Instructables

How To Electro-Etch a Solid Metal Plaque

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Picture of How To Electro-Etch a Solid Metal Plaque
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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.
 
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Step 1: Here's What You'll Need

Picture of Here's What You'll Need
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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

Great post! i have been looking in to stuff like this for the purpose of putting my logo on custom knives i make. I just have no idea where to get vinyl stickers with the specs i need withought it costing an arm and a leg. Could you direct me to an affordable option for having sheets of square inch vinyl stickers for my logo?

TechShopJim (author)  hornbadoingyesterday
Hi Horndadoing...

What does your logo look like...can you post an image so I can see how much detail it has?

Thanks!
EthanJP1 month ago

How much for a custom one?

What size do you need? How soon do you need it, where do you need it sent, what can you afford?

Well, I wanted it to be 5" X 5". Well ASAP. California. Well I was thinking $5, I am not sure about how much it would cost

TechShopJim (author)  EthanJP1 month ago
Hi Ethan...

I'm not really in a position to do custom work. My travel schedule and responsibilities running TechShop don;t leave me much time for projects like this...sorry!

Having said that, you can definitely do this at home.

Thanks!

Other things you can use as a resist are; nail polish, sharpie ink, acrylic paint, liquid electrical tape, varnish, and iron on transfer material, the latter which stays on too wel,l and is a pain to remove.

EthanJP1 month ago

How much for a custom one?

GrfxGawd1 month ago

Just adding a note that might prove useful to some. In studying anodization techniques I noticed for Type III Hard Coat that best results were obtained using higher voltages (up into 70V range), but regardless of voltage used, temp must be kept at or below 45F, keeping your solution around 35F seems optimal. Since you're effectively using the same process (for a different result), placing your container "double boiler style" into a pan of ice water might make things more effective.

guerroloco made it!2 months ago

1st attempt at etching aluminum using this method. Not bad! Needs polishing. I noticed that the terminals of my power supply were getting hot after a few minutes -- it might be a good idea to add a small light bulb or some other load in series to protect the power supply.

IMG_20140209_100346.jpg
TechShopJim (author)  guerroloco2 months ago

Hi Guerroloco...

That looks great! Thanks for sharing the photo!

How did you do your toner transfer method to such a thick piece of metal?

The aluminum sheet is not especially thick, maybe .025". Toner transfer is easier for me, since I have access to a laser printer but not a vinyl cutter. Here's my rig. There's a motorcycle headlight in series to lower the current from around 15 amps to about 3.

IMG_20140209_113723.jpg

I also used a toner-transfer mask rather than vinyl.

lime3D2 months ago

Will this method work to etch stainless steel?

mohamedaly3 months ago

Hi,

Nice work :). I will try this soon. Do you think that this might work on brass, steel and aluminium tubes? or It is just workable for flash objects?

Thanks

TechShopJim (author)  mohamedaly2 months ago

Hi mohamedaly...

This will definitely work on ANY shaped objects! Even spheres, rings, whatever!

Thanks!
akelis1 year ago
I believe you can also use old carbon arc electrodes -- and they won't degrade quickly, nor gunk up the water in the process.
VE5RB akelis6 months ago
This is an excellent suggestion!
twodawgs VE5RB3 months ago
Hey on another subject eletrowinning for gold in mine's or sulfide containing
creeks and ponds ?
And what about the affinaty that gol has for carbon ?
May we talk ?
TechShopJim (author)  twodawgs3 months ago

Hey TwoDawgs...

I have absolutely NO IDEA what you are asking.

Sorry! ;)
TechShopJim (author)  akelis8 months ago
I'll have to try that! A local surplus shop has boxes and boxes of those that nobody ever seems to buy. Good idea!
hwilliams234 months ago
btw i think the green tinge is actually due to the chlorine gas produced
TechShopJim (author)  hwilliams234 months ago
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.
VE5RB6 months ago
Please DO NOT USE Stainless steel as a sacrificial electrode. All electrochemical reactions that take place at a stainless steel (a chrome,nickel, iron alloy) lead to the production of hexavalent chromium - a very potent cancer causing agent.

I am trained as a electrochemistry and have figured out the electrochemical reactions at both anode and cathode.
hwilliams23 VE5RB4 months ago
also it's probably worth mentioning that you're producing a fairly concentrated amount of sodium hydoxide to etch the metal
Thanks for the warning, what do you suggest using for the sacrificial electrode?
spaceshib8 months ago
Hi,

Thanks for your reply!

