Wednesday, January 27, 2010

DIY- Design Transfer for Acid Etched Brass, Silver and Copper Jewelry

What is your favorite design?  Wish you could transform it into a series of etched pendants? If drawing multiple designs by hand would take hours, here is speedy way to transfer complex designs to metal for acid etching.

First, scale the design to the exact size you need.  You can do this on your computer, or you can go to any photocopy store to reduce (or increase) the image size. Make sure you have a flat design with strong black and white contrast areas. (Shaded, or gray areas, won't work.) The design must be black and white. 

Above (left) is an example of a design that can be used as a positive or negative image.  (You could reverse the design via the "invert" setting on your computer in or PhotoShop graphic application.)

While you are in the Copy Store, make a few copies of your designs on a copy machine that uses dry toner.  Make each copy as dark (bold) as you can.  The layer of dry toner that is transferred from the paper copy to the metal acts as a "resist" to the acid.  Below is an example of brass that was etched using ferric chloride.

In acid etching, the black design areas act as a resist to the acid, the white design areas will be etched deeper than the black design areas. Generally, the etched (white) part of the design can be thought of as the background.

If your design has any letters or numbers, make sure you make a "Mirror image" so the words will read right when you transfer them to the metal.  Here is an example of a name plate for a key ring.  In the design (above right),"Nikki" is a mirror image that will read correctly after it is transferred to metal. (below left)

If you have a copy machine at home that has a dry toner cartridge, it should work fine.  But do NOT use an ink jet printer.  Ink jet copies won't transfer.  I have an old Canon K140 copy machine that uses dry toner.  You should test other dry toner copiers before you buy one to make sure the toner transfers well.
The best transfer paper is free.  Save your old magazines and use them as transfer paper. (You can also use Sunday newspaper magazine section, but if the sheets are too thin they may get stuck in the copier).  The heavy paper from a fancy magazine works best.  Regular copy paper doesn't work.

You can "gang" your designs on one sheet of paper to transfer multiple images on a single sheet of metal.
I know this sounds strange, but trust me, only the dry toner from your paper copy will transfer to the metal.  The print on the magazine page won't transfer.  Think of the magazine paper as a "carrier" for the dry toner. And, isn't it great that we can recycle the magazine paper while we are creating something new and beautiful?

Set your designs aside and prepare the metal for transfer (Bronze, Brass, Copper, or Silver).  The metal needs to be spotlessly clean.  Bar Keeper's Friend  is a powdered cleanser (with oxalic acid) that works well to clean off any oil from fingerprints and tarnish on the metal.  It also roughens the surface enough to help grab the dry toner.

The most important step is to make sure your metal is meticulously clean and the water sheets off evenly, without any spots.  If your metal has even the tiniest bit of dirt or oil, the toner won't adhere to the metal.

Next, find a flat work area near an electric outlet where you can plug in an iron and press the dry toner paper onto the metal.  Use your regular iron in dry setting (not steam), and turn it up as high as it will go, (usually Cotton setting).

Press down on the iron to make sure the paper design makes good contact with the metal. (If you wish, you can place a piece of paper towel between the iron and the paper design to keep the bottom of your iron clean, but if you do it right, your iron won't pick up any of the dry toner.)

Let the iron set on top of the paper design for at least 2 minutes.  Don't rush it and don't move the iron, or it may smear the dry toner before it is set.  (Leaving it for 5 minutes will work as well, if not better.)

Next, carefully lift the iron up and turn it off.  Let the metal and paper transfer cool on its own.  When the metal is cool enough to touch, put it in a bowl of water to soak off the magazine paper.  Don't rush it.

Let the paper get thoroughly saturated.  After the paper is softened, you can rub it off with your thumb and the toner will remain intact.  Don't worry if some of the paper is attached to the toner.  It will dissolve in the acid etch bath.

If you don't want to use your iron, you can use an old electric skillet.  In the center of the electric skillet, layer the design paper (right side up), then metal, and on top of the metal, place a brick to press the metal onto the paper design.  Heat your electric skillet to 350 degrees for 2-3 minutes. Turn it off and let everything cool gradually before you remove the metal.

In some cases you can touch up any missing spots with a special type of felt pen, but the entire design etches best if the resist is uniform. 

In case you find that part of your design didn't transfer properly, (maybe there was a bit of oil on the metal?) you can remove the dry toner with acetone and start over.

If your design didn't transfer fully, you may want to increase the length of time under the iron or skillet.  5 minutes may work better as some iron temperatures may not be as hot as others.

Now, you are ready for the etch bath.  We'll cover that in detail, in future articles.
 This is the first in a series of 4 parts about acid etched designs on brass, copper and silver.  Next, we'