Introduction: Salt Water Etching Steel - Knives, Axes, Pacifiers, Etc

I was in the middle of a project where i was trying to engrave an axe with a dremel... It doesn't matter why, let just say its a terrible process and logs don't appreciate the work. So i wanted something easier. Enter salt water etching. its really simple. like, stupid easy. once you get past all the hard parts.


salty water - i used 1/4c salt to 1c HOT water

masking vinyl

xacto knife

12V battery charger



Step 1: This Is the Artsy Part

apparently there are these printers that cut the vinyl for you in very intricate shapes just by pushing a button. i dont have one of those.

so i printed out a relatively simple design and stole my kids glue stick. I glued my paper printout to this "permanent vinyl" product from Hobby Lobby (use whatever online coupons they have, i think that place is a ripoff at full price)

by my second try i had a reasonable facsimile of the Great Heathen Army flag i was going for (thanks Hobby Lobby!). if this is your first time, start simple. unless youre an xacto knife savant, then go nuts.

at this point in my life i need a headlamp and reading glasses to even focus that close. sooo...simple is for me

Step 2: She Puts the Vinyl on the Steel

clean up whatever you are etching. sand it to whatever finish you want then clean it with rubbing alcohol. you do this to get rid of any oils for both the vinyl stickers sake as well as the etch.

take your vinyl sticker and stick it onto the thing you want to etch. in this case its my extra machete "Bamboobane" because i wasn't sure how well this would work and it was laying around ever since i crushed most of our bamboo with a bobcat...

make sure you cover whatever you dont want etched. squeegie the vinyl down as tight as you can. pretty much if it gets wet its gonna etch. with a decent vinyl you can come up with some detailed designs.

Step 3: This Is the Shocking Part

this is where im going to differ bigtime with most of the other etching tutorials i've seen. First off i wear gloves and a respirator now because after my first try i almost had a panic attack after learning it can produce chlorine gas. After calming down and realizing i wasnt dying it decided to error on the side of caution from that point on.

Also, most guys etch using a Qtip. a Qtip would take FOREVER on some of the designs i want to do. GO BIG OR GO HOME! Cotton balls hold a lot of salt water and take a long time to get used up plus they can cover an entire logo at once giving a more even etch. Next time i think im going to create an edge around my vinyl and just pour the saline into that "cup" to see how that works. but for now use the cotton ball on anything larger than a single tiny etch. anyhow...

1.) take the battery charger and put the red (pos) to the metal. clip in a cotton ball to the black side (neg) plug it in. (if you don't do this it wont work and getting the polarity correct is crucial)

2.) put the cotton ball in the salt water

** honestly this worried me a bit the first time and im sure my wife got a kick of watching me tentatively touching water with electricity. =/ but im still here. **

3.) touch the cotton ball to the etch, it will sizzle and bubble and smoke a bit. Dont breath that stuff in, i've read its a bunch of different things but it cant be good for you.

4.) hold it there for about a minute, maybe two if you want a good deep etch.

Step 4: Lather, Rinse, Repeat... No No, Just Etch It Some More

take a look. if it looks good and etched then you are moving on. i haven't found a good way to tell how deep the etch is other than experimentation with timing it but once you peel the vinyl off its over. just make sure you've gotten the whole thing etched.

Step 5: Permanent Doesnt Mean What It Used to

so i used permanent vinyl cause i figured it would stick better and create a better seal than the temp vinyl they sell. i can tell you its pretty hard to remove unless you hit it with heat. but a quick once over and it comes right off. I've found that fire disputes most things claim to descriptor "permanent."

Step 6: Beware Bamboo - the Great Heathen Army Approaches

once the vinyl is off you really get to see what you got. polish up with some steel wool or 600g wet paper and it will leave the etch darker while shining up the high spots for some nice contrast.

you may notice that i have both Odin's raven and a thing that looks like a buzz saw etched into Bamboobane. but wait you say, you only had a raven in the stencil?!?

this my friend is Norse magic.

but of course as in all myths there is a more practical explanation.

i had tried first to do a more complicated raven and failed miserably so in my impatience to try this out i just did the border the first time. the raven shown here is my second go round on this project.

so! be safe, have fun. make something cool

Step 7: This Is the Final

after trial and error with the machete i finished this one for an axe head. its an inverse of the original so the vinyl stickers were the raven and the sun surrounded by nothing then vinyl covered everything else. the runes are the same, covered everything except the cut out runes. my only regret is that i didnt etch it quite deep enough as it was hard to get a good contrast and i ended up cold bluing some of it, which isnt bad in itself but if the etch is deep then you can cold blue the area then sand off the high spots leaving a really well defined darkeded area. i ended up using a qtip and it was more time consuming than expected.