This is a technique that has been used by humans for a very long time.

Learn how to create a deep electro-etched metal plaque with household items or items from the hardware store in this Instructable.  There are no hazardous chemicals (except dihydrogen monoxide and salts of sodium and chlorine), no dangerous voltages, and no toxic chemicals to dispose of.  Be aware that the metal that disappears from your etched metal does end up in the water, so you will need to pay attention to any local laws about disposal of metal particulates.

This is a great technique that makes it really easy to go from virtual artwork of any type to a dimensional 3D surface.  From there you can use it ti burnish and emboss paper, create molded items, make stamps, steam punk data plates, or anything else where you need to have 3D art from your 2D computer graphics artwork.

In this sample project, I will be creating the plaque from a 1/8" rectangle of brass as shown in the second photo.

So read on if this is something you would like to be able to do yourself.

Step 1: Here's What You'll Need

You will need the following items and supplies:
  • Piece of brass, bronze, aluminum, steel or stainless steel, or any other metal
  • Vector graphics program or other program to create the art for the CNC vinyl cutter
  • CNC vinyl cutter
  • Self-adhesive vinyl sheet for the vinyl cutter, any color is fine
  • Tub large enough to hold your piece of metal
  • Salt
  • Water
  • Battery charger or charged car battery (or other similar DC power supply of 5 to 10 amps or more)
  • Wires to connect the power supply to the piece of metal
  • Sacrificial piece of metal (preferably stainless steel, but any metal will work)
  • Electrical tape


