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Make your own Embossed Business Cards using Acid Etching

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Picture of Make your own Embossed Business Cards using Acid Etching
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Etch. Press. Print. Want to learn how to emboss paper for your own business cards? Create your own pattern on the computer, and etch it into a brass plate.

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.
 
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Step 1: Planning

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All in all, to repeat my process you'd need:
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

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I used Photoshop to design and align my patterns. Of of the easier aspects of this process is that you don't have to design the etch design in mirror for everything to align properly. The reason is: when you iron the pattern onto the brass plate, it becomes mirrored by default, but I'll get to that, soon. I felt it was simplest to go with a pattern that was as big as a sheet of paper. That meant that I could print everything out in a standard printer. This also meant that my clamping jig, and brass plate would both measure 8.5"x11".

Step 3: Getting jiggy with it.

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When I made this, I had access to a really spectacular wood shop. If you happen to have a really nice table saw at home, you can make this jig without a problem, but otherwise, I'd suggest that ou skip the clamping jig, and just continue this tutorial with a pair of thick plywood sheets, and an additional brass plate, knowing that to align the brass plates and the paper sheet, you'll need to tape them together for each print you make.

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.

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Once your are satisfied with your images, print the pattern on to a sheet of glossy laserjet paper. Print in black ink only, in the highest quality, and in the highest density you can. Make several prints, and make sure to inspect them to see that the printer spooled properly, and they aren't skewed on the page.

Step 5: I am iron man.

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The next part will be familiar to you if you've ever printed a circuit board. After your plate is cleaned to shiny perfection, and you've inspected your printout, it's time to adhere them together with prodigious heat. Tape the corners of the page to your brass sheet to hold it while you iron. Take special care on this step, you only have the one chance to iron this on right. Find a heat proof spot to work, such as a wooden work bench, or the concrete steps on your back porch, or an old wooden cutting board. Plug in the iron and get it ripping hot. Start pressing the iron down on the page, starting in the center, and working out. I took about five minutes to do this page, leaving the iron on one spot while pressing down, and then moving to the edges. What's happening is that the ink melts, and adheres to the board under the heat of the iron. When the paper is soaked, the paper lifts away, and the ink remains.

For another look at this method, take a look at dear Mr. VonSlatt's webpage.

Step 6: Soaking.

Now that the page is properly stuck to the brass, you should let it cool. The paper will probably bubble up a little from the sheet shrinking. Take this opportunity to inspect it, and iron over any places that didn't quite stick right. The raised areas will give you a good idea of what parts didn't stick so well.

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.

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Once the plate has dried, it's ready for its Harvey Dent facial. This is where you really need the plastic bus tub. It should just be a little wider than your plate. I prepared my acid solution as per the directions, and set it, and the plate to soak in the tub overnight. I highly recommend that you go out to a hardware store, or home depot to find one. Do not use a metal pan.

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.

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A quick scrub with a Brillo pad will get off the remaining copper scum and ink from your plate. Muriatic acid (diluted hydrochloric acid) does a very good job of cleaning metals. If your plate starts getting a bit green, and the verdigris stains your paper, just give it a thorough wipe with the acid solution. You can pick the stuff up at Home Depot, near the pool supplies.

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.

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There you have it. I know, you would have liked to see a pretty, finished card. But, sorry to say, I haven't quite been able to perfect it. I'm hoping that when I get settled, and have some more time to play with it, I can work out the rest of the kinks. I hope you've enjoyed reading this Instructable, and that it helps you to a big heaping bowl of awesome somewhere on down the line. Thank you.

