Etching Brass Plates





Introduction: Etching Brass Plates

This is how I etched a brass plate to use as a decorative plate for my laptop lid. I've also used these stuck onto the front of notebooks and sketchbooks as presents for friends. My method draws heavily from this instructable and this website, so I thank the respective authors for their sterling work. There are many, many different ways of doing this, but when I was researching it, there weren't very many thorough tutorials, so I think this may still be useful for some people. But if you're interested, do scour the internet and you'll find a wealth of information about toner transfer and etching - some good, some bad, some just plain puzzling.

The artwork I used is a piece called Tribal Eagle by *xx-trigrhappy-xx and is used with permission.

Step 1: What You Need (and Where You Can Get It in the UK)

You will need:

Brass plate (I got mine from eBay)
Computer to prepare artwork
Laser printer and laser OHP acetate (Or do what I did and get a print shop to photocopy it onto acetate for you)
Permanent OHP marker (useful for touching up the mask before etching)
Insulating (PVC) tape (Woolworths/Robert Dyas or hardware stores)
Masking tape (ditto)
Non-metal kitchen scourer pad
Kitchen towel
Acetone (optional - but useful. Nail polish remover is mostly acetone and will do nicely)
(Hydrated) ferric chloride crystals ( Maplin)
Fine Wet & Dry paper (Wilkinson or hardware stores)
Some form of sanding block (I just used a scrap bit of wood I had lying around)
Cheap tupperware (You're not going to be able to reuse this for food!)
Rubber gloves (absolutely essential)
Goggles (essential if you're not stupid - don't risk your eyesight doing something like this!)
Dust mask (optional if you're careful and do the painting outdoors - there's not much painting involved)
Spray paint (I used black enamel satin-finish stuff from Wilkinson)

Step 2: Preparing the Artwork

The first thing is to get your (black and white) artwork prepared and printed to the right size onto OHP acetate. This can be done directly by a laser printer, or indirectly by printing onto normal paper and then photocopying onto acetate. The process of toner transfer does effectively reflect the image though, so if you have text, make sure you mirror the image before printing. A word to the wise though: This has to be done with either a laser printer or a photocopier and not an inkjet! Only toner will mask off the areas of the brass that we don't want to mask - ink won't work.

Remember, any areas that are black will be masked off, not etched and will end up brass-coloured, whereas any areas that are white will be etched and end up black on the finished plate.

Step 3: Prepare the Plate

Cut the plate down to the correct size and shape and finish off the edges - it's easier to do this now than after etching. Most importantly though, clean the plate! Use the kitchen scourer to scrub the front of the plate until it's shiny (but it doesn't have to be polished) and free of any tarnish or dirt. Then, use the kitchen towel dipped in acetone to thoroughly clean the surface to remove any oil or grease. Try not to touch the face of the plate now - the cleaner the plate is, the better the toner will transfer later.

Mind out here - acetone is extremely flammable. If you get any on your hands, it'll dry out your skin, so use some moisturiser on it afterwards.

Step 4: Line Up the Mask

Align the plate with the artwork on the OHP film and use the masking tape to stick it down carefully. Make sure the tape is only on one side of the brass plate, as this will make removing the film later much easier. Also make sure the tape is taut, as otherwise the artwork will move and you'll transfer the toner in the wrong place.

Step 5: Toner Transfer

Place the brass/acetate sandwich on a heatproof surface (I used some scrap cardboard) and heat up the iron. You want the iron as hot as it will go and no steam! Start with the brass-side up and press down on the back of the metal with the hot iron. This will preheat the brass and help the toner melt. After 20 seconds or so, flip the brass/acetate over without touching the brass, which will by now be extremely hot. Place a piece of scrap paper over the acetate and once again, press down on the brass (this time through the paper and acetate) with the iron, keeping the iron moving. Be careful not to melt the acetate. The actual toner transfer happens very quickly, and I found it needed very little heating with this method - in the order of 5-10 seconds. Take the iron away and immediately peel the acetate back carefully - this must be done while the brass and toner is still hot (which is different to if you're using paper to transfer it). If you let the toner cool first, it will come away with the acetate rather than remaining on the brass.

You'll also find that the adhesive on the masking tape will melt with the heat, so it's easier to peel this off while the brass is hot. Don't burn yourself though!

Step 6: Check and Finish the Mask

This is the time to check that you're happy with the toner transfer. If you've messed up and need to start over, the acetone will dissolve the toner from the plate easily and you can try again (with a fresh sheet of OHP acetate though). If the toner layer is a bit thin, you can carefully align another printed sheet of acetate with your already partially-coated brass and try the toner transfer step again. This is one of the major benefits of using OHP film rather than the other options which people have said work (e.g. magazine paper, inkjet glossy paper, press 'n' peel toner transfer paper etc.). Make sure that the brass plate is free from bits of melted acetate, which can happen if you heat the acetate too much.
If you're happy with it, use the insulating tape to cover the back, sides, borders (if you want them) and any other large areas that you don't want to etch. Touch up any bits of the mask that look slightly thin on toner with the permanent OHP marker.