<p>Rapid bubbling means you are disassociating water. I use 5v from a pc power supply for my etching. I like to use an electrode that is as large or larger than my etch target. Things like proximity, solution concentration, total amperage all make a difference on etch speed. My setup is basically a copper grid electrode that sits 2 inches(5 cm) from the target face. I also use copper sulfate as my electrolyte, but I only process copper materials.</p><p>Also, for those in the US anytime you do electrochemical etching or plating your waste water is epa regulated. </p><p> Stainless steel is particularly bad as the electro-etching converts the chome to hexavalent chromium which is nasty nasty stuff and should never be put down a drain.</p>
Are you sure the + goes on the piece to be etched? I had it hooked up to a car battery for about an hour and got only a few bubbles from the stainless on the -. When i reversed the wires the knife i was etching started bubbling quite rapidly.
<br>Hi Cameron G17...<br><br>Yes, I'm &quot;positive&quot; about that' ;)<br><br>Actually, I did a demo one time and hooked it up backwards, and all the stencil elements that I had carefully cut out of vinyl sheet instantly popped off and floated into the salt water when I connected the power.<br><br>I'm not sure what the problem is with your setup. Does the battery have sufficient charge (check the volts, should be close to 14v)?<br><br>Also, check the polarity with your digital multimeter to be sure the car battery isn't charged backwards or the wire colors are switched or something weird like that.<br><br>Maybe try a different piece of metal for the sacrificial metal.<br><br>Let me know what happens...thanks!<br>
<p>Hi Jim,</p><p>Great tutorial! Wealth of information here. How deep do you think it is safe to etch Aluminum? I'm trying to etch my project as deep as I can but I want to avoid &quot;undercutting,&quot; as you say. How long would you recommend keeping it in the etch bath?</p><p>Thanks,</p><p>Daniel</p>
<p>Sure, aluminum was the first kind of metal I ever electro etched and it worked great. </p><p>I guess any metal except mercury or gallium would be OK. Maybe not uranium or plutonium or sodium or lithium either. Probably others to avoid along those lines. ;)</p><p> But anything you can buy at your local hardware store or metal yard will be fine.</p>
<p>Hi Jim-</p><p>Second question. I'm very unclear on what power supply to get. I've heard that battery chargers work well, but I just don't know which one to get, the market is so saturated. I found this plug-in unit on ebay: <a href="http://www.ebay.com/itm/Black-Decker-BM3B-6V-and-12V-Battery-Charger-Maintainer-1-5-Amp-/252380838279?hash=item3ac311f987:g:cb4AAOSwn9lXLMvj&item=252380838279&vxp=mtr" rel="nofollow">http://www.ebay.com/itm/Black-Decker-BM3B-6V-and-1...</a></p><p>Do you think this would work? If not, what should I be looking for?</p><p>Thanks again,</p><p>Daniel<br></p>
<br>Hi Daniel...<br><br>I would not expect any digital battery charger to work for etching. In my experience, they are TOO smart and they know it isn't a battery that is connected to its terminals.<br><br>You could use a standard power supply. Search eBay for &quot;12 Volt 5 Amp (12V 5A) DC AC Adapter Charger Power Supply&quot; and you'll see what I am referring to.<br><br>Good luck!<br>
<p>Thank you! That helps.</p><p>I looked up what you suggested on eBay and I found mostly laptop charger-esque chargers like this one: <a href="http://www.ebay.com/itm/12-Volt-5-Amp-12V-5A-DC-AC-Adapter-Charger-Power-Supply-Cord-LCD-Monitor-/251648430285?hash=item3a976a50cd:g:EUwAAOSwPhdVUxki" rel="nofollow">http://www.ebay.com/itm/12-Volt-5-Amp-12V-5A-DC-AC...</a></p><p>Would this one work? </p><p>Thank you again!</p>
<p>I think that one will probably work fine.</p><p>Good luck!</p>
Hi im giving my friend a hip flask for his birthday, do you think this would be possible to do on a hip flask?
<br>Yes, it would definitely work as long as it is metal and has no coating. You can check the surface with a DMM (digital multi-meter) to make sure it is conductive from one area to another. Sometimes flasks and other metal objects have a thin layer of polyurethane or lacquer on them to keep them from tarnishing.<br><br>That sounds like a very thoughtful gift that your friend will always want to keep!
Let me just add two quick points:<br><br>1.) Don't go too deep. You might want to be able to peel off a spot of tape or vinyl to check the depth as you etch, then dry off the surface really good and reapply fresh tape or vinyl to recover the inspection area. It would suck to etch pin holes into the flask, unless you wanted to do it as a joke gift. ;)<br><br>2.) You can also use other techniques like using Cermark with a laser cutter to apply a black image or design to the flask. If you live near any of our 11 TechShop locations worldwide, then you can use one of those.<br><br>The other technique I was thinking about that would work would be to create the mask just like you're going to with the etching method, but apply a coat of Pebeo Porcelaine glass paint (here's a link to the black Porcelaine on Amazon, but they have all colors: http://amzn.com/B00266L07I) with spray, brush or sponge. Then remove the mask, and bake the flask at 150 degrees C (302 degrees F) to fire the Porcelaine glass paint. I use this paint for all sorts of things, and it is really awesome. You can thin it with isopropyl and spray it with an airbrush. They also have Pebeo Porcelaine paint pens if you want to draw your design onto the flask and then bake it on.<br><br>Good luck!<br>
