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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

Picture of Planning
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.
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bofthem (author)  HollyHarken7 years ago
well... they are $150, and then the stencils you use to emboss (meaning you can't make your own image from scratch) cost another hundred per set. It just doesn't seem like a reasonable tool for someone who wants to play with their own embossing, though it is a very effective tool in its own right. The materials I used for this project ended up costing me about $25. I did do some scrounging for scrap, and borrowing, but I don't think I could even come close to totaling as much as the wizard by itself had I bought everything I used.
One scrapbooking embossing tool you may be interested in is an embossing stylus. I found one that's like a gigantic tipped ballpoint pen without any ink. They're especially good for fixing or enhancing small details that didn't quite come through with your main embossing process. The thing I find really exciting about that Wizard embossing tool is the fact that it's a tiny printing press (and quite cheap when compared to small presses aimed at artists). Intaglio and monoprint in my kitchen, printmaking while on vacation, it's so exciting! However, pressure applied is pressure applied for embossing. The clamp system you set up is more than fine for your purpose (and for pressing plants too). No need for overkill.
bofthem (author)  fontgoddess7 years ago
If you want fanciness and versatility in one cheap package, you could even go with a hydraulic press. They're remarkably inexpensive for what they are. I actually designed this project with smooshing the sheets via hydraulic press in mind.

http://www.northerntool.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/NTESearch?No=42&D=press&Ntt=press&Ntk=All&Dx=mode%20matchallpartial&storeId=6970&Ntx=mode%20matchallpartial&N=0&Nty=1
sumguysr7 years ago
you could probably apply more even heat if you place a metal plate on top of the transfer paper and heat it with a hot air gun. It wouldn't be hard to align the plates if they were 8.5 by 11, then they could just be put in the jig and be aligned.
fontgoddess7 years ago
Paper will emboss better if it's wet, but it has to be truly, thoroughly wet. When dampened paper warps, often a major factor is the fibers drying unevenly, so they shrink at different rates. If you wet typing paper, this is really easy to see: the paper curls from the fibers expanding on the wet side. In the print shops I've been in, we have a large pan of water that we let out paper sit in for 10 minutes or more before we print it (at least for intaglio processes). When we take the paper out of the water, we place it between thick pieces of un-sized paper called blotters. Then we go over it with a rolling pin a couple of times. Once that's done, it's ready to be put on the plate and run through the press. Another thing that may help your embossing is backing the paper with thick felt. On a printing press there are several layers of felt blankets, plus a few layers to absorb sizing and to keep the blankets clean and ink-free. If you can find a print shop, they may let you take part of a damaged or worn blanket (they're crazy expensive, but you don't need a perfect new one or a big press-sized piece). One last thing, you're using sexy cotton or linen paper with long fibers and minimal sizing, right? Not something you bought at the local office supply warehouse? Bristol paper, card stock, or anything designed to be run through an office printer usually has lots of sizing in it, so ink sits more nicely on it, but the fibers also won't stretch and shift like you want them to for embossing. Hit the local art supply shop and get some Arches or another paper recommended for intaglio printmaking processes. Mmmm. So pretty. And, once cut down, this paper will work nicely in less fussy copy machines, laser printers, and ink jet printers (problems come from the paper's thickness disagreeing with less tolerant electronic printing devices). If the ink you want the printed design in isn't water-soluable, try printing the design first and then embossing. Wow, I got wordy here. Hopefully this all makes sense.
bofthem (author)  fontgoddess7 years ago
Brilliant. You've opened up a world of possibilities, honestly. I'm really eager to try wetting the paper perfectly evenly. Unfortunately, I bought my paper for this project when I first had the idea for embossed cards, and ended up using it for some charcoal drawings on a whim before actually getting to work on the etching... kind of foolish in retrospect. By the time I finished, I'd moved and couldn't find a good local paper place, so had to do with office max cardstock.
Have you looked in the resume paper section of the office supply store? They may have cotton cardstock . . . regular cardstock will work (as you've proven admirably) but details like warping are especially frustrating with cardstock/bristol type paper. Plus, these are the types of paper that scrapbookers use (although they usually work dry, so the embossing is less dramatic and more flimsy) so they must not completely suck. They are also fantastic papers for relief printing.

