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topic 14847

Safe acid etching of aluminum

A discussion started in 2002 & continuing through 2017


Q. I have been asked to take an 1/8" piece of aluminum and etch away much of it for an art piece. My last and only experience with acid etching was in a school environment more than a decade ago. I recall vapors and the novel approach of pouring the excess down a storm drain. Needless to say I need some help. Either I can do the line art and a professional company can etch it for me, (referral appreciated), or I need to find out how to do this in a manner that is affordable, safe and not destructive to the environment. Any Idea?


Sallie T [last name deleted for privacy by Editor]
studio - Santa Monica, California


A. You should probably use sodium hydroxide, not acid, to etch aluminum. This material is also known as caustic soda, and the chemical formula is NaOH. The most accessible form is probably Drano [linked by editor to product info at Amazon]. I don't believe there is any necessity for significant environmental impact (but there ARE safety issues).

As for the environmental aspect, after the NaOH has dissolved the aluminum, you can neutralize it with vinegar so that it is neither acid nor alkali. The precipitate will be basically aluminum hydroxide, which is a major component of the earth's crust and non toxic. Aluminum salts are used in water treatment and wastewater treatment, so I see no problem in flushing it as long as you are talking a small quantity from an artist, not an industrial quantity. The aluminum may be impure, and release some copper or other metals in the precipitate, but again I think this will be very minor -- in the same range as from scrubbing a copper bottomed pot. But considering your neighbors who clean their pipes with Drano, it seems like nothing to worry about environmentally.

But the safety issues are another matter. Sodium hydroxide can blind you from a single drop in the eye. And the heat of dissolution or neutralization can cause water to flash to steam and make the solution erupt all over you. Plus, sodium hydroxide will kill a person if they accidentally drink it. If a person has lab or chemical training, and personal protective gear on hand, I think they could handle it. In other words, this is a chemical and a process that CAN be handled without incident, but only if you know exactly what you are doing and handle it with a rational fear of the possible consequences of lack of care or accident.

Ted Mooney, Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
Pine Beach, New Jersey


A. Search for etching, photoetching or gravure in your favorite search engine. If yours is a one-time-only operation the following generic answer might do: paint your artwork on the aluminum with acid resistant commercial enamel and immerse in a solution of caustic soda 30%. Little amount of dissolved aluminum residues and the soda will not harm the environment or the drainage pipes noticeably. For large operations find local expert assistance.


Guillermo Marrufo
Monterrey, NL, Mexico


Q. I am in industry and want etching on aluminium by Acid. Etching on aluminium by NaOH disturbs the masked portion. So, I want any acid.

Raj Tuteja
watch hands - New Delhi, India

January 23, 2012

A. Google up copper sulfate mordant.

It's a mixture of copper sulfate, table salt, and the active ingredient in Sani Flush.

It supposedly won't burn you if you get some on your skin, and all the ingredients are routinely poured down the drain so eventual disposal is easy (although it can be reused).

If you also Google up home-built circuit boards, you'll find many people are laser printing onto paper, then ironing the toner onto an item to be engraved, and dissolving the paper off with water. The toner acts as a mask for etching and is then washed off with acetone afterwards.

Some very intricate designs can be etched this way using simple graphic programs as the design source.

Hector Peabody
- Fargo North Dakota U.S.

Safe alkaline etching of aluminum

November 14, 2015

Q. I was reading the advice given sometime back to someone who inquired about being unsure which acid to use to etch aluminum and it was recommended to him that he use an alkaline substance rather than an acid ... specifically NaOH (i.e., lye/sodium hydroxide/caustic soda)...

My question is coming from my knowledge of some chemistry and warnings about reactive contact between different substances, but very little etching experience, so forgive me if the answer seems obvious to you ...

Aren't Sodium Hydroxide and Aluminum two materials who have a fairly peaceful nature by themselves but one of explosive hyperactive violence when brought together? I was always told they react in an explosive way that causes caustic suds/droplets to be spat unpredictably into the environment surrounding their point of contact.

Have I been the victim of over protective instructors and texts? If it does have potential to react as I've been taught, why was that possibility not expressed along with the other dangers involved in the use of sodium hydroxide as a component in aluminum etching? And, has anyone heard from the gentleman who asked for the advice on aluminum etching since that advice was given?

Again I may be misinformed or victim of exaggerated cautions, and if so, please (if you have the time) school me a bit on the reality of the actual reaction that takes place under the circumstances that would occur in the aluminum etching procedure. It's always a good thing to have someone correct one's internal encyclopedia in a way that provides a clear understanding of the facts based on firsthand experience/observation. Kinda like every genuine scientist has his best days learning that his knowledge of something he knew to be true must be replaced with a newly discovered and more complicated set of facts. Knowledge is progress no matter how small.

Siacri Acidium
- mendocino county, california

November 2015

A. Hi Siacri. Caustic has the capability to completely dissolve aluminum to nothing. In fact, some complex manufacturing processes rely upon it. For example, picture metal bellows; a common way of making them is to lathe machine a solid aluminum cylinder into such a shape that it's outside surface matches the desired inside surface of the bellows, then plate the aluminum surface with nickel, and then completely dissolve away the aluminum mandrel, leaving only the nickel bellows.

But whether a reaction is "explosive" (which essentially means reacting almost instantaneously) depends on several factors including the temperature of the caustic and, very importantly, the surface area of the aluminum. Aluminum powder might react so rapidly as to nearly explode, whereas a heavy block of aluminum will react much slower. In industry, it is very common to etch aluminum sheets by immersing them for a minute or so in a vat of fairly concentrated caustic.

It is difficult to offer appropriate warnings, not just because everything is relative, but because the internet is a giant one-room schoolhouse where some people will be reading an entry and find it to be babytalk for them, while others are not remotely qualified to work with such things. For there to be any heedable special warnings for specific circumstances necessitates skipping over the basics -- which might have been even more important for a neophyte than the special warnings. For example, no one should even consider doing any chemical reaction at all, ever, without wearing chemical goggles. Should we print that on every page? If so, must we also print on every page the differences between safety glasses and goggles, and the circumstances when you should wear a full face shield rather than goggles? No one should ever work alone with chemistry ... do we put that on every page too? All of this points to why hands-on training, not notes, must inform safe lab practices :-)


Ted Mooney,
Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
Pine Beach, New Jersey

June 10, 2016

A. I have successfully used NaOH for aluminum removal in semiconductors since Al is a standard metal for bond wires and bond pads. By dissolving the bond pad the underlying structures can be inspected for mechanical damage which may have resulted from excess force during bond placement. I use small amounts of it and it is a VERY SLOW process unless it is heated on a hotplate. Even then, on a small device I will usually use 85C and let the device soak for up to several hours, occasionally inspecting the device under low magnification to check for remaining material.

Eugen Ellefson
- Raleigh, North Carolina USA

October 23, 2017

A. Maybe use electro-etching instead of acid etch - salt instead of acid

jeremy rutman - tel aviv, israel

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