Thank you for the quick answer and advice!
<p>Trying to do this within the next two days for a friends birthday. I have/can easily get all the supplies, but electricity tends to go over my head. Would a 12 Volt, 5 Amp battery be fine for applying the charge?</p>
<p>Hi, yes that will work fine, just check it every 20 min. you can loose some fine details if you leave it longer with a bit higher voltage. :)</p>
<p>Thank you all so much! I'm going to be trying this with a 12v 9 amp battery, and hope that all works out. </p>
<br>Hi Flamel777...<br><br>Yes, that will work fine while the battery is charged up, but the etching process takes quite a bit of current so the battery might go dead fairly quickly.<br><br>Your 5 amp battery means that it can supply 5 amps for 1 hour, 1 amp for 5 hours, 1/10 of an amp for 50 hours, or any combination along those lines. So depending on how much current your etching set up consumes, you can calculate the time you will be able to etch for.<br><br>Good luck! Your friend will love it, I'm sure!<br>
<p>Thank you so much for responding so fast! I'm going out to buy my battery pretty soon, so I'll look for something with a higher amperage. However, I also have a trickle charger that can put out 12 volts at one amp (forgive my syntax, I only have a rudimentary knowledge of this stuff), would hooking it up while doing the etching increase the life of the battery? It doesn't have any &quot;smart&quot; features, so I would assume so. But if that doesn't work, or is unsafe, or such, could I simply use the battery until it runs out and then charge it up using the trickle charger (which would take forever, I know, but I still have a day and a half), and plug everything back in? I'm only doing a small piece, so I imagine it won't require a ton of charge. Fingers crossed, at least... </p>
<p>Hooking the charger up to the battery should work just fine because it is not a smart charger. You could try etching just from the charger itself.</p>
What other way to attach the lettering and something besides vinyl if you don't have a cutter or that material thanks for your help, Darrel
<p>I do it with liquid masking tape and a tooth pick, it is a kind of liquid latex, after you take it out of the bath, you just peel it with your finger tips. Hope that helps :)</p>
<br>Hi Skimann747...<br><br>You can use any water-resistant material that will seal the surface and keep the salt water (and electrical current) from reaching it.<br><br>Some materials could include electrical tape, scotch tape, nail polish, paint, paint pens, Sharpie pen (maybe), circuit board resist products, and many other things.<br><br>The tricky part is getting the desired artwork established into the resist. If you don't have any CNC computer-driven equipment, then you can use an Xacto knife, needles to scratch, or other implements. You just have to do it by hand.<br><br>You also could possibly use the Toner Transfer method. This is where you print your design on a laser printer (not a laser cutter), and then use heat and pressure to make the toner transfer from the paper onto your metal surface. There are tons of web pages about how to do this, and probably dozens of Instructables too. I used to use this method for making circuit boards, but now I use an OtherMill which is much easier.<br><br>Good luck!<br>
<p>Hi, has anyone tried this with Sterling silver? I think is works the same but i have doubts on what to use as a sacrifice metal, i tried with copper and worked great.</p>
<p>Thank you very much for this tutorial. It is the safest and easiest way to etch that I have seen.!!!!!</p>
<p>Hi, Can we use Laptop charging adapter giving output 20V, 5amps as a etching instrument?</p>
<p>Probably not. Modern laptop AC adapters are &quot;smart&quot; devices, not simple DC power sources. I think it needs to &quot;talk&quot; to the laptop's charging circuit before it supplies substantial amounts of juice.</p>
<p>I love the idea of this and want to make an anniversary gift for my wife. But, my window to do so now is tight. So, a few questions:</p><p>1) If I want to have a silvery metal for this, would steel or aluminum work faster (so I have time for do-overs).</p><p>2) Do I need something as powerful as a car battery. Or any 7 or 8 amp, 12V battery will work?</p><p>3) With all the reservations expressed about stainless steel in the comments, what would be a good substitute for the sacrificial piece?</p><p>Thank you very much for posting this. It looks like a real fun project.</p>
<br>Hey, that's cool that you want to make something for your wife. She will love it (no matter how it turns out)!<br><br>1.) Steel and aluminum will work, but I don't know if they would be faster or not. Aluminum was the first metal I used for electro-etching back when I started TechShop (almost 10 years ago). I made a TechShop logo in a block of aluminum which was etched in backwards so I could hand-emboss the gift certificates we sold to raise some of our initial funding. I used a ball-end burnisher to rub the paper into the engraved area.<br><br>2.) Any DC power supply will work as long as the amperage is high enough. Voltage can vary from maybe 5VDC to 24VDC. If you use a smaller battery, you just have to think about how you will recharge the battery and how often. You might be able to keep the charger connected to the battery during the etching, but it depends on the charger...some don't like to put out power unless they detect a battery and only a battery.<br><br>3.) I personally believe stainless steel is fine for the sacrificial side. You can actually use any metal, but you want to be sure it has a large surface area. You could use something like stainless steel scrubbers.<br><br>Good luck!<br>
