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Artist wants to etch copper and silver

Q. Best way to etch silver and copper? What acid, resist, etc? I am an artist who is a beginner in applying vitreous enamel on copper and silver.

Andrew Dean
- Talent, Oregon

Battery acid

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A. Acid etching is one of my favorite things to do, for finishing a piece. Believe it or not, I've found battery acid [affil links] to be readily available and works well for most metals. Normal candle wax works to keep the whole thing from oxidizing, just melt and apply. If you are going to use battery acid [affil links] I would highly suggest glass containers, it is very corrosive stuff. In addition for cleanup or emergencies baking soda [in bulk on eBay or Amazon (adv.)] and lots and lots of water do the trick; the baking soda neutralizes the acid and the water dilutes anything you miss (do not mix the two without adding water first).

You can usually get battery acid from any junkyard that recycles batteries, usually they are just after the lead in the cells rather than the acid. If you don't know how to drain the battery, find someone that does and get them to help.

For the actual process:

1. Have the piece finished and ready for the second or final polish.

2. Have a design in mind and be sure that you can fit it on the piece. I find making a scale paper model helps to make sure whatever you are doing will fit.

3. Melt wax and apply. To do this safely I suggest a commercial wax warmer, for those of us who don't have one I suggest either a hotplate or lastly, a stovetop. Get a big pot and fill about halfway with water, get a smaller pot (say 1/3-1/4 size) and fill with the wax you will be melting. Put the smaller pot in the water (it should float). Set the heat on medium-high, you want the water just below boiling, this will melt the wax. You can either dip the piece (very good if it is a complex piece, you can dip it in boiling water later on after etching to remove excess wax) or paint it on with a paintbrush (note foam doesn't work very well for this).

4. Etch your design into the wax, this takes the most time and the most patience for me. You need the lines to be clear, consistent, and even. The width of the lines now is how it's going to look after the etching.

5. Acid bath, soak the piece in your acid bath, watch it for the first five minutes to be sure that nothing has gone horribly wrong, then every 15 to 30 minutes remove the piece, inspect, and immerse until you have it the color you want.

6. Clean the finished piece with baking soda and water to neutralize any remaining acid. Polish and enjoy.

Hope this helps you on your way.

Marc Banks
- Elizabeth City, North Carolina

A. Best way to etch copper and silver is electrolytic etching process.

For small scale work you can use hobby drill rectifier or even 4,5 V battery.Object= anode(+),piece of copper sheet=cathode(-). Use diluted nitric acid electrolyte (1 part acid, 20 parts water. Wax is simplest resist.

Good luck!

Goran Budija
- Zagreb , Croatia

A. Copper can also be etched with ferric chloride [on eBay or Amazon (adv.)] which is readily available and allows for numerous resists - any lacquer, enamel or even a Sharpie permanent marker will work.

Amber Alexander
- Denver, Colorado

A. One VERY important item when dealing with strong acids. NEVER add water to acid! ALWAYS add the acid into water. Adding water to a strong acid can cause a violent reaction.

Steve Mickey
- Cedar City, Utah
November 10, 2008

Art teacher wants to etch silver without toxics

Q. I'm teaching printmaking in an art school in Brussels. All etching techniques we apply (copper and zinc) are non toxic. One of my students came to the studio especially for the non toxic techniques using all kinds of acrylates as resists. She also would like to etch silver as she works as a jewelry designer as well. I know that the reactions between copper sulphate [on eBay or Amazon (adv.)]on zinc, and ferrichloride on copper work as a 'redox reaction' producing no harmful fumes and that they can be used without exhaust systems. Is there any possibility for etching silver in a similar way? which product to be used? in which concentration, security indications, etc...

Filip Le Roy
printmaking studio - art school - Brussels, Belgium

A. You can use electrolytic etching (object=anode; as cathode you can use stainless steel). Simplest current source for small object is hobby drill rectifier. Diluted nitric acid (1 part acid, 20 parts water) or 2-5% silver nitrate solution add few drops of nitric acid) can be used as electrolyte.
Good luck!

Goran Budija
- Cerovski vrh Croatia

A. Hello, I think that ferric nitrate is what you might want to use -- see on goss design studio webpage (techniques, etching silver). They use it for silver jewelry; even I use electrolytic etching like above mentioned. Good luck.

Miroslav Tadej
- Zagreb, Croatia
March 22, 2009

Electrolyte for electro-etching Sterling Silver

Q. Hi.

I would like to electro-etch sterling and fine silver. In the past I have etched the regular way but didn't like the undercuts so we built an electro-etcher with instructions from a knife making site. Since they are etching steel, I need to find a different electrolyte to use with the silver.

Someone suggested phosphorus but I'm not sure how to buy or use this. I tried Coke and I tried salt. I'd like to use something that is as safe as possible but will still give a good etch. Do you have any suggestions?

Judith Bastien
jewelry maker - Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

A. You can use 5% silver nitrate solution (add a few drops nitric acid), or very dilute nitric acid.

Good luck!

Goran Budija
- Cerovski vrh Croatia

ferric chloride[on eBay or Amazon (adv.)]pitted my silver

Q. I recently did some of acid etching using ferric chloride [on eBay or Amazon (adv.)]. The piece was a mix of copper and fine silver. everything that I can find says that ferric chloride[on eBay or Amazon (adv.)]only eats copper, brass and nickel. But when I took the piece out of the spray etcher there where numerous pits in the fine silver that were not there when it went in. Has anyone ever heard of this or know how/why this might happen? The ferric chloride[on eBay or Amazon (adv.)]was brand new.

Jeffery gallott
student - north dartmouth, Massachusetts
May 14, 2009

Q. Hi all,

I'm in the process of producing a series of lightly-etched copper plates as part of an art project, using ferric chloride[on eBay or Amazon (adv.)]as etchant. All is going fine, except that the color of the etch is frequently variegated across the surface of the plate, from classic "raw copper" color to darker browns to streaks of gold. Soaking in vinegar [in bulk on eBay or Amazon (adv.)] and salt after biting takes care of some of it, but nothing seems to do anything to the gold. Not sure what these streaks are (salts of some sort, I'd assume), but they seem to correspond roughly to where the ferric chloride[on eBay or Amazon (adv.)]was last concentrated on the plate surface as it was being washed off. Any insights?

Thanks immensely!

Jared Friedman
artist - Brooklyn, New York, USA
October 22, 2012

Q. Dear Sir,
Hello, I have a mix of plates which contain copper (97%-98%) and silver (2%-3%). I want a plant which is easy to use. Which rectifier should I use for best result? How much volts and amperes should I use in that plant?

Thanking you,

Yours Faithfully

Markand Dattarey
January 17, 2013

Etching silver with potassium iodide and iodine

Q. I'm a silver smith in Florida trying to etch some silver for earrings. I used the formula for the potassium iodide and iodine, 4 g of K1 with 1 g of iodine and 40 ml deionized water. I mixed the solution as stated and used colorless nail polish for the resist but after 3 hours in the solution, I see no evidence of etching. Any thing I'm missing here? Does the solution need to be heated? or does the solution need to be stirred frequently with a feather to keep the etching process clear? Please advise. Thanks ever so much.
Kay in Florida

Kay Vontz
silver fabrication - Sarasota, Florida, USA

Q. How can I etch name on silver bracelet?

Anand panchal
jewelry workshop - kuwait
February 21, 2014

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