My favorite printmaking papers, Arches Cover and Rives BFK, can also be easily ordered online and are standard stock for decent art stores. They *may* even carry them at the big craft/hobby chains.
TrnsltLife7 years ago
I see all these tutorials for etching brass sheets. Where can you get brass sheets?
bofthem (author)  TrnsltLife7 years ago
there are a lot of online sources (like mcmaster carr) for buying metals, but the local hobby shop, or more "corner store" kind of hardware store should carry some kind of brass sheet. I know that the one near me at school did, as well as the school store (but it was an art school, feh.) I would also try asking businesses around you that carry industry-specific supplies. I was surprised when a glass tool supplier by my home carried brass sheets, but there you have it.

If you just want to etch for fun, you might try finding a brass dinner plate at salvation army, and etching a cool picture into it.
smurfsahoy7 years ago
I've tried this soooo many times to make brass custom keyboard keys. Every time, I get something that looks just like what you have up there, with the little wrinkles in areas without much ink, and the ink sticks perfectly well. The problem is that when I take off the paper, the pattern, though dark, and nicely printed onto the brass, is really warped in shape and distorted due to the wrinkles that formed. Did you by any chance try any business card patterns that weren't so fully black colored? If so, did it work as well? Other people? I am very confused why this never works.
bofthem (author)  smurfsahoy7 years ago
There doesn't seem to be much you can do to prevent the warping caused by the iron heat. But I would suggest that if you're working with isolated details, like keyboard keys, you break up the image into smaller chunks. If you cut up the pattern, it has a better chance of distorting along the edges while keeping the majority of the image true. It seems that printing 8.5"x11" in one chunk is stretching the limits of what you can do on a brass sheet without a more sophisticated setup. I tried this a few times, before, and smaller images, or smaller pieces of paper seem to make the difference.