I did it but it gave that result? Why?
<p>Hey there! I had the exact same problem. After a lot of research, I did some experimenting and found the source of the problem and the solution. Like you, my first stainless projects were heavily pitted / granular, and took a long time to etch; even though it masked pretty well with vinyl, it had a tendency to bubble up under any paint resist and push the resist off (thus pitting where it wasn't supposed to). If you let it continue to etch, it would develop a rough, granular texture - that while interesting, the texture isn't very pretty. </p><p>The main issue is that stainless requires much more energy to etch, and I (like you I think) had barely enough conduction in the electrolyte to etch; I think what happens is that it creates little pinpoints of connection through the electrolyte instead of a nicely evenly distributed current across the metal. </p><p>The solution is to maximize the conductivity of the electrolyte. I found that if you heated the water, and kept adding salt / stirring until it literally couldn't hold any more salt (saturation). It took a surprising amount of salt! Then I liberally added a bunch of white distilled vinegar (by eye, about 1:8 ratio to water I guess), and then tried adding in more salt. By adding the vinegar, it effectively becomes electrochemical etching I guess. I read somewhere that adding hydrogen peroxide helps too, but I'm not sure how that might help; it won't add significantly to the acidity. The vinegar certainly helps keep the solution clearer than just salt water alone.</p><p>I've attached a before/after picture of two experiments. Both are stainless steel plate, prepared only with abrasive sanding and paint thinner to remove the oil from my fingerprints and vinyl sheet labels for the masks/resists (I did use a paint resist on an earlier attempt that showed the same area-pitting that you have). The first shows the rough pitting (about 6 hours etching), the second is nice and smooth with sharp edges and surprising depth and lack of undercutting (about 1 hour etching). I use an Evercharge 12v/6a battery charger for the juice. Handle and dispose of the used electrolyte responsibly, good luck!</p>
<br>Hi MS...<br><br>That's weird.<br><br>The only thing I can imagine is a problem with the power supply, or your metal has a coating on the whole surface like maybe some sort of varnish.<br><br>Are you using a DC power supply? AC power might cause that sort of thing to happen, but I'm not sure.<br><br>Check your metal surface with a multimeter to be sure that it is conductive across the areas you are trying to etch. If there is a film or varnish, then it will not be conductive on the surface.<br><br>Very strange indeed! Please let us know what you find.<br>
Can you give me an idea of the ratio of salt to the volume of water? I understand the more salt makes the water more electricity conductive but I have no starting point. I tried this salt water solution and I put 1/4 cup of salt in 3 quarts of water. After about an hour and a half in the salt water solution and using a fully charged 12volt motorcycle battery with the positive terminal connected to my brass and the negative terminal connected to a scrap piece of iron, the depth of etch was only about 0.0005&quot; I am actually needing about 0.005&quot;. I have used an acid solution in the past to etch brass and had success but I am looking towards salt water as a safer solution. Thanks for a great tutorial.
btw i think the green tinge is actually due to the chlorine gas produced
You might be right! However, it did not smell anything like chlorine. The green color was just like the color you see on brass and copper when they acquire patina.
<p>You're right, it's the hydroxide reacting with the copper. You'll get a vile shade of brown with iron(III) and a dark green with iron(II).</p>
I made a rustic version of this for my great grandfather's grave.
<p>Do you have a suggestion as to specific type of vinyl to use? In researching online, there is a lot of variety ... all the way from hobby vinyl to outdoor sign quality. I want to make sure I get a vinyl that's sticky enough. Thanks!</p>
<p>Hi Tori,</p><p>I usually use the cheapest vinyl handy (like Oracal 530) for such purposes and it works well.</p><p>A little hint: usually I solder the lead to the matal plate, therefore it is quite hot after that. While it's still warm (you might call it hot because I am a jeweler so I sense heat less than others) I give the surface a fast degreasing cleaning and apply the vinyl immidiately. Perhaps you can heat up the plate with a heat gun from the backside after the vinyl is applied.</p><p>Btw I place the plate vertically ito the bath and agitate the solution with compressed air through a foamstone (usually used in fishtanks).</p>
I have a smart battery charger. My work-around is a small 12v DC power supply from radio shack. I attached clips to the ends of the wires on the power supply and leave them clipped to the appropriate larger clips that come from the battery charger. I plug in the charger and the converter and it works. The battery charger senses the 12 volts from the small power supply and thinks it's a battery. Cheaper and probably better than placing a motorcycle battery into the system.
