a trash can for a month. The solvent smells even worse. Although these products are said to be biodegradable and less toxic than the types of ground I mentioned first, these supposedly healthier substances want to burn the inside of your nose. Beware and use some protection like you would with the old methods. I have to say, though, this BioLac stuff works very well as an etching ground. The lines you get are excellent. They just might not be where you thought you drew them.

Now to continue: pouring groundBack to the old way now. The next several steps are the same for both types of ground.

When the plate is coated evenly, I let it sit against a wall for a few more minutes to drip off even more excess. Note the contact paper on the wall. Note the etching ground on the bulletin board… But hey, you should see the floor.

Drip off excess ground

In five or ten minutes, the plate has to be placed horizontally to dry which takes about an hour. (The BioLac seems to take longer.)





Then it’s time to draw on the plate. There’s no reason the entire drawing can’t all be done freehand, but I generally trace areas of a composition because it’s not easy to erase a mistake you drew into etching ground. Yes, it’s possible to use a paintbrush and brush on some ground to touch up, but chances are the filled in part won’t really keep the acid away later. The etching acid somehow knows you drew a line there and doesn’t care you no longer want it. Besides skill, there is some luck and chance involved in etching. Anyway, I use a type of “transfer paper” that comes in different colors. I use yellow because it’s very visible on the dark etching ground. On the BioLac, blue seems best.

Now the actual etching is started–FINALLY–using etching tools. Below are the main tools used in etching. The etching point I use the most for drawing is on the right. I also have a diamond point etching tool which is not shown. There are several kinds of etching points, including diamond points. I mostly use the low tech, cheap one shown. This steel point is kept sharp with a grinding stone and elbow grease. The two tools on the left are the scraper to remove mistakes that have been etched into the copper and a burnisher to further remove the mistakes and polish or for removing little scratches. Copper is supposed to be a soft metal, but it doesn’t feel soft to me when I’m trying to scrape away an unwanted line.

etching tools






The next photo shows the equipment necessary for the acid bath. I use Ferric Chloride etching acid.

gas mask, acid, etc

Nitric acid can be used but the fumes are very, very, very strong and nitric makes lots of bubbles which can interfere with the clarity of the lines when it’s biting the plate. In fact, even with the special gas mask (seen in photo) and doing it outside, I can still smell nitric. So I don’t use that stuff very often. Years ago, when I was just learning the etching process, the entire tray of acid began to foam after only three minutes. It also began to heat up. I picked up the tray and ran outside. In my panic, I regret to say I dumped the whole thing on the ground into the snow. The nitric acid had already etched more deeply than I wanted. I’ll show you the difference later between those lines and more gently etched lines. Both kinds of line are acceptable, but it’s only good when it comes out like you planned. As for acid disposal, nowadays I take my used acid to the city’s toxic waste collection site.

I usually draw the main areas of the composition first and leave the details for later. Then I put the plate into the acid for the first round. Every time a plate is etched in acid, and a print of this is made, it’s called a “state.” Until you make an actual paper print, it’s difficult to see what you’ve got and where you want to go next with the etching. If you go to a print gallery in a museum you’ll see on the label, “third state” or even “fifth state” quite often because most artists work a bit at a time. A famous etcher named Rembrandt often went as far as to scrape away major areas of a plate and redo them. He must have had very strong fingers or a very bored assistant.

Here’s a photo of an etching plate sitting calmly in the Ferric Chloride acid, which hardly fumes. The gas mask is more for the solvent than the acid in this case. In fact, this type of acid doesn’t sting or burn either if you touch it, but will dye skin or clothing an ugly shade of gold. It will also permanently stain a sink or a bathtub, as a friend of mine found out once to his landlord’s great chagrin. You now know one major reason I’ve never gotten into home decorating. I tend to be a very drippy artist even though I try to confine inks, chemicals and paints, etc. to one area. I came to realize: “Nope, can’t live there, it’s too NICE. I’ll wreck the place.”

In acid bath

How long does the copper plate have to stay in a tray of acid? Ah, here’s a true difficulty of etching. With each use, the acid becomes weaker. Temperature also affects the strength of the acid. How wide the lines are drawn (tool type) and how many of them there are in close proximity also affects how the acid bites into the copper. Also, as the acid eats the metal away, the metal bits lie there and build up in the lines and cause breaks in the lines. My preference is to remove the plate from the acid every few minutes and wash it off to get rid of any build-up and then put it back into the acid bath. You often see pictures of people using feathers to swish the acid around over the plate. Doesn’t work for me.

General time estimate, using Ferric Chloride, is between 5 and 15 minutes to bite a copper plate. Each time you use the acid it weakens a bit and this has to be taken into account. Zinc plates are much quicker to bite because zinc’s a softer metal. I rarely use zinc. The plates don’t print  as clean and I don’t like the etched lines as much. The longer the plates sits in the acid, the darker and thicker the lines will print on paper. So how do you know when to remove the plate? I lift it out and use a magnifying lens to check the lines.

On most plates, as with a drawing, you want some thin lines and some thicker ones. You want shading as well. There are various ways to get this variety on your plate. One is to remove the plate after the minimum time needed to get the thinnest lines and then “stop out” the lines you wish to be the lightest with a heavier type of liquid ground. After allowing this to dry, the plate is put back into the acid. The lines that will print heaviest/darkest will have been in the acid for the longest time. There is still some guess work involved. So, I usually draw only the main outlines lines first, bite the plate and print it for the first state and take a look at what I really will have.  Then I have to recoat the plate. This is tricky because the etching ground doesn’t want to cover the lines that have already been etched. I’ve found the best method is to melt hard ground and spread it with a roller. This ground comes in lumps and looks and acts a lot like wax. It takes some skill to get an even layer of ground that’s not too thick or thin to cover the etching plate. Then I can draw on the plate again and etch.