Would you mind mailing me about the keyboard key project you've been trying? I think I might be able to give you some help.
couldnt you use something similar to a waffle press to lay down even pressure and heating when you put your pattern to the plate?
bofthem (author)  Tinker837 years ago
that would probably not be able to provide enough pressure. If I'm pressing with most of my weight on an iron that takes up one fourth of the plate, I and three friends will have to sit on a waffle press to get the same results. Something like a hot roller, like the ones found in copy machines, though, would be a great thing .
Your instructable showed up like magic and at the right time! I've worn out my google looking for a cost-effective etching service- -results never scratched the surface. I just purchased 6 feet of brass stock, echtant and am ready to tool up and go for it . Feeling positive, staggerwing88
bofthem (author)  staggerwing887 years ago
Best of luck! Please mail me if you need help. Tutorials have an infuriating way of getting one excited for a new project, and then do all sorts of nasty things once one has gotten into their grey panel van.
ll0ll bofthem7 years ago
In the UK we have stuff called "Dylon Image Maker" which "transfers images onto fabric in 3 easy stages" Basically, you photocopy an image and paint this stuff onto the paper basiccally it dissolves the paper, leaving the photocopyed image in place. I wonder if its worth trying this on brass? Saves having to use an iron, which could solve the problem of the warping? (Search ebay for this stuff) As far as I know it doesnt work with printer ink, only photocopys so that might mean it won't be any good in this situation, but I thought it might help you guys.
redleader367 years ago
I don't know if the results are near as good, but i used to do simple embossing using a dot matrix printer. Just remove the ink cartridge and print!
Patrik7 years ago
Very nice! Two additional suggestions: (1) You could try putting a second plate with the inverse image on the other side of the paper, for extra depth. (2) I would imagine that the end result will depend on the amount of pressure you apply in step 8 - if your rig is sturdy enough, maybe you could back your car onto it, and let it sit under one of the tires overnight? Just some crazy ideas...
bofthem (author)  Patrik7 years ago
It would be a real monster to align the two plates, but I'm sure there's a way. I didn't feel it was necessary, as the extra pages behind the one being printed squeeze the first sheet into the embossing plate with a lot of force (kind of like the rubber panels you put over top of a blank, if you've ever done copper presses.) Oddly, I tried the car thing, thinking I could run over the panels, or have the car stand on them. I highly discourage doing this. While backing over the plates, they literally shot out from under the tire. It was like slipping on a stack of magazines... just... fwoosh. You would need to brace the jig against the ground, somehow. I just don't think it's worth it. I don't believe that I could have achieved a better result with more clamping pressure, given that my page seemed to be as deeply relieved as the plate. I think that the solution is definitely a stronger relief in the etch.
you could jack up one tire and slowly let it down on the plates.
wikkit bofthem7 years ago
Vacuum bagging the paper and plates would be better than clamping it or parking on it. 15psi over 8.5"x11" is about 1400 pounds of perfectly evenly distributed force. A normal plastic bag would work fine, and you can get an inexpensive vacuum device that screws on to a faucet. A valve and a bit of tubing, and you're golden.
xrissy7 years ago
This is really great. Can you add a pic of hte finished (printed) result? Just to satisfy my curiosity. Great job!
zohair7 years ago
A good way to remove paper from hard places (like via holes on PCBs), is to use a hard pencil eraser. You'll lose most of the eraser, but it'll save your fingers and your time.
You don't have to use a laser printer! Copier toner is just as resistant. The method I use involves printing a good quality image and then photocopying it onto a transparency. Place wax paper over it when ready to iron and go to town! After 6-10 minutes, stop and let cool completely (I like to keep a couple of cast iron skillets in the freezer to speed things up). Peel slowly. You can fill in any bald spots with Sharpie. Unlike the paper, this doesn't wrinkle. In fact, the heat makes the transparency shrink a little and tigten around the metal if there's overlap...
Hmmm. Thats a good idea. I guess the transparency wouldnt really be that hard to peel off.
jarg7 years ago
WHY NOT JUST BUY SOME LIGHT SENSITIV RESIST,PAINT IT ON LET DRY IN THE DARK ,EXPOSE TO A FLOURESCENT LAMP FOR ABOUT A HALF TO 1 HOUR THROUGH APAPER NEG.FROM THE COMPUTER PRINTER,WASH IT OUT WITH WARM WATER LET DRU...THEN ETCH WITH FERRIC CHLORIDE,RADIO SHACK USED TO CARRY BOTH CHEMICALS OR kODAK
bbqpope7 years ago
Cool, I have used a similar technique to make images for the purpose of printing on an etching press. In most cases a printmaker will make embossing their last step, which means you need to print first and then emboss the paper. We usually use a press but the jig seems to work. The trick is making the print register to the embossment. Good luck! I used the laser toner process along with aquatint to make an etching plate, it's cheaper than photo processes. Also, I used zinc, etching plates. Oh one more thing..... skip the crazy toner removal, and just use acetone.
Very nice, would be a simple way to just and the embossed relief image to stationary without having to worry about the images aligning exactly. Definitely going to try this one out! Thanks
smurfsahoy7 years ago
I guess a question more to the point is, when you say "spot checking," how did you go back over those spot checking areas with bubbles without having the paper go back down somewhere different than where it started in the process, due to having distorted into a bubble and lifted up first?
bofthem (author)  smurfsahoy7 years ago
When hot, the paper seems to have a bit of give to it. It seems like there must have been some distortion, to account for the fact that bubbles formed within the pattern, and then were knocked flat by successive ironings. But I honestly didn't notice significant warping in the finished form. The major lines matched with my templates fine. The most pronounced effect was on a smaller level, where the small details, although fine overall, had a slight warble to them. The line widths of the center logo varied on a lot of the cards.
thydzik7 years ago
looks good so far.
zohair7 years ago
Won't the Brillo pad ruin the etch? You can also remove the ink using regular nail-polish remover. Its got acetone though so use gloves and try not to inhale. You could also use spirit, but I haven't tried it.
bofthem (author)  zohair7 years ago
(removed by author or community request)
bofthem (author)  bofthem7 years ago
Sorry... anyway... The little green Scotch Brite pads are great. They're also great for cleaning machined parts. Sorry for deleting that one. Something odd happened with the reply script.
zohair bofthem7 years ago
haha! Anyway great instructable man. Hope you post pics of the results too sometime. :)
zohair bofthem7 years ago
hmmm. I'll try it out.
zohair7 years ago
This is by far the hardest part in any toner transfer etch method. Can you tell me how long it usually takes to get the toner completely onto the brass?
bofthem (author)  zohair7 years ago
It took literally five minutes of ironing. I let it sit to cool. And then I spent maybe another ten on spot checking, and hitting little spots with the tip of the iron.
zohair bofthem7 years ago
That is fast. Does the weight of the iron affect the output?
bofthem (author)  zohair7 years ago
Actually, I was pressing down pretty hard. I think that giving it a lot of elbow grease gives you much better holding.
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