Laser Intaglio(ish) Printmaking




Introduction: Laser Intaglio(ish) Printmaking

About: Smith|Allen is a design firm based in Oakland California. Our work is interdisciplinary in focus bringing design, innovation, and novel concepts to bear on a wide range of projects. Smith|Allen brings togeth…

Printmaking is high tech! Okay, so maybe it was in the mid-15th century, but printmaking+lasers? Now that's tech for today.

I am interested in exploring the ways that technology has impacted, and continues to impact, art making. This instructable merges digital fabrication with the age old technique of printmaking, specifically intaglio. Incising precisely into a metal or copper plate, this process yields beautiful, detailed prints and also imprints the plate on the paper.

I call this Intaglio(ish) printmaking, because we will use a laser cutter to incise deep enough markings, and translate hand drawings into Illustrator.*

Intaglio(ish) allows you to avoid the ground and acid path. Go from plate to print in no time!

*Traditionally, a copper or zinc plate is covered in resin ground or acid-resistant wax, and designs are hand-etched into the ground to reveal the plate. The plate is then put into an acid bath so that the surface is "biten" where it was incised, creating grooves on the surface for ink to adhere to.

Step 1: Materials

You'll need a mix of high tech + traditional tools for this piece.

Draw to file:

  • Pen and paper
  • Scanner or the appGenius Scan
  • Illustrator or CorelDraw
  • Laser cutter / I used an Epilog laser cutter

Plate to print:

  • Printing press / I found this press on Amazon.
  • Anodized aluminum / You must use anodized aluminum if you are going to laser cut your plates!
  • Metal scraper
  • Scissors
  • Palette knife
  • Scissors
  • Cotton scrim
  • Intaglio ink / I used Akua inks
  • Acrylic scrap sheet
  • Old credit card or heavyweight cardstock, cut in half

Step 2: Draw + Prep Your File

I like to start the old fashioned way, with pen and paper. From there, we will head into the land of computers.

1. Get Inspired

  • Because this is a semi-involved process, I recommend finding imagery that really inspire you!
  • This particular set of drawings coincides with a larger project we are doing at Autodesk, both a series of prints and a sculpture. As we always do with a new piece, we sought inspiration from site to make it as responsive as possible. Located on the Embarcadero's historic port, the lobby at Pier 9 is a bustling place, full of visitors, deliveries, and staff members. We found interest in similarities between site and usage, the constant comings and goings, the ever bustling nature of commerce. We set up in a spot overlooking the lobby for an entire day, monitoring and drawing individual paths through the lobby. Every 30 minutes, from 8 to 6:30pm, we captured a cross-section of Pier 9. The simple movements created a series of 21 drawings. We were so interested in the line quality, we created a series of prints from these original drawings.

2. Draw

  • Put pen to paper, and let your imagination run.

3. Scan

  • Scan your image with a scanner or use the app Genius Scan on your phone.

4. Digitize

  • Open your image in Illustrator.
  • "Mirror" your image, as it the reverse will print.
  • Then, edit your artboard to be the same size as your aluminum sheet (mine were 6 x 6").
  • Select "Place" to add any other drawings you might want on the same print.
  • Then, hit "Live Trace" to do a trace of your drawing. You can play around with the different tracing filters, I selected "Photo low fidelity."
  • I like to spend time cleaning up the image first, especially after live tracing. First select the drawing and hit "Ungroup," then you can individually select and delete anything you don't want printed.

Step 3: Prep the Plate

1. Prep

  • Use the metal scraper to bevel your aluminum edge to about a 45 degree angle on all sides. If you're asking why, its so the metal doesn't cut through the wet paper when you are doing the printing process.
  • Start at the furthest edge and bring the scraper towards you. Metal should come off as a continuous peel.
  • Then, use a bit of sandpaper to refine the edges.
  • Repeat for all plates.

2. Unwrap

  • Anodized aluminum comes coated in a plastic, protective layer. Make sure to take this off before you start to laser your piece!