Each time the plate is put into an acid bath, it is called a “state.” Here are photos of the second and third state of an etching. The first state is shown as a copper plate being inked farther down the page. Note: when you print an etching it comes out reversed from the plate image. The two I show below have been flipped so you can compare them more easily with the plate. The actual prints show the woman looking facing left, not to the right.

Second statethird state copy

When my eyes and instinct me it’s time to stop (this is definitely an art, not a science) I wash the plate off again and remove the etching ground with solvent.

Removing ground after acid

This is when I really get my first look at what I’ve got. So, next step, printing the plate!

I am very fortunate to own an etching press which was given to me by an artist friend who moved to Japan and didn’t want to take his etching press. I’m so glad he’s never asked to have it back. It’s big enough to print plates that are 11 inches by 14, and I usually don’t work larger than that. Fortunately, the press can be taken apart and has thus moved around the country with me several times. (If you’re the inquisitive type and you’re trying to figure out what’s on the wall behind, it’s Yankee baseball stuff, a wall fan/vent, a light switch and a corner of a very badly done acrylic painting.) The press is shown here:

etching press

Etchings have to be printed on damp paper, so before I ink the plates, I soak the paper. After a sheet is thoroughly soaked, it has to sit between blotters to have excess water removed. Etching paper is special and expensive. Cat hair and other extraneous materials should be excluded from the water. Easier than it sounds.

soaking paper



The ink is applied to the surface of the plate, then rubbed into the lines. You can use a rolled up piece of felt for this, sometimes called a dauber, or you can use pieces of illustration board or a plastic spatula or any other object that won’t scratch the plate. Just make sure the ink is pushed down into all the etched lines. The trick here is that the surface of the plate has to be wiped clean but the ink that’s caught in the etched lines has to stay put.

ink on plate

Here are photos showing the ink being applied and the beginning of the gradual removal of the ink. I use a stiff type of cheesecloth to wipe the plate. It is sometimes called “starched.”


etching plate wiped

When the surface of the plate is clean (the plate to the right is not clean enough but I wanted you to be able to see the process) it is ready to print. And, no, you aren’t losing your eye sight. There are two different etching plates shown here.

The plate is set on the bed of the etching press (I put a clean sheet of paper underneath) and the moist printing paper is laid on top. Then a felt blankets are laid over the top and the whole thing is cranked through the press. Just once. Then the damp print is lifted off the plate. The plate can be inked again and more prints made without completely cleaning the plate again. One copper plate can print about 150 prints before it gets worn out.

Plate on pressThe wet print has to be either pinned up flat or pressed in blotters to dry  so it stays flat. Then it’s DONE.

Now for some show and tell:

This is the etching printed from the plate I had to take outside and dump into the snow because the nitric acid I was using became TOO active. Unfortunately, the lines had already become too deep.


This is a print done from a plate with normal acid biting. See the difference in the line quality?

Copy of Beijing

If you’re interested in photo etching, there are many techniques available. One method is to coat the metal plate with a photosensitive compound. These solutions tend to be extremely toxic. Gas mask toxic. I also tried to do it with a mixture made from fish glue and other things. This isn’t toxic, but it doesn’t work either. I got stuck with about 5 gallons of fish glue. Either way, you have to do all of this in a dark room. I did it like I was making a contact print, laying the negative and a mylar half tone screen right on top of the dried photosensitive gel. If you haven’t seen a half tone screen, they were used in the printing industry before the digital age. They break the image into a pattern of small dots. After getting everything in position, I had to expose the plate under a bank of strong lights for several minutes. Then I had to carefully wash developing solution over the area. Because the coating is transparent and the plate is shiny, it can be VERY tricky to see when it’s developed. Then I let it dry and put the plate into the etching acid. The acid will bite around the hardened photo gel. Because this method was so toxic and difficult, I tried another method.

The next thing I tried was to first print the plate which had blank areas where I wanted the photo. Then in my darkroom, coated the printed etching– the paper itself–with photosensitive gel over the blank area where I wanted the photo to appear. Then I put the coated print under the photo enlarger and exposed the negative on to the paper. Then I carefully, very carefully, dabbed photo developer on the exposed photo gel. And same for the fixer. It’s tricky but at least I didn’t feel like I was losing a year off my life expectancy every day. This isn’t really a photo etching, it’s an etching with photo.

Some of both are on my website (see below). The “real” photo etchings are the ones where you can see the dots that make up the screen I used to get texture.

Hope you enjoyed or endured my exposition. If you’d like to see other etchings I’ve done, visit my website  and click on the link that says Come See My Etchings.

 www.mickeyhoffman.com And please leave comments here! Mickey Hoffman is author of two mystery novels, Deadly Traffic and School of Lies, published by Second Wind Publishing, LLC.

~ by mickeyhoffman on January 11, 2013.

4 Responses to “What the heck is an etching?”

  1. Nice to see the old press is getting good care.

  2. Yep, it’s taken care of like a spoiled baby! Hope you saw the blog when the photo links were operating because I had some trouble getting them up the last few days.

  3. This is so fascinating! Thank you for the look at how to do an etching.

  4. […] you’d like to see how involved the etching process is, check out Mickey’s blog, What the heck is an etching? She shows step-by-step what exactly goes into the making of her […]

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