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
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LeeW49 months ago

The quality looks great! The electrolytic method will never yield the results you can get from tired and trusted photo chemical etching

http://www.precisionmicro.com/194/photo-etching/3-...

cpesacreta1 year ago

to keep the paper from warping (it does that because the moisture isn't consistent), you should look up steps to making a "wet pack" for intaglio printmaking. in fact, what you've done here is essentially an intaglio print that you just didn't ink up. but yea, wet packs are key. you have to make them the day before and it seems kind of a hassle, but you won't get warping.

batvans463 years ago
as far as the printing goes: say, for instance, you wanted ink in all of your little embossed areas. you could make your etch time longer, raising the embossing surface, then use a brayer (ink roller) and gently roll some intaglio ink onto the surface. kinda like combining a woodblock + copper etching. also you could put a silicone mat down first, then your paper, ink the plate then place slowly onto the paper, and press.

nice tutorial though! ive played around with chipboard and such for embossing but i think ill give your procedure a try.
eyanovich3 years ago
Does the qulaty of these cards are the same as the ones that i can buy and order from a business cards company?
embossed business cards
lgeorge34 years ago
So what exactly did you use to press the plate into the paper? I no longer have access to a professional etching press and wonder if there's a good alternative solution out there... perhaps an inexpensive one? *hopeful*

Thanks for this! I'd never heard of the process you used with the printer. It sounds like it could make things move quickly when you don't need the artist's hand for part of the process.
Get a cuttle bug or sixix from your craft store will work I think
olleorama4 years ago
Do you think you could have used aluminium instead of brass?
TANZMEISTER4 years ago
Have you tried putting a sheet of metal over the top, then ironing the metal? In highschool printmaking we transferred images onto wood this way. A piece of 1mm(19 guage) or so sheet steel, a bit bigger than the transfer, clamped at the corners. Heat the whole thing up (we used big cast iron skillets filled with hot rocks. If you try this use 2 hot pads on each handle)
In the olds before printing photos on the computer I dried my photo prints with an electric print dryer or a dryer roll (corrigated cardboard with only one smooth side) and used blotter paper on the print side and rolled the whole thing up and tied it with a string and left it over night. Either technique seems like it would work here.
KahlZun5 years ago
I don't get it. Why isn't the acid dissolving the paper to mush?
danlab KahlZun5 years ago
The acid isn't, assuming you are referring to step six, the paper is soaked in water so it can be removed without removing the ink.
shinojmahe5 years ago
Dear,
it is great, but cant download the PDF. pls re link.hardly waiting

and also, a question, do u have a solution to make my logo punch or emboss on a plastic/fiber sheet surface??

hardly waiting
shi
hpuilq5 years ago
Great tutorial. Would you be able to use this same process to create a stamp die?
This is great bofthem. I've thinking about this kind of thing for years without realizing how to make them. By the way, your photo reminds me of Jonathan Papelbaum for the Red Sox when he is pitching. (kidding) Thanks for the great info.
dianaw5 years ago
By the way, if you know a jewelry maker with a rolling mill you might try that to see if it works, I think it might with the right kind of pressure- takes experimenting to not ruin the paper. I know some people use a hand powered pasta machine to do some light crafty metal work so its the same principle with the rolling mill.
dianaw5 years ago
Great tutorial- and the suggestions are really great.
I bought some etching solution from radio shack ages ago to "play" with metal- quotes etc for jewelry- haven't gotten to it yet, now I feel inspired.

I wonder if a flower press would work- for those of us who don't want to make the press- they are usually ppretty inexpensive- or- a tshirt printer press- if you can find one cheap.

but what I'm thinking might work really well for the ironing part of this - and sometimes you can find them at a thrift store where I found mine is a home size ironing press like the dry cleaners use- seems like it might work really well- I haven't even used mine yet so I don't know how long you can leave the thing in there.

you can try ebay- they do have them new= plus, if it works you could make a second plate and do twice as many at the same time. If you were going to do this for other art projects it might be worth the investment. If I ever get mine going and try this- and it works- I'll email you with a pic.

Again, great instructable, thanks for the inspiration.
dumper5 years ago
I would try to heat up the plate with an iron and play with that. I think both heat and pressure would result in crisper embossing and flat paper. You can also try to obtain some hot stamping foil (there are lots on ebay) and stamp with gold using your hot brass plate. If you get any success with the above, please update your tutorial!
1up6 years ago
Could you etch aluminum with this procedure?
jfdimarco 1up5 years ago
NO. Etching white metals such as zinc or aluminum with ferric chloride causes hydrogen gas. DO NOT use ferric chloride on aluminum.

