Introduction: Electroetching Metal(s)

Sometimes we find ourselves with the need of making marks on metal, perhaps somewhat intricate marks or patterns for decorative or utilitarian purposes. While there are many ways to mark metal probably the most permanent one is to etch the metal itself, as in removing small amounts of the metal to leave a lasting divot in the surface.

Just as there are many ways to skin a cat there are many ways to etch metal. The most common one is using acids, which for instance is very common in PCB manufacturing to eat away the copper on the circuit boards. This, however, requires handling of corrosive chemicals which oftentimes also cannot be disposed of safely. While completely doable even in a home setting (look up copper/brass etching with ferric chloride for instance) there are better ways to do it, which requires absolutely no dangerous chemicals.

What we need:

Metal, one piece which you want to etch and a sacrificial piece of the same material
Salt, sodium chloride, but any salt which makes water able to conduct electricity should work
Power supply, preferably something which at least could churn out a couple of amps, but in a pinch even a 9V battery works
Resist, as in something which you can cover the metal with to selectively choose where to etch, can be plastic tape or even sharpie marks
A cutting tool, in the video we use a laser cutter, but there's no reason that an xacto knife and a steady hand couldn't be used as well.

And that's it, using these things you can easily utilize the method described in the video above.

Warning and disclaimer

Electricity and water can be a dangerous combination, especially when working with higher currents. Be careful and make sure not to (as I did accidentally in the video) touch both electrodes at once with bare hands

Depending on the material you etch you may release particles into the water which are not environmentally safe, and in some cases may not be healthy for you either. Stainless steel for instance may release hexavalent chromium which is a listed carcinogen, and when etching brass or copper you will release copper into the water which also needs to be disposed of safely (i.e. not flushed down the drain). Look at the alloy mix of the metal you're etching and do your research if it's environmentally safe or not.

Also, make sure that you do your etching outside or in a well ventilated area as it may release anything from minute to decent amount of chloride gas, which can be immediately dangeous to human health as well. With fair ventilation that risk is however removed.

 Hope you enjoy the video, and make sure to subscribe on youtube if you want to keep updated with future updates, as all may not be posted on instructables.

Thank you, and happy etching!

Comments

author
branhamr made it!(author)2014-03-24

Great instructable. In November 1968 Popular Science magazine published an article on marking metal with electro-etching. They used a mimeograph stencil, aluminum foil, salt water and a home-built rectified dc power supply. I was in Vietnam at the time and had a new camera, which I promptly marked quite neatly. Let's see, you can still get mimeograph stencils, check; there are still a few typewriters floating around in antique stores, check: and wall warts are clogging our land fills so you probably don't need to wire a home-built! The article (along with everything PopSci ever published) is at http://www.popsci.com/archive-viewer?id=DCoDAAAAMBAJ&pg=154&query=MIMEOGRAPH%20STENCIL

author
Bowtie41 made it!(author)2014-03-25

Not a helluva lot of VN Vets left.Thank You for serving in a sh!tty situation a lot of people didn't want to do!

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ElChick made it!(author)2015-10-22

Hear hear!!!

author
macrumpton made it!(author)2014-04-13

Here is another version in Popular Mechanics using paraffin as a resist:

http://books.google.com/books?id=nNwDAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA195&dq=Popular%20mechanics%20magazine%20%20electro-etching&pg=PA195#v=onepage&q=Popular%20mechanics%20magazine%20%20electro-etching&f=false

author
Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-24

That's awesome! I love old PopSci articles. It's amazing to see something this simple as being sold as high tech home etching solutions, for hundreds of dollars, right now when you can put it together from things you likely already have in your home. Thanks for the share!

author
RayJN made it!(author)2014-03-23

Silly question, if you have a laser etcher why bother with electroetching?

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Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-24

Simply because the laser is not powerful enough to make a dent in the metal surface. Using more high powered lasers (usually you wouldn't find those outside industrial applications) you could of course mark the metal itself.

author
silveravnt made it!(author)2015-10-01

I was going to ask the same thing. Thank you for answering. Great instructable!

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john7z7 made it!(author)2014-04-01

Nice instructable! What solvent did you use for the paint?

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Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-04-05

Just regular thinner, nothing special.

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john7z7 made it!(author)2014-04-07

Thanks!

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tampapoet made it!(author)2014-03-24

Great video! You did an excellent job. I love the part where you show what could go wrong. I would have totally missed that.

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snoopindaweb made it!(author)2014-03-24

Endless possibilitys.

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cexdance made it!(author)2014-03-24

Great Video Switch and Lever!

I am currently doing chemical etching for a small project and have gone through many workflows.

Currently doing the photoresist to create pattern and etching with a ferric chloride + citric acid solution.

Still not 100% happy with the results but I will keep trying.

You think I could etch through a 0.5mm plate with this method?

Best

photo1.jpg
author
Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-24

I'm sure you could, although I'm not sure how long it would take or how much you'd have to deal with the edges of the etch starting to be eaten away as well. With the tape there's the obvious risk that it would start lifting after prolonged exposure to the salt water, but with the paint (or using a proper resist) that shouldn't be a problem.

author
cexdance made it!(author)2014-03-24

I have work with the photoresist and it has given me fairly good results. Will like to take it to the next level though. Instead of soaking, I will spray the etching solution. It should take less time and reduce the wear on the photoresist.

author
neffk made it!(author)2014-03-24

Nice.