Step 4: Laser Your Drawing

Now, start the process of etching the drawing into the anodized aluminum.

1. Settings

  • I played around to get the best etch, which I always recommend doing.
  • I used vector settings of 100/25/550 at 400 dpi, and did two passes for a deeper etch.

2. Etch

  • I slightly offset the focus on the laser to get a wider kerf. I wanted there to be more for the ink to grab onto, since my image is comprised of fairly simple line drawings.

Step 5: Inking Your Plate

The process of inking the plate might have you going, huh? But bear with me.

1. Gather

  • Gather your printmaking supplies: scrim, scissors, Intalgio ink, credit card, and palette knife

2. Mix

  • Using your knife, mix your inks to a desired color.

3. Apply

  • Switch to your credit card or cardstock and ink your aluminum, etched plate.
  • Cover the entire plate with a thin layer.

4. Wipe

  • Use the cotton scrim to do gentle but firm wiping motions down the entire plate, in the same direction. Yes, you just covered the entire plate only to wipe it off after. Once you have gotten most of it off, use a fresh piece of scrim or newspaper to do half circle wipes. Also, remember to do the corners too!

Step 6: Prepping Your Paper

Before we can print, we need to prep the paper.

1. Register

  • You can use tracing paper or mylar to create registration marks. You'll want to measure and mark where your plate will go and where your paper will go.

2. Dampen

  • Soak your paper, or dap it with wet paper towels. Once it is evenly soaked, wipe off any residual water. To damp or drippy paper will make for messy prints, but too dry will make for weak ones, so do a few practice tests before going for it.

Step 7: Print

Now it's time to print! Also, I should note that the steps for inking and paper prepping should happen fairly close to the time that you will be printing... slightly dried ink does not make for a good print and either does dry paper.

  1. Set it up
  • Remove the blanket off your etching print bed to expose the metal underlying plate. You may need to first loosen the two knobs on the press to increase the height of the bed.

2. Register

  • Take your registration paper (tracing or duralar) and place it directly on the plate.
  • Place your lasered plates and place them in line with the registration marks.
  • Gently line your damp paper to the outer registration marks.

3. Print!

  • Carefully slide the felted blanket back on to the print bed so it covers the entire plate, or at least the part you are etching. This will ensure even pressure as you are compressing the plate.
  • Adjust the height knobs down to a level that puts pressure on your plate. Make sure that these knobs are at the same height.
  • Use the crank to slowly move your print bed through the compressing rollers. I like to go back and forth twice to make sure that I get a nice compression of the plate onto the paper.

    Step 8: Finishing Touches

    1. Finish
    • Let your print dry. Then, flatten the print (as the edges will slightly curl up) and press it between two surfaces.

    2. Frame... or not!

    • This is optional, but choose a frame that shows off your new print! I'll be posting about how to make the frame above in my next Instructable. Stay tuned!
    • Left unframed and pinned on a wall, these prints look beautiful too!

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      6 Discussions


      8 months ago

      This is actually a proper intaglio method, so you don’t need the “ish”! Certain other intaglio methods like engraving, drypoint and mezzotint also do not use acid.


      Question 2 years ago on Step 1

      I was wondering, I pretty much only use copper plates and mordent for my intaglio prints. If I were to lay a hard ground on to the copper and laser engrave the ground then do mordent would this process work? I'm curious since our printmaking lab doesn't have a laser engraver exclusively for our department and I know nothing about them. I've been trying to see if I can outsource to a laser engraver near campus but he is wary of using ground and won't engrave directly on copper. Do you have any advice or thoughts?


      4 years ago

      what device did you use to make the etching, specifically, what power laser did you use?


      6 years ago

      what. the. ....

      I'm impressed with this development. It is quite a fresh look at modern fine art printmaking process.

      you have sparked quite a few ideas, unfortunately I no longer have access to the proper facilities with which to experiment!