Try this method instead:

http://www.nontoxicprint.com/etchzincsteelaluminum.htm

You can get cupric sulphate here:
http://secure.sciencecompany.com/Cupric-Copper-Sulfate-Crystal-500g--P6367C670.aspx
Al etches well with concentrated HF or NaOH. (Concentrated HF works the best, but is pretty difficult to obtain without a license. The glass etching kits in hobby stores might work over a long enough period of time)
Hello, interesting application. Note that if you use a real prinmaking paper (one made for intaglio/etc) the soak time is a couple hours, then the paper is blotted and then pressed. That emboss shows nicely, btw.
lancapd6 years ago
i am not sure if this will work, but if you don't need the heat to transfer the image, you might be able to use acetone/fingernail polish remover to transfer the image. once i get some space to work, i will try it and let you know if it works or not. great post!
tacamaral6 years ago
If you can, get a bookbinder's press. Or borrow one from a friend (nah, take your work there - those things are very heavy. I had one that weighed about 100 kg - no kidding). You can use the same jig you made (very well made) but put it in the press, screw it really hard and leave it for a few minutes (5 minutes or so), and get another sheet in. Because the press usually has only one big screw and it's made to put a very great amount of pressure with little effort on your part, you'd get a lot of printed/embossed sheets pretty quickly. There are lots of plans for building a press on the internet, and you can also buy one (but they tend to not being cheap). Great Instructable. : )
If the depth of the etching were more, could you not apply ink directly onto your brass plates? Then the ink would transfer to the paper, and it would line up perfectly with the embossment. Thinking of trying this out myself.
acidkid6 years ago
Add hydrogen peroxide to the HCL..
Wonderful work! Much Style! Congratulations!
Offstream6 years ago
The vibrations would help the etching. When etching a plate (Ive etched with copper and nitric acid rather than ferric chloride and brass) printmakers will use occasionally lift the plate out of the acid, or use a feather to stir it, in order to disperce any bubbles and detritus that form. Bubbles that form will stop acid from etching into the parts of the plate that the bubble is touching. .........just a note.
sujancho7 years ago
Adding on to Carlsburg comment, more specifically you can get a couple sheets of blotting paper your local art store, put the soaked paper between them and use a rolling pin to squeeze out the excess water. After you're done printing, you put the printed sheet between either more (dry) blotting paper or several (several) sheets of dry clean newsprint, and put it between a pair of heavy boards, and weight it down with some books. Let that dry for a few days and your print will be nice and flat. Since blotting paper is so thick and cushiony you don't have to worry too much about the embossing going flat. AWESOME Instructable by the way, exactly what I was looking for :)
though this came out looking pretty nice, though not so deeply embossed, I think that once laser cutters get cheaper, you could probably fabricate something nice with this design, you know? Cuz thatd be kickass.
Phiri7 years ago
Will the image transfer technique work for other metals such as zinc or aluminium?
bofthem (author)  Phiri7 years ago
The procedure of ironing the ink on to the image will work, as the inkjet print just acts like an adhesive when it heats up. But as far as the rest of the process, I'm completely unsure. You will probably have to find a different acid to etch a metal like zinc, and when you do, you will have to take into consideration the fact that the iron in the ink may not act as a resist in that case. I encourage you to experiment, though. I got to this process by a lot of trial and error.
_soapy_ bofthem7 years ago
Zinc or aluminium as a bit dangerous to add acid to. Aluminium is very, very reactive once the oxide coating is stripped away. Of course, your acid is unlikely to do this, so nothing at all will happen, if you are lucky. If you aren't you might get a fire. Zinc reacts rapidly with hot water. So adding acid to it is probably also a bad idea.
kudzookrazy7 years ago
You might try a 100% SULPHITE art copy paper, without the fibers, you may have less trouble, wetting, pressing, and the sulphite sucks up the ink like a wet vac on crack. Legion paper makes it in 200 gsm, whatever that means.
200 gsm is 200 g/m2 or 200 grams per square meter. Its a more
standardized way of measuring weight than pounds, as the amount of paper being measured by the pound scale is different for different types of paper.

