Introduction: Etching Anodized Aluminum

About: Illustrator, observer, layman scientist, collector based out of Oakland, CA. Enjoys long walks through the woods and eating whole watermelons in one sitting.

Creating aluminum etchings can result in beautiful delicate drawings on metal. When etched, the black surface of the anodized metal reveals the naturally bright white aluminum underneath, with the ability to create super fine light lines on dark background.

Step 1: Materials

- Anodized aluminum. I used .04" in matte black. You can choose from a wide range of colors and thicknesses.

- Laser cutter, I experimented using both Metabeam & Epilogue. Ultimately Epilogue was much much faster and allowed for more variation with less adjustments.

Step 2: Preparing Your Drawings

I made all the original drawings by hand, scanning them in and formatting/cleaning them up. Whales, whales, whales. If more comfortable, files can be prepared entirely on the computer in programs such as coreldraw, illustrator, or photoshop.

What you draw and how you draw is totally depends on the end result you're going for.

- Delicate thin lines: use vector line work. These images are pretty hard to see sometimes, so keep in mind when drawing airy drawings that the lines are light on black, and not black on light. The clarity from a distance isn't as good, and therefore visibility decreases.

In Coreldraw: Import drawing and do a centerline trace. If you do an outline trace, your etch will take twice as long and might look busy and messy.
In Photoshop/Illustrator: use the trace function. You can adjust the line thickness.

- Shading: raster image. You can try hatching, cross hatching, stippling, or shading within the program. Each of these will look different both in style and etching results.

I used shades of gray to test out raster effects. The darker the gray, the lighter the etched area.

Step 3: Trial #1: Thin Lines on Metabeam

I first tried using the metabeam, which is an amazing machine, but not for this purpose. It can be slow and finicky with settings.

The result was a beautiful, delicate etching, but one that was nearly impossible to see from far away.

Step 4: Trial #2: Shading on Epilogue

The 2nd & 3rd run proved much more successful.

Using raster settings on the Epilogue resulted in really nice, clean etches.

The whale bones is using the following settings:

- Raster only

- Power 100%

- Speed 25%

- 400 dpi

- Standard dithering. You can tell that the shading is a bunch of dots that can look very computerized from up close. Depending on what you're going for, this might not be the most ideal setting.

I wanted to play around using different shading to see how it would effect the metal. The lights areas of bones corresponds to the darkest gray in the illustrator drawing. Think backwards.

The whale tail is done with all the same basic settings, but using dithering in the Floyd Steinberg dithering setting. (Strange name for a raster setting, I know). This resulted in a pretty organic, underwater-y pattern, but had some irregularity because of the gas assist. This can be turned off to reduce your chances of interference.

Each etching took about 5 minutes.

Go forth and etch!