I've wanted to make my own embossed business cards since I was handed a really incredible one at a fancy restaurant. I tried several methods of achieving the effect (photoemulsion, electrolytic etching) but ended up having the most success with a pretty simple and straightforward acid etch method similar to the one used in home printed circuit boards. I still have to work out a few kinks (such as flattening the paper after the emboss without distortion, or reorganizing the method to print before embossing) but I hope you can take something useful from my experiments, and apply it to your own projects.
Step 1: Planning
Access to a laser-jet printer
Ferric Chloride (available here)
An Iron (with all the water emptied, please)
A meticulously clean brass plate (big enough to cover the space you want etched with room for more)
Heavy, thick paper. Card stock will do nicely, but heavy rag paper from art supply stores works well, too.
A clamping jig to align your sheets each time you use it. I used plywood with brass elbows and PTEG plastic sheet (to keep the paper nice and flat against the clamping jig), but it's up to your expertise.
6 or more C-clamps.
Shiny laser jet paper.
A plastic bus bin, or other wide plastic container for the acid etch.
A spray bottle.
My concept was to emboss a sheet of paper, and then run it through a printer to color the page. I'd then cut the cards out. On review I'd have changed some things, but got some cool results, regardless.
Begin by designing the pattern that you want embossed in the sheet. Remember that what is embossed onto the card is the mirror image of what is etched on the plate. So if your pattern reads properly on the brass, it will be backwards on the card. The same applies to the relief. If your logo is raised on the brass, it will be inset in your card. Design it in sharp black and white. If you want gradated patterns, consider going with a halftone pattern.
Step 2: Arrange your etch design and your printed design
Step 3: Getting jiggy with it.
I started with a sheet of .5" plywood, and a .25" sheet of PTEG. I roughed up one side of the plastic, and stuck it to the plywood with contact cement. After the glue set, I trimmed the board into two 8.5"x11" panels (the plastic sheets are there to provide a nice, flat surface to press the paper against, the wood is there to even out the pressure of the clamps, and provide integrity against warping). Then I added brass brackets along the sides to hold everything in alignment.
Step 4: Laser jets.
Step 5: I am iron man.
For another look at this method, take a look at dear Mr. VonSlatt's webpage.
Step 6: Soaking.
After this is all done, get a sheet pan with high sides, your plastic bus tub, or another container that will hold both the plate, and enough hot water to cover. Put the plate in the pan, and cover it with hot (but not boiling) water. Let this sit and steep for a few minutes, until it cools down enough for you to put your hand in. Begin gingerly peeling the paper off of the plate. It will come off in scraps and layers. Keep at it until it's just a film. Then, gently rub at the remainder with your finger. You don't need to get off every speck, so don't get anal about it. If you try to get it Lysol commercial clean, you'll just end up scratching the ink.
Step 7: Acid Jazz.
I happened to have broken a desktop fan that day, and it was missing a blade. I strapped the whole rig down to a miniature ironing board, and it acted like a vibrating lab table (I felt this improved the speed of the etch by moving reacted material off of the plate, exposing the brass beneath, but it did end up toppling over once, so I scrapped the idea after a few hours). I would apply the concept only in an area with an easy to clean floor.
After a 12 hour soak, I found that the plate had etched about .05". This is noticeable to the touch, but if I were to do it again, I probably would have stopped after a full 24 hours.
Step 8: Pressure pushing down on me. Pressing down on you no man ask for.
Now, all that's left to do is assemble the parts, and clamp. Here's where I think I should have gone differently. I was told by a printmaker that embossed patterns hold better if they are done while the paper is damp. So, I spritzed the pages before clamping them. However, this seemed to warp the pages. After some more experiments, I decided to hang the wetting, and just print one dry, and it seemed to come out fine, and without distortion, but didn't have time to do more tests. My original plan was to emboss the paper, and then run it through a printer. The distorted pages failed to spool properly, and therefore were misprinted. In the future, I think I'll try printing the images first, and then embossing them.
I clamped the pages for a half hour each, with several sheets of paper behind them to help squeeze the pattern into the page.
Step 9: Fin.
Things to try for next time:
Experimentation with ideal etch time (12 hour etch at standard dilution wasn't enough depth)
Printing before embossing/embossing dry