Make Your Own Embossed Business Cards Using Acid Etching

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About: I'm M@. If you know Prototype This, TechShop, The Best of Instructables, Show Me How, or AVPII: Requiem, you've seen some of my work and the cool stuff I've been involved in. I build and design and make and ...

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

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    80 Discussions

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    cpesacreta

    4 years ago on Introduction

    to keep the paper from warping (it does that because the moisture isn't consistent), you should look up steps to making a "wet pack" for intaglio printmaking. in fact, what you've done here is essentially an intaglio print that you just didn't ink up. but yea, wet packs are key. you have to make them the day before and it seems kind of a hassle, but you won't get warping.

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    batvans46

    6 years ago on Step 9

    as far as the printing goes: say, for instance, you wanted ink in all of your little embossed areas. you could make your etch time longer, raising the embossing surface, then use a brayer (ink roller) and gently roll some intaglio ink onto the surface. kinda like combining a woodblock + copper etching. also you could put a silicone mat down first, then your paper, ink the plate then place slowly onto the paper, and press.

    nice tutorial though! ive played around with chipboard and such for embossing but i think ill give your procedure a try.

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    lgeorge3

    7 years ago on Step 9

    So what exactly did you use to press the plate into the paper? I no longer have access to a professional etching press and wonder if there's a good alternative solution out there... perhaps an inexpensive one? *hopeful*

    Thanks for this! I'd never heard of the process you used with the printer. It sounds like it could make things move quickly when you don't need the artist's hand for part of the process.

    1 reply
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    olleorama

    7 years ago on Step 9

    Do you think you could have used aluminium instead of brass?

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    TANZMEISTER

    8 years ago on Step 5

    Have you tried putting a sheet of metal over the top, then ironing the metal? In highschool printmaking we transferred images onto wood this way. A piece of 1mm(19 guage) or so sheet steel, a bit bigger than the transfer, clamped at the corners. Heat the whole thing up (we used big cast iron skillets filled with hot rocks. If you try this use 2 hot pads on each handle)

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    townsend1212

    8 years ago on Step 9

    In the olds before printing photos on the computer I dried my photo prints with an electric print dryer or a dryer roll (corrigated cardboard with only one smooth side) and used blotter paper on the print side and rolled the whole thing up and tied it with a string and left it over night. Either technique seems like it would work here.

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    KahlZun

    8 years ago on Step 9

    I don't get it. Why isn't the acid dissolving the paper to mush?

    1 reply
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    danlabKahlZun

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    The acid isn't, assuming you are referring to step six, the paper is soaked in water so it can be removed without removing the ink.

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    shinojmahe

    8 years ago on Step 1

    Dear,
    it is great, but cant download the PDF. pls re link.hardly waiting

    and also, a question, do u have a solution to make my logo punch or emboss on a plastic/fiber sheet surface??

    hardly waiting
    shi

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    hpuilq

    9 years ago on Step 9

    Great tutorial. Would you be able to use this same process to create a stamp die?

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    halfwaythere

    9 years ago on Introduction

    This is great bofthem. I've thinking about this kind of thing for years without realizing how to make them. By the way, your photo reminds me of Jonathan Papelbaum for the Red Sox when he is pitching. (kidding) Thanks for the great info.

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    dianaw

    9 years ago on Introduction

    By the way, if you know a jewelry maker with a rolling mill you might try that to see if it works, I think it might with the right kind of pressure- takes experimenting to not ruin the paper. I know some people use a hand powered pasta machine to do some light crafty metal work so its the same principle with the rolling mill.

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    dianaw

    9 years ago on Introduction

    Great tutorial- and the suggestions are really great.
    I bought some etching solution from radio shack ages ago to "play" with metal- quotes etc for jewelry- haven't gotten to it yet, now I feel inspired.

    I wonder if a flower press would work- for those of us who don't want to make the press- they are usually ppretty inexpensive- or- a tshirt printer press- if you can find one cheap.

    but what I'm thinking might work really well for the ironing part of this - and sometimes you can find them at a thrift store where I found mine is a home size ironing press like the dry cleaners use- seems like it might work really well- I haven't even used mine yet so I don't know how long you can leave the thing in there.

    you can try ebay- they do have them new= plus, if it works you could make a second plate and do twice as many at the same time. If you were going to do this for other art projects it might be worth the investment. If I ever get mine going and try this- and it works- I'll email you with a pic.

    Again, great instructable, thanks for the inspiration.

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    dumper

    9 years ago on Step 9

    I would try to heat up the plate with an iron and play with that. I think both heat and pressure would result in crisper embossing and flat paper. You can also try to obtain some hot stamping foil (there are lots on ebay) and stamp with gold using your hot brass plate. If you get any success with the above, please update your tutorial!

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    solidification1up

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Al etches well with concentrated HF or NaOH. (Concentrated HF works the best, but is pretty difficult to obtain without a license. The glass etching kits in hobby stores might work over a long enough period of time)