Etching Plates

I finally got my plates done. It only took forever.

I made two 4×6 inch copper etching plates, which are for the little Artists’ book I am making called Houses. I figured I’d take you through the process. I meant to take images of the process while I was doing it, but I failed to do that. I’m a big dummy. That would have been much more exciting, huh? Yeah, I know. Instead, I will just have to explain it and fake it out for you.

I started with buying the plates from Daniel Smith. Luckily, I already have etching tools.

I began by filing the edges of the plate. You have to round them off, otherwise the sharp, blunt edges will cut through the paper when you later print them on the press.

Once that’s done you have to clean the shit out of the plate. First I used a little Bar Keeper’s cleanser, some water and very fine grit sandpaper and scrubbed it up in little tiny circular motions on both sides. This removes all the fine scratches and bumps and cleans it thoroughly.

Then I polished it with Brasso. It got nice and shiny!

After that, I used a de-greaser. You can’t have ANY residue on this thing for the next step…

After it was dried off, I used contact shelf paper to stick to the back and removed all the air bubbles, which took a looong time. I turned it over and used an Exacto knife to cut exactly at the edges so the whole back was fully covered. This is so the acid wouldn’t eat at the back of the plate. Then I made a long tail with the contact paper as well so I could later dunk it into the acid bin without touching the plate at all.

Now it was time to apply the hard ground. This crap is toxic and will get you high! I poured some into a small bowl and used one of those small, foamy padded paint brushes to apply a moderate coat. I wound up letting the pad dry up and threw away inside a plastic zip-lock bag. I didn’t know what else to do with it, but I’m glad I used all that I poured.

Once the ground was dry I sketched a bunch of drawings to figure out what would be best to go with the poem in the book on the pages that correspond for these prints. Once I got them right, I drew them on tracing paper, cut out a piece of carbon, and transferred them backwards on top of the dried ground.

Then the fun part comes: scratching into the plate with the tools. The hard ground keeps the acid from biting, so whatever you scratch off if what the acid will bite into. Using the tools, I scratched along my carbon pencil marks to reveal the copper and make my drawing. I did it on both plates and it with all the deciding and sketching, then scratching, that took all day. The next day I made the acid bath.

I found the perfect little vessel at Target, but I still had to use almost 60 ounces of Ferric Chloride. This stuff is not as toxic as the etching acid of the olden days, but it is still toxic and will still burn the shit out of your skin if you touch it, so you have to wear protective gloves. I am paranoid, so I bought PVC gloves, wore a little mask and glasses.

I left those plates in there for about an hour and a half, checking on them every 20 minutes or so, until I could see a pretty good bite where ink would lay into the plate, but not so deep that it would pool up – you don’t want that. That would saturate the paper, and the paper I am using is pretty light. So once I felt satisfied, I pulled them out and placed them into a bin of clean water. I dried them off with a clean cloth, and with another I started rubbing off the ground with orderless mineral spirits.

Then I went through the whole whole rig-a-ma-roll again with polishing and degreasing the plate again, after removing the shelf paper and had myself a couple of plates I can now go to Self Help Graphics and print with!

Now I need Poli’s help because the really hard part of inking the plates begin. And she is the Master.

Thanks for reading!

3 thoughts on “Etching Plates

  1. Kathy Hodge April 8, 2011 / 12:00 pm

    Great tutorial! I just got back to taking some etching classes myself. I took a non-toxic class but it really wasn’t as good as the toxic variety. Doesn’t that just figure? Now I’m taking “toxic” intaglio but it’s still safer than when I took it in college, using real acid and zinc plates. I kind of miss hovering over the acid bath, brushing off the bubbles with a feather though.

  2. Kel April 13, 2011 / 7:39 pm

    What happens to the plates when you are done ?

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