As weight is effected by thickness, finish, density, and amount of fillers, it is surprisingly difficult to use as a single judge of a paper. I prefer to give multiple numbers if possible, such as:

Brightness: normally a number between 92 and 102 that refers to the amount of optical brighteners and "clay" in the paper.
Thickness: normally given in mils, 10mil -12 mil is the standard business card weight range... 8-10 mil is inkjet card paper 12 mil is thermographic card stock (Nice!!)
Weight: preferably in g/m2

However, if you really want to get to know your paper, go to the mill, grab some headstock, run it through a Canadian Standard Freeness Tester (there will be one in the lab), and do a test burn to check "clay" content. Then, stop by the Machine Tender's booth to check dryer temperature and pressure. Finally, ask the Machine Tender how recently they changed their felt, and how many splices they ran the night before. Then, and only then, do you JUST FEEL THE DANG STUFF FOR YOURSELF.

Unfortunately, even with ALL the numbers, with most paper, you need to just try it out... ask if they have samples at the store, or if they use it in the print shop (for one stop office supply stores like Staples). if you are looking to cut the page, ask if you can cut a sample to size. an 8.5"x11" sheet of card stock feels VERY different than a 3.5"x2" business card made from it.

By the way, I use a lot of paper ;)
I also forgot to mention whether its short fiber or long fiber, cotton content, pre and post consumer content, texture, watermarking, and uniformity. Higher cotton means heavier sheets are more flexible, but also more durable Unfortunately for the environment, high quality and recycled papers are, for the most part, mutually exclusive. Buy 100% recycled copy paper, but please print your resume on "virgin" paper. For watermarked sheets, check if the mark is random or uniform in placement. random is more common, but can look off-putting. on a last note, never buy Staples brand paper if you need a quality presentable result... the quality control is terrible, you will get foreign particles in the sheets, and their listings for brightness are just plain wrong... Hammermills' 92 brightness is whiter than Staples' 97 brightness. I believe the same holds true for most store brands, like office max.
mondoweb7 years ago
I am thinking of embossing printed cards individually. There is a specialized embossing press at the local craft supply store. I may make the plate to fit this press. Your work in time vs etched depth is very helpful. Thanks
Merakesh7 years ago
For zinc or aluminum, or for metal on paper for that matter, try electroplating it.
http://www.caswellplating.com/kits/index.html Sells kits for this.
joknrok7 years ago
What if you made a positive of the design on another plate with the edges of the design shrunken a tad so the two plates would fit together, the positive image going into the recesses of the negative image. That would sandwich the paper between it forcing the impression more sharply. Also, is the step 4 process only possible for laser jet? or will inkjet ink work for the image transfer too? Thanks for a well worked instructable.
smokehill7 years ago
One thing you might want to keep an eye out for, if you do much of this, is an old-fashioned book press. It spins down quickly and gives very even pressure. Book presses turn up at flea markets and low-end antique marts now and then. I kept watch for a few months for one, and finally picked up a marvelous one down in your area, Charlottesville, 20 years ago, for about 50 bucks, and it included a whole box of old bookbinder's embossing tools, etc. With a bit of fiddling, you can use a book press for a lot of different crafts and woodworking projects. Think of it as a large woodworker's vise, just sideways.
Carlsburg7 years ago
The paper needs to be dipped completely into a tub of water for about a minute, take the paper out and blot all excess water with a more absorbent paper do this untill there is no shine from the water on the page, ie the paper has a matte finish, then put through the press. Bathing the paper means that there is an even amount of absorption and therefore will dry evenly preventing warping. If that still doesn't work try recessing the embossing plate into the press so the page has no overhang to pull and warp the page.
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