Introduction: 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.

Step 1: 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.

Step 2: Arrange Your Etch Design and Your Printed Design

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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