Instructables

(easily) etch images in copper

Make a copper etching of any image. This takes about 1 hour, including image prep, transfer, and etching, and it works really well. Check it out!
http://www.artiswrong.com
 
Remove these adsRemove these ads by Signing Up

Step 1: Overview

I was making PCBs today (using vincent's excellent 5PCB instructable!), and they were coming out really well. I thought I might try images, and after a bit of trial and error, I got that working well, too.
This instructable will leave you with a nice copper etching of a digital image of your choice.
Along the way, you will:
Do some digital image editing and manipulation
Laser print your image onto a transparency
Iron the transparency onto a copper clad board
Chemically etch the board

Ready? Onwards!

Step 2: Get yo' materials together

You'll need:
Some circuit board etchant (FeCl2)
A copper clad board the size of your image
A transparency (kinko's sells them for about $1)
A laser printer
An iron
A plastic tray larger than your board (to hold the board and etchant)

Step 3: Get some tunes

Before you begin your labor, you'll need (for your own safety) some smooth jams to rock out to.
Slip a favorite CD into that deck of yours, or grab one of my mixes from http://www.artiswrong.com/alex/mix

Now you're ready to get down to it!
iamaqtpoo3 years ago
Can you use this technique on other metals? I am just starting and would prefer to mess up on cheaper metal 1st..ha! Thanks for the great, cheap, user friendly guide!
What @dagenius said. A 6 inch by 4 inch piece of FR4 is about $2 on ebay. You might need to order 2 or 4 pieces to get free shipping.

For photos, the thinnest board works best, and is easily cut with a razor blade and edge, or paper cutter.

The fiberglass backing could be any color, unfortunately. Some very thin (flexible) PR4 I ordered had solid black backing, which is perfect for photos. Just remember that you will have 2 "colors" - copper, and the background. In some cases you may want to invert the picture and slightly alter the color "levels" to maximize desired detail.

Thicker PR4 might not fit in some picture frames, but if you shop based on cost it's not likely you would end up buying the thicker circuit board stuff (as weighter stuff is more expensive).

The iron transfer worked awesome. This valentines day my wife gets a hand-made card which could be framed. :-)
The copper is actually plating on a material called FR4, which is fiber glass. The boards themselves can be bought cheaply from electronics suppliers like radioshack, digikey.com, etc...
WingDings2 years ago
I followed the link to your site, but got a warning that there were viruses/trojans/exploits on (at least) one of the pages. Might be worth cleaning up? Unless of course it’s your intent to infect people’s computers, in which case, carry on!
syrax4 years ago
it's not the best solution :) i make this similar but .... when convert image to B/W i save it in WBMP in photoshop, this give me a very small Black and White pixels NO GRAYSCALE , after that just convert this WBMP to normal BMP and it's ready to "print" . When you use grayscale it's hard to etch Regards from Bulgaria
image_simple.JPG
scottinnh syrax2 years ago
+1 to this comment here, folks.

If you are etching, you only have 2 "colors": copper and substrate. There is no ability to blend or gradient the colors except by dithering/halftones. So you must use black and white, for best effect.

Also note with B&W, there are a range of dithering and halftone options you can choose from, which affect both the coarseness of the dots (think: newspaper halftones) and the placement of the dots (in a regular grid, or gridless which makes the dots look more randomly placed, like old Macintosh artwork).

As a constructive suggestion, @syrax's b&w photo looks a little washed out in the highlights. That's not due to his b&w method, but rather the original photo -is- actually washed out in the foreground. This could be fixed by playing around with the Levels or Gamma in Gimp or Photoshop, and that would restore some facial detail that's currently lost in a large area free of any detail (white).

I'm about to attempt this, to take up extra space on a PCB, for my first etch. :-)

HMBeck2 years ago
It looks like a curb. In the background there is a man-hole cover. All I don't understand is where the banana is?
vincent75203 years ago
On what do these beautiful apples rest ?…
It looks like an old sink that we had in our farms here way back then …
Am I wrong ?

Note, for the funny side ot things : at 1st I thought they were resting on the curb of a side walk. Curbs in most French cities (from where I post) are made from the same stone, with water runnig at the base it made the whole thing real. But who would put apples there ???… :D
eclarep4 years ago
Great art! I'm going to try it with some very thin copper tags I found.
As an Art Major (who is planning on going to medical school, completely abandoning art for the time being), I focused on printmaking.
To clean the plate without damaging it (steel wool seems harsh) I always used cheesecloth with a bit of mineral spirits.  It works really well if you are using lithograph inks.