Step 7: Etch!

Time to etch! Put on your rubber gloves and goggles now! Make up the ferric chloride solution according to the back of the packet in your tupperware and immerse your plate in the solution. The etch will work much faster if it is warmed - I think the packet recommends 40-50 degrees C. I placed the tupperware containing the etch solution in a larger basing half-filled with hot water to achieve this. It will work at room temperature, but it'll take longer.
What I found much more important though, was to agitate the solution while etching. This ensures a fresh supply of etchant to the plate and will speed up the etch tremendously. I just donned my gloves and picked up the plate every 10-15 minutes and used that to swirl the solution around before putting the plate back down and leaving it again. Time-consuming, but it works well and has the benefit of simplicity.
My etch took about 3 hours until I decided it was done. You can monitor the progress of the etch by gently feeling the surface of the etch with your (gloved) fingers. You probably won't see any depth to the etch until it's nearly done. However, keep an eye on the mask, as eventually it will start to flake off - when this happens, you definitely need to remove the plate, as you'll start to etch in places you don't want to etch.

Ferric chloride is not terribly nice stuff, so do this outdoors and don't get it on your skin. Don't breathe the fumes and beware - it stains anything and everything indelibly.

Step 8: The Etched Plate!

No, we're not quite done yet. But here's a picture of the plate fresh out of the etchant bath. When you're happy with your plate, remove it from the etchant and rinse it thoroughly with water.

You'll see that my plate is covered with verdigris - this didn't happen on the first two plates I did, but it did on this one. I'm not entirely sure why...

Step 9: Disposing of the Etchant Solution

First thing - don't bother! You can keep the etchant for the next plate you do (it will gradually take longer to etch the plate as the solution becomes weaker though).

Second thing - when you do need to dispose of the etchant, do so responsibly. Don't just put it down the drain! The ferric chloride is corrosive to lots of metals, but more importantly, it now contains dissolved copper which is rather harmful to wildlife. What you need to do is neutralise the solution with an alkali (something like washing soda) which will precipitate out the copper as a solid. Then, you can dilute the liquid with lots of water and put that down the drain, as long as you filter/decant off the solid copper and dispose of that safely - your council will advise you how best to do this.

Step 10: Painting the Plate

Time to finish it off! Once again, clean and dry is the name of the game here. Get hold of your spray paint and shake it to mix it. Do some test spraying onto old newspaper until you're happy with your technique - remember, light, even passes larger than the object being sprayed, and thin coats. Once you're happy, stick the plate down and paint it! I sprayed mine with three light coats of the paint, letting it dry between each coat. Remember to spray from different angles to ensure that you catch all edges of the etched plate. Ensure the paint is thoroughly dry before continuing - if you're impatient like me, use a hairdryer!

Remove all the tape from the edges and back, and you'll probably find that it's left all sorts of gunk. I'd clean this off carefully at this point by scrubbing gently. Rinse the plate and dry with some kitchen towel.

Step 11: Finishing Off the Plate

Nearly there now. Grab your Wet & Dry paper and wrap it around your sanding block (the block is just there to keep the paper flat) and sand down the surface of the plate. This will expose the brass on any areas that were not etched. Don't worry about the way it scratches the paint surface - it gives it a nice pseudo-aged look.
Once you've cleaned down to the brass all over the unetched areas, add a bit of water to the plate (this makes the Wet & Dry effectively a finer abrasive) and scrub with small circular motions all over the plate to ensure a nice finish. If the paint has been scratched unevenly, then carefully use the paper without the sanding block on the unscratched areas and even it out. When you're happy with the finish, rinse the plate and dry.

Don't forget, if you completely screw up this stage, all is not lost - just clean the plate, respray and try again!

Step 12: Attach to the Object of Your Choice

Final step - glue it on! I used superglue, as it's quite good at sticking mixed materials (in this case, metal to plastic) and can be removed with the appropriate solvent. I'd recommend using the masking tape as before to allow you to align the plate first, flip it up so that you can spread the superglue and then flip it back to stick it correctly in position - superglue dries really quickly!



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    68 Discussions

    How does the etched design handle being bent? I want to make a fancy etched end cap for a walking stick and am really nervous that bending will break up the design, or make it prone to cracking. Any advice?

    1 reply

    Make your walking stick handle/end cap first so the metal forming is finished, then apply the resist and etch the part last. Then you won't have to worry about bending the metal after the image has been etched.