BTW, circuit boards are usually made with a non-acidic chemistry. The ferric chloride swaps metal ions with the copper on the board. So it's a replacement reaction that depends on the relative position of copper and iron on the activity series.

author
Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-24

Interesting, I did not know this. I've only seen it done with acidic methods. Thanks for the info!

author
neffk made it!(author)2014-03-24

Oh, I didn't know there was another process. I guess I only am familiar with the radio-shack kit :) I've seen board houses that use multiple tanks, some of which are acid for cleaning. Didn't know they etch that way, too. Maybe the ferric chloride method is just safe enough for consumers...

author
spark+master made it!(author)2014-03-24

Very nice. If I were doing flat work, though, I would have a pan not a cup, and then you could put say a piece of brass screen on bottom of the tank. Additionally you can either mover the electrolyte, (small pump) or move the object. (move hand)

just like electroplating, as you are etching yes, but you are also plating onto the rod.

author
hilojohn made it!(author)2014-03-23

This system is the same basic way you electroplate something. The metal particles coming out of the etched area will plate the other metal piece.

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Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-24

That's what I thought, as you can use the same method for removing corrosion as well, and the anodes tend to build up quite a lot of crud (looking a bit like barnacles) on them with that process.

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dcastor made it!(author)2014-03-23

what metal do you use for the anode? Do different metals lead to different results?

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Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-23

I honestly don't know. The way I was taught was that you should use an anode of similar material (i.e. steel for steel, brass for brass, etc) for best results. I'm not sure what would happen if you use an anode of another metal, my hunch say it would still work, but I don't know if it would have any side effects.

author
mce128 made it!(author)2014-03-24

That is what electroplating is... you use a different metal as the sacrificial anode and the metal of the anode plates the other piece. While a grossly oversimplified explaination, is the main gist of it.

author
Skalblaka made it!(author)2014-03-23

Very cool and well done video. How many amps/volts where you using in the video? It moved to fast for me to get a good idea.

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Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-23

I'm at about 2 amps and fluctuating between 10-20 volts. However, this isn't critical, and this method can be done with a 9v battery as well, even though it will obviously take longer.

Cheers, glad you liked the video!

author
Skalblaka made it!(author)2014-03-23

Oh wow, that isn't much. I never thought it would be that easy.

author
danzo321 made it!(author)2014-03-23

OK, simple.. but metal could have gone either way, from the anode rod TO the ruler, right? I didn't see anything about polarity. Also unclear how long you kept it in the etching bath. Should have gone longer, you say.

author
Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-23

I'm unsure about this, as far as I know the mateial also deposits on the anode, which is therefore why it shouldn't be connected to the piece you want to etch, but rather to a sacrificial piece of metal.

I left that piece in for about 50-60 seconds, however there are many parameters that will affect how long you keep it in. Such as the area you want etched, the area of your anode, the concentration of the salt water as well as how high current you're using. This is why you need to do tests if you're etching things where you cannot easily take it out and observe how deep the etch is. I did do some tests, but obviously some parameter was off, and the etch came out a little shallower than intended.

author
danzo321 made it!(author)2014-03-23

Metal moves from one charged pole to the other. Sacrificial means you don't care about it, but in this case the plain rod grows thicker as the metal leaves the ruler. If you had reversed polarity, the ruler would have gotten thicker markings where bare.

author
tcarney57 made it!(author)2014-03-23

Really well-made video! A great example to the rest of us!

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Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-23

Thank you!

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SJU87 made it!(author)2014-03-23

Thanks! Nicely done! I especially like that you show the issues you dealt with and the solutions you came up with, bonus points for your sense of humor. I wonder if you could deal with the shallow etching by covering the entire piece with some type of paint and then rubbing off the surface, leaving paint in the etching.

author
askjerry made it!(author)2014-03-23

I was thinking of that too... like the blueing they use for guns or similar dye. In theory it would stick tot he rough surface of the etching. Guess we will need to experiment.

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Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-23

It can definitely be done, and I have done similar things in the past. Though, it helps if the etch is a bit deeper than what I got it to, easier to get it to stay in the etched areas when you wipe off the excess.

But indeed, experiment, that's how we learn...and then share with everyone else!

author
Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-23

I have been considering it. I've done a similar etching (though with brass and acid) where I inlaid gloss black enamel paint into the recess created by the etch to create a really nice looking old timey metal maker's sign/label.

Glad you like it!

author
scroft1 made it!(author)2014-03-23

Nice one, you could also use UV Positive Photo lacquer, same as used for home made PCB's.

But you would need the developer, to remove the exposed areas, not expensive and a bit (cough) less than a Laser Cutter.

Thanks for a cool video.

Steve (Electronic & PCB Designer)

author
Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-23

For sure, I've played around a little bit with that in the past, although never with electroetching. I know it works wonders when you're etching brass or copper with ferric chloride though. I'd love to see some examples of how it works with electroetching.

A more low cost solution may be to use glossy inkjet paper printed on a laser printer and heat transferred to the metal, I've had great success with that as well. May do a bit of a writeup on that method as well at some point.

Cheers!

author
geospi made it!(author)2014-03-23

great job, Yes PLEASE do the inkjet paper heat transfer instructable.

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clockworkfish made it!(author)2014-03-20

Great video!

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Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-21

Cheers!

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Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-21

Heh, tell me about it. I sometimes feel a bit spoiled with the equipment we have available here at Umeå Institute of Design.

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FrankenPC made it!(author)2014-03-21

You make that look so easy! Now all I need is a laser cutter! I love reasons to buy awesome equipment.

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Switch+and+Lever made it!(author)2014-03-21

It is easy! The laser cutter is probably the most complicated part, and by far the least necessary one. You can do the same with an xacto knife, or even by painting the pattern you want to etch with a solvent based paint, such as hobby enamel paints.

Not that I think getting a laser cutter is a bad thing, it's definitely on my list for future equipment!

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