Instructables
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
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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!

athens2rome1 month ago

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...
Great instructable btw!

TechShopJim (author)  athens2rome1 month ago

HI Athens2Rome...

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.

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.

Time should be the same as for 1 piece as long as the volts and amps to each piece is the same.

Good luck...please post pix!
madmikeee2 years ago
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

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 "Done at TECH SHOP!" I hope the site doesn't start becoming nothing more than a TechShop advertising campaign.

Sorry about the 'post of the living dead', but I would really like to know what alternative electrode material would work well ( etching aluminium ) without producing these hexavalent chromates or other toxins?

Can anyone enlighten me?

TechShopJim (author)  Le Boeuf1 month ago

Hi Le Boeuf...

The link that MadMikee posted has information about proper disposal of the resulting electrolyte. Here is what it says: "If you need to dispose of it, allow it to evaporate into powders and dispose of the powders in sealed containers during your local "hazardous waste clean-up days"."

A little bit of the cathode (the negatively-charged metal) does get consumed in the process, but not in any amount you could ever measure. The material that is removed and ends up in your salt water is the metal you are trying to etch, which is the anode (the positively-charged metal). So in the case of my Instructable, you are ending up with brass (copper and zinc) in the water, not stainless steel.

You can use any metal or conductive material for the cathode. You could probably even use graphite.

Good luck, and have safe fun! (And thanks to MadMikee!)
TechShopJim (author)  madmikeee1 month ago
Hi MadMikee...

As stated in the very page that you link concerning using stainless steel in this process, talking about the resulting salt water electrolyte: "If you need to dispose of it, allow it to evaporate into powders and dispose of the powders in sealed containers during your local 'hazardous waste clean-up days'."

That' great advise that everyone should heed! Thank you for posting that link.

As to your comment about the huge number of TechShop member posts on Instructables, we have a very close relationship with Autodesk (the owners of Instructables) and Instructables themselves. TechShop has over 6,500 active members across our 8 locations so far, and we actively encourage our members to participate in the Instructables community and share their knowledge by their posting Instructables projects.

For the record, I did this Instructable at TechShop San Francisco! ;)

Thanks!
TechShopJim (author)  madmikeee2 years ago

Hi MadMikee...

I have noticed the number of Instructables tagged with "techshop" increasing a lot over the last year too.

I think the reason you are seeing a lot of "pimping" as you refer to it for TechShop is that A.) TechShop is just a really cool place to make things and our members and staff like to talk about it, and B.) We STRONGLY encourage our members and our staff at all 5 of our TechShop locations (Menlo Park CA, Raleigh Durham NC, San Francisco CA, San Jose CA, Detroit MI) to document every single one of their projects on Instructables. We believe in the concept of Instructables and we believe in sharing ideas.

We have almost 3,500 active paying members right now across all our locations, and when that many people are encouraged to write Instructables, you are going to see a lot get posted here.

Where do you live? Do we have a TechShop near you yet?

Thanks.
Virosa12 months ago

Are there any special steps for getting rid of the salt water (now with lots of metal in it) once you are done?

Are there any environment or health concerns with doing this to aluminum?

Thanks!

Alcyon2 years ago
Hello Jim, what about laserprint tranfer method.?
TechShopJim (author)  Alcyon2 years ago
That's the method I used for this. I really want to write up an Instructable for the exact process I use because it works extremely well. I use an ancient HP 1100 laser printer to print the pattern on to a special paper that is coated with dextrin, and then I run the copper clad board with the dextrin paper face down in the board through a hot laminating machine for perfect and even transfer every time. All you have to do with the dextrin paper is let water touch it, and it releases and leaves the toner behind on the board. There are other Instructables on the general toner transfer method, so you might want to look at those.

I'm also developing a method that uses PMMA dental acrylic powder and monomer to create a thin layer of resist that can be cleanly and completely removed with a laser cutter to expose the areas to be etched away. Spray paints and other finishes I have tried, and I've tried every one I can get my hands on, tend to leave a waterproof film in the lasered areas that must be cleaned with isopropyl, but this step often disturbs the paint covering the traces.

Don't forget that there are better electrolytes for nonferrous metals; and a different solution will make a difference as well. Drop some copper in 5:1 acetic acid/H202; you'll see a difference quickly. What we're really doing here is speeding up the oxidation process, I would surmise.

katylorj3 months ago

I am baffled as to why my copper is not etching... no bubbles at all! I'm using a charger that can charge a motorcycle, boat, etc... and nothing.

I have my super saturated salt water, copper with art to be etched, copper cathode/sacrificial piece — both attached with copper wire, that then connects to copper clips of the battery... What is going wrong?!?!

salt etch.jpg
TechShopJim (author)  katylorj3 months ago

Hi katylorj...

There are two things I would try in order to isolate the problem:

1.) Is your copper protected by a thin later of lacquer or plastic? Often, sheets of copper and brass are coated in this way so they do not oxidize, and the coating is really hard to see it. To check for a coating, take any multimeter and switch it to CONTINUITY or OHMS and touch the probes at two points on one face of your metal. If you get a reading, then you're OK...this is not the problem. If nothing changes on your meter, then it is probably coated, in which case you will need to remove the coating with an appropriate method (acetone, sand paper, lacquer thinner, etc.)

2.) Is your battery charger timing out or getting tricked? Some battery charges are "smart", which in my mind means "dumb". Smart chargers electronically check the conditions of the load and try to figure out if it is a battery or not, and if it is a battery, whether the charger should keep charging or not. Your tub of salt water and two pieces of metal may or may not convince your charger that the load is a battery. To check, disconnect your charger from the metal pieces and unplug your charger. Then, plug your charger back in and measure the output when your multimeter set to VOLTS DC. Do you see a voltage of around 14 volts? If you do, then just quickly dunk both of the alligator clips from your charger right in to your salt water. Does either one of them fizz and bubble a little bit?

Let me know what you find, and we'll go from there.

Thanks!
Jobshopper4 months ago
@ hornbadoing I have a sign place I work with that helps tune up my artwork and cuts my vinyl, the cabinet shop mask was twenty bucks for art time and four masks. Cleaning up the artwork was the majority of the cost. I used the vinyl they suggest for paint work masking and found the sign vinyl much better.
Jobshopper4 months ago
I've been playing around with this, aluminum is much faster than copper or brass. It took me between 2 n 3 hers to weed and 25 min to etch the semper phi the copper takes much longer for me anyway..
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guerroloco made it!7 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

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

@guerroloco: please explain, what is "toner transfer mask" ? where did you buy it?

TechShopJim (author)  guerroloco7 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
blinkyblinky5 months ago

How long did you leave the metal in the salt water?

TechShopJim (author)  blinkyblinky5 months ago

I think I etched it for about an hour or so...maybe 2 hours.

hornbadoing5 months ago

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)  hornbadoing5 months ago
Hi Horndadoing...

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

Thanks!
EthanJP6 months 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)  EthanJP6 months 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.

EthanJP6 months ago

How much for a custom one?

GrfxGawd7 months 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.

lime3D7 months ago

Will this method work to etch stainless steel?

mohamedaly8 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)  mohamedaly8 months ago

Hi mohamedaly...

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

Thanks!
akelis2 years 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 akelis11 months ago
This is an excellent suggestion!
twodawgs VE5RB9 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)  twodawgs8 months ago

Hey TwoDawgs...

I have absolutely NO IDEA what you are asking.

Sorry! ;)
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