Hi. I really want a help. What is the machine that makes the print in metal plates? I want to create my own plates. One example is the image below.<br>The plates are for nail stamping.
<br>Hi Karlla...<br><br>I'm not sure I'm understanding your question, but for this project you would probably want to use a laser cutter to remove the coating on your metal where you want to etch.<br><br>If you are stamping on fingernails with nail polish or paint, you might consider using rubber stamp material. You could laser engrave the rubber to create the stamps.<br><br>Good luck!<br>
The stamping plates are not in rubber material, they are engrave on steel. <br><br>I questioned a company that has some machine. I'lI see what they will tell me.<br><br>Thank you so much.
Hi will this charger work ?
<br>Hi Agguilar...<br><br>Probably not. Smart charges and automatic chargers tend to try to make sure a battery is attached. Your electro-etching set up probably won't look like a battery to the charger.<br><br>However, the good news is that you can connect this charger to a car or motorcycle battery, then run wires off the battery to your rig. The charger SHOULD charge the battery while the etching is taking place.<br><br>Good luck!<br>
<p>Are there any special steps for getting rid of the salt water (now with lots of metal in it) once you are done? <br><br>Are there any environment or health concerns with doing this to aluminum?<br><br>Thanks!</p>
<p>Yeah, same question. Is the copper in the solution harmful to marine life? How did you dispose of the solution and the sludge? Is it safe (and legal) to just throw it down the drain? How did you check?</p>
<br>Hello Virosa1 and Rival1...<br><br>Concerns about pouring copper solutions down the drain come up frequently on Instructables that involve etching PCBs or other forms of copper and brass.<br><br>I would like to try to clear the air a little bit here.<br><br>First of all, we are NOT dumping the waste copper solutions into the waterways or storm drains or oceans! Instead, we are disposing of these copper solutions properly into the municipal sewer system. There is no marine life in the sewer system (at least not that we care about). Please let us not confuse the two water systems. They are completely separated.<br><br>Secondly, if you do a search for &quot;copper root drain&quot; (without the quote marks), you will discover that there are a wide variety of products sold worldwide including in every state in the US which contain copper (typically copper sulfate), and are specifically intended to be legally poured down the drain, either in your sink, or into your toilet.<br><br>If copper solutions are dangerous to marine life when they are introduced into the sewer system, and illegal to pour down the drain, don't you think that these root killer products would be banned? (Copper sulfate root killer is actually banned for sale in the San Francisco Bay Area in areas directly adjacent to the bay itself, but it is legal to use in drains, and there is no scientific reason for the ban...it is supposed to eliminate direct spills into the bay.)<br><br>So let's all understand that it is perfectly safe and legal to flush solutions of copper down the drain as long as your drain is connected to the municipal sewer system.<br>
<p>What if I want to do bigger quantities in one go? I want to etch some pieces of stainless steel that are 4x4 cm each, and I want to etch 20 of them in one go. Sure i'm going to need a big enough tank but would I need higher voltage and more time in the bath? I read in the comments it took you about 2 hours in the bath to etch that plate, would that mean that for my quantity it takes 8 hours or smth? I also want a clean etch as possible, the longer you leave it probably the blurrier the bite gets... <br>Great instructable btw!</p>
<br>HI Athens2Rome...<br><br>Wow, I'm not sure. I think the current requirement would go up, so whatever the current is that is needed for 1 of the pieces would need to be multiplied by 20. You don;t need to worry about the voltage...it can be the same.<br><br>So you would wire the POSITIVE terminal from your power supply to each of the pieces, then connect the NEGATIVE terminal from your power supply to the sacrificial piece of scrap metal.<br><br>Time should be the same as for 1 piece as long as the volts and amps to each piece is the same.<br><br>Good luck...please post pix!<br>
This is VERY similar to removing rust using electrolysis, know this, this process gives off gasses, IE in the removing rust off of iron/steel it will give off Hydrogen, HIGHLY explosive so should NOT be done inside. If you use Stainless Steel you are releasing Chromates which are HIGHLY posionous. See here. http://antique-engines.com/stainless-steel-electrodes.htm. PLEASE be CAREFUL and educate yourselves BEFORE taking on these projects, and I would ask those who post instructables to disclose safety items like this so someone who may not know any better doesn't and up blowing up their house/shop or poisoning themselves <br> <br>I have also noticed ALOT of pimping of Tech Shop lately here on instructables. As great as it is it seems even the most basic projects that don't even NEED a full shop now have to be tagged &quot;Done at TECH SHOP!&quot; I hope the site doesn't start becoming nothing more than a TechShop advertising campaign.

About This Instructable




Bio: I'm the Founder and Chairman of TechShop.
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