I ended up buying some outdoor vinyl (rated at 5 years). I tried it today but the same thing happened, although it seemed to stay on longer.

I'm not sure if my water is too salty or the vinyl is being gradually peeled off by the bubbles or what . . .

What do you think?

Thanks again,
spaceshib

ps - I couldn't reply to the original thread because there were no captchas, maybe my browser being weird . . .
oldpoopie8 months ago
I just finished making some wheel center caps with the Volkswagen logo. I used vinyl stickers a friend made for me, and a 40am power supply. To masque off the rest of the caps i used liquid electrical tape.

While the tape worked extremely well, i rushed putting them into the etch tank, and i think the liquid electrical tape had a few wet spots. I only allowed them to stay in the bath for 8 minutes, during which they were drawing close to 25 amps. The saltwater bath got pretty hot after four caps!

Im going to try and make 4 more, but allow the liquid electrical tape to dry overnight!

13, 12:52 AM.jpg
TechShopJim (author)  oldpoopie8 months ago

Hi OldPoopie...

Wow, those look great! Nice work!
spaceshib8 months ago
Hi, I have been trying this today and my vinyl keeps coming off.

The first time, I assumed it was due to not sanding and cleaning the metal properly, so next time I made sure that I had sanded it with 2 grades of paper, then fine wire wool, then cleaned it with alcohol.

Tried it again and after an hour the vinyl was floating on the top of the water.

Could it be the angle I'm putting it in at (the sheet of metal is vertical in a bucket of saltwater), the quality of the adhesive, too many bubbles? I'm using 12v at 30 amps.

I'm stumped.

Attached is a pic taken 20 mins into the first attempt, before I re-sanded and cleaned the metal again, you can see the vinyl lifting as I remove the piece from the water . . .
IMG_1346.JPG
TechShopJim (author)  spaceshib8 months ago

Hi SpaceShib...

Do you have access to another type of vinyl sheet? If you do, please try that instead.

My experience is that the adhesive on vinyl sheets used in vinyl cutters for outdoor signage does not have this problem. If you use other types of vinyl that have adhesives like contact paper, electrical tape, packing tape, etc., the water will attack the adhesive.

Good luck!
Sky Graham1 year ago
Do you suppose I could use regular paper with an inkjet printer, for use with the steam iron technique? I got my printer in place of those sweet toys you got there for vinyl graphic application to various items, at the moment I dont have any vinyle...so do u suppose i could use regular paper for the toner transfer, and...nobody ever mentions if they put water in their steam irons ;\

tx sky
TechShopJim (author)  Sky Graham8 months ago
I don;t think that will work. That method is used with toner with a laser printer, not inkjet.
maxikumike9 months ago
Hi. this method is very interesting. does it works whit other protective material??such as toner or photo-sensitive film?? Great instructable!!!
TechShopJim (author)  maxikumike8 months ago
Yes, it should work with anything that can block the current and not get dissolved by the salt water.
spaceshib8 months ago
Hi,

I am trying to find out what the 3-layer vinyl that you used is called and where to get it (preferably in the UK).

I recently bought a cutter but it only came with 2 layer stuff which would be impossible to use for the designs I want to use as they are quite complex.

Thanks.
TechShopJim (author)  spaceshib8 months ago
Hi SpaceShib...

I just used regular 2-layer vinyl (one layer is the actual vinyl, and the other layer is the backing sheet). The third layer is the transfer tape or paper that you stick on the front after you cut and weed the vinyl.

The easiest way to do this project with vinyl is probably to peel the uncut vinyl sheet and apply it directly to the front of the metal. Burnish it down really well, then cut it with an Xacto knife or a laser cutter. Then weed out the areas that you want to etch, and you should be good to go.

Good luck!
mrlunna131 year ago
I forgot to add: Great Work!! Great instructable!!
TechShopJim (author)  mrlunna131 year ago
Thanks! It was fun to do.
mrlunna131 year ago
Hello,
I am Trying to make a Chopper Motorcycle Solo Seat out of aluminum, and I want to engrave it with DEEP engraving. How deep does this method goes? How long did it took you in the etched card example?
Tank you sincerely,
Jesse M.
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