Also, you can find genuine copper plates at art supply stores.  They are expensive! In fact, I split the cost of one with 3 classmates during my last semester of college (Spring 08) and haven't used it yet. Fear of commitment/not wanting to ruin something so expensive led me to re-use the plates people had discarded, even when no copper was left.
These aren't really copper plates. They are copper plated fiberglass
StuNutt3 years ago
Thanks Man,

I've started doing a few printed circuit boards and been having some problems, but there's ideas in here that have helped.

Stu
-Aj-4 years ago
would a bubble jet printer work? or does it need to be laser due to the different ink?
beehard44 -Aj-3 years ago
bubble jets have special transparencies. Just for the info of others, i read your post in reply to the post i am currently replying on...
-Aj- -Aj-4 years ago
yaay, ok doesnt matter my photoresist arrived today :P
no laser transferring for me
Ok, there IS a special kind of transparencies intended for use with laser printers. But If you can't find it them, you don't have a laser printer, or you just don't want to experiment with your laser printer, you can always get a simple photocopy of your design. Photocopiers use a black toner wich is similiar to the one inside the laser printer. Therefore, it works the same way: you can iron transfer any toner-printed image onto your copper plate.
nekoheehee5 years ago
I suggest using glossy paper or even pages from a magazine. after its printed on the paper you use a hot iron and iron the ink onto the metal. soak the metal and paper in water until the paper gets mushy and carefully rub it away. if your careful the toner will be left on the metal. it works for me every time :)
I used magazine paper today and didn't have a very smooth transfer. I spent about 5 minutes moving the iron in circles, but the paper didn't adhere to the copper and my toner transferred very faintly. Is there something I missed?
Try turning your laser printers dpi and quality up to max so you have a nice thick bit of toner to melt onto the PCB
maxwelltub4 years ago
I cant get a clean transfer. I have tried a dozen times and always get little bubbles where the ink doesnt transfer. I have tried different times and temps but still with the same problem.
You can also use this method to print on paper. It's sort of similar to the lithograph and/or screenprinting processes. Instead of reversing your image/text though, you would leave it flipped so that when you ink up your copper plate and print off of that, your image will come out correctly. I believe it's called intaglio. The copper plates last awhile and is fairly easy to ink up, print, and then clean. I forgot what kind of ink works best but you apply it with a squeegee (is there a technical / artist term for one of these?) or a piece of cardboard, use a piece of mesh/tulle/netting to wipe it off, and then run it through a printing press.
actually what you're describing is more akin to block printing, and probably wouldn't work very well with a thin copper etched PCB. in block printing, a brayer is used to roll the ink on to raised surfaces, not a squeegee which is used in silkscreening. intaglio is when you etch away the positive lines of your image in a zinc or copper plate, apply a thick oil-based ink to the whole plate and then carefully rub away the ink left on the smooth surface of the plate with newspapers and cheesecloth until the ink remains only in the depressions. the plate is then run through an intaglio press which pushes the ink on to paper creating a slight raised line, just like with paper money. also, lithography is completely different from any of the above mentioned printing processes, and requires a long complicated sensitization of limestone blocks with chemicals that make some surfaces water-loving and some water-repellent.
actually, i pretty much described intaglio the same way you did, but whatever. i've studied printmaking and am familiar with the blockprinting, intaglio, and litho processes, i'm just not currently active with it.
i just wanted to clarify that someone trying to ink up and print a plate similar to the one shown here using intaglio methods would not have much success. nor would they have much success using block printing methods. not to mention that someone trying to put a PCB through pretty much any kind of printing press heavy enough to print intaglio would most likely crush it beyond further use.
Solution: Don't etch on PCBs. Go out and buy copper plates intended for use on an Intaglio Press. Instead of using Ferric Chloride, another Instructable suggests using Copper Chloride in an aqueous Hydrochloric Acid solution. I will be trying this to prepare my plates, and heading to a print shop to rent some studio time to see how well it works.
unbunny4 years ago
Are you using WAXed paper, or just parchment paper? Seems that the iron would melt the wax and make a smokey waxy mess...
prank (author)  unbunny4 years ago
it's normal waxed paper. No mess a-tall. It makes sense--you can put waxed paper in the oven and it doesn't kerplode.
Wax paper will smoke in the oven or when being ironed. What you want to use is called parchment paper in the US. It is most commonly used for baking.
If you've just put the wrong kind of transparency or mailing labels through your printer or copier, and you now have hot goo adhering to the internal works, run a bunch of sheets of paper through as fast as you can. If you're lucky, the hot goo will stick to the paper and so be removed from the machinery. If it doesn't work, you're not out much. If you've overinked a mimeograph or small offset press, this same trick will clean out the excess ink. Keep a stack of misprinted pages (a.k.a. waster sheets) on hand so you don't use clean paper. Waster sheets can be reused multiple times. You just have to let the ink dry between uses.
does any1 know if thiss will etch any other types of metal just wondering maybe i can make somthing cool
Er, yes, I once ruined a laser printer by putting the wrong kind of transparency through it. Make sure you use transparencies specifically intended for laser printers. Standard transparencies will almost certainly melt and spread goop all over the internals of your printer.
Awesome Instructable One of the reasons I signed up on the Make site was to ask you, I'm doing a science experiment for my grade 10 science class, and I was wondering where you purchased you copper plate? I bought some 1/4 copper couplings and was going to cut and flatten them. Also, did you place anything on the back of the sheet so the freak acid won't eat into it? or if I just missed reading that part. Thank you for making this Instructable Caret
prank (author)  hammock_hero5 years ago
So, it wasn't actually copper plate--it's copper-clad fiberglass you use to etch circuit boards, so one side is a copper coating and another side is fiberglass. You can buy it, pretty cheaply, if you search for 'FR4' copper board, or you can even get it at radio shack. good luck with your science experiments --me
Alright thanks, I'll go looking for that tomorrow. I've never really etched anything but I got interested in it from some of the altoid tins I saw and decided why not make something cool while getting marks for it. I may need you to answer a few questions if I run into any trouble. Thanks again --Myself
I loved your tutorial, I'm wanting to etch some small decorative items to put in my stained glass art. Can I continue to leave the peice I'm etching in the acid and actually make small intricate trims that are not plates? but little decorative trims? Thanks!!!! glassgardener
Wonderful work! Congratulations!
Evan7 years ago
Will this work with plain copper sheeting (like the kind you can get at hobby or home improvement stores)? I really want to etch some of Da Vinci's notebooks onto copper sheets about 4"x24", and I think this would be a good process to do so, but I wasn't sure.
prank (author)  Evan7 years ago
So, copper sheeting is pure copper, so the etchant will eat away the entire board. The stuff I'm using has a layer of fiberglass with a thin copper layer on either side. BUT---now that I think about it, it may actually work with a copper sheet. Try printing the negative of your image, transferring it, and then letting it etch. I think if you let it etch for a long time, it will turn out poorly, since the etchant will get underneath your resist as it etches down, and your resolution will go to crap. Try using very thin copper sheet and checking it constantly. (now I'm all excited!) You might also want to coat the entire backside of the sheet with resist, so it only etches from one direction. Alternatively, you could put the mirror of the frontside image onto the backside, and have it etch away from both directions at once--This method _might_ be able to actually etch holes in 1/32" copper sheet, which would be cool beyond belief (imagine all your letters actually being holes in copper!) Things to keep in mind--the boards I etched were FR4, which means that the copper thickness is .0014". If you use, say, 1/16" copper, you're taking away about 22 times more copper. You may need to swap out the FeCl2 halfway though if the etching slows down, or add fresh stuff. Also, I worry a lot about the sidewalls etching away. I guess the only way to do it is to try! I'll race you!
kecl prank6 years ago
I have done copper etching on sheet copper using a permanent marker to mark what I don't want etched and ferric chloride from Radio Shack. It works well but I am running out of ferric chloride. I came to this hopping for a alternative to ferric chloride. Do you have one?
Kryptonite kecl5 years ago
http://www.instructables.com/id/Stop-using-Ferric-Chloride-etchant!--A-better-etc/
The Real Elliot has made an instructable on a gud alternative.
zachninme prank7 years ago
Also, use acetone (nail polish remover), to remove the ink. This way you don't scuff up the image :-)
Pro

Get More Out of Instructables

Already have an Account?

close

PDF Downloads
As a Pro member, you will gain access to download any Instructable in the PDF format. You also have the ability to customize your PDF download.

Upgrade to Pro today!