    Is there any way that you can use a thinner brass sheet and completely etch through the open areas? Obviously it wouldn't work so well for designs with a lot of unconnected parts, but I'm thinking of a design that's all connected, but with a lot of openings in it.

    The toner would protect the front, but would it be possible to leave it in the solution long enough to completely dissolve the unprotected areas, while not just dissolving the whole thing? Or is there some way you could protect the back (other than by using a reversed toner image, because you would never be able to get it aligned perfectly) so that when you're done, you have a brass design with open areas?

    6 replies

    To be honest, I'm not sure. I would suggest that it's probably not the best way of doing it though, even if it is possible - it would require you to use very thin brass and the etch time would be so long that you would probably lose any fine detail. Getting access to a laser cutter or CNC mill would certainly give you a much cleaner, faster result and you'd be able to use much thicker brass. Alternatively, you could do it by hand with a Dremel if you've got enough patience.

    Thanks for the reply. What I had in mind was making a replica of the puzzle cube from the movie Hellraiser. The actual prop is a wooden cube with brass panels on all six sides. Opposing sides have similar, though subtly different designs. You can buy professional made replicas, but they're usually expensive. Besides, I thought it would neat to be able to make one myself for a relatively low cost.

    I have a set of hi-res images of the panels which are suitable for printing at the sizes required (3"x3"x3" I think). Looking online, it seems that others have actually done this, although they're usually a little vague on the details.

    Yeah, looking at that, it's certainly not going to work. There's no way you'll be able to get a fine enough detail on the etch, and the brass would have to be crazily thin - too thin to be workable for this method. It looks like you really would need something more like a gold leaf transfer for this.

    I stand corrected! That's pretty cool!


    2 years ago

    Amazing factsheet! Keep it up! I love the fact that this is for people like mee in the UK! I am chemist, or at least I pretend to be. From what I think, perhaps the last time the iron was too hot and transferred some of the acetate sheet to the etching? Verdigris can occur when the copper is in contact with acetic acid. A little bit of acetate could have been in contact with moisture from the air and then come in contact with the copper.

    I presuppose that all came from the last attempt, where you were quite confident in the process and wanted to do things a little quicker maybe? I hope this helps!

    2 replies

    That's a very good point - it hadn't occurred to me that the acetate could have been a reagent. It's not a problem in any case, but that's certainly an interesting point - thanks!

    You are welcome friend! :-)


    2 years ago

    I had a go and it worked nicely! (Tho I used Sodium Persulfate for etching, I'd bought it a while back from Rapid Electronics). After reading around a bit, while I know next to nothing about chemistry, perhaps the reason you had the verdigris is your etchant solution had been sitting around for too long: something similar to that described in this link which explains why Sodium Persulfate solution needs to be used shortly after preparation (in short because it decomposes and oxygen evolves).


    2 years ago

    Why would brass be used instead of copper? Especially since ferric chloride is used for etching PCBs, Id have thought it would be the obvious choice?

    1 reply

    A couple of reasons - first, small sheets of brass are much easier to get hold of than pure copper. Secondly, copper will tarnish much more readily and is also much softer than brass, so less hardwearing. And thirdly, and most importantly, it's what I happened to have to hand at the time!

    Obviously, it'll work with copper, but I would suggest that if you were to use copper, a clear coat over the top would be a good idea to prevent it corroding too quickly.

    Nice instructable. Thanks for putting this together. I have 2 comments regarding toner transfer. I've used plain laser printer paper and did a heat transfer but that tends to leave little fibers from the paper. Another alternative is PNP-Blue which is designed for circuit board toner transfer.

    It has been quite a few years since I last used it but it worked fairly well giving decent edges and good transfer. For anyone doing this, I suggest writing down the settings on your iron, a note about what you are ironing on to (material, size), and how long you heated for. It will make it easier when you do it again a year later.

    Great post lots of detail! I have just started having a go but am having issues with getting the tone transfer onto the copper. Parts of the toner transfers but not all of it. I have made sure my coppers extra clean and used an iron on it for a long time. Any suggestions on getting a clean and full transfer?

    1 reply

    You don't need to get the iron on it for very long at all, but peel the acetate off smoothly and as soon after you remove the iron as possible. There is a bit of a knack to it, but I also found that I rarely got a "perfect" mask from a single toner transfer anyway, so I tended to repeat the transfer process a second time using a fresh acetate print - this just helps deposit a bit more toner over the top. Remember that you can always touch up a mask with a marker afterwards - I almost always needed to do this.

    Hi great tutorial! I have been attempting some brass etchings of my own but I ham having some problems with the ferric chloride staining my brass pieces after they have come out of the acid bath. I have attempted scrubbing these piece with wire wool and backing soda but the stain will not budge. Have you ever experienced problems with this and is there a solution to this?

    1 reply

    'fraid not - have you tried taking a coarser abrasive to it to take a deeper layer of material off?