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
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Alcyon1 year ago
Hello Jim, what about laserprint tranfer method.?
TechShopJim (author)  Alcyon1 year 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.

katylorj1 month 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)  katylorj1 month 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!
Jobshopper2 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.
Jobshopper2 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!5 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)  guerroloco5 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
blinkyblinky2 months ago

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

TechShopJim (author)  blinkyblinky2 months ago

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

hornbadoing3 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)  hornbadoing3 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!
EthanJP4 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)  EthanJP4 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.

EthanJP4 months ago

How much for a custom one?

GrfxGawd4 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.

lime3D5 months ago

Will this method work to etch stainless steel?

mohamedaly6 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)  mohamedaly5 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 akelis9 months ago
This is an excellent suggestion!
twodawgs VE5RB6 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)  twodawgs6 months ago

Hey TwoDawgs...

I have absolutely NO IDEA what you are asking.

Sorry! ;)
TechShopJim (author)  akelis11 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!
hwilliams237 months ago
btw i think the green tinge is actually due to the chlorine gas produced
TechShopJim (author)  hwilliams237 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.
VE5RB9 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 VE5RB7 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?
spaceshib11 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 . . .
oldpoopie11 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!

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TechShopJim (author)  oldpoopie11 months ago

Hi OldPoopie...

Wow, those look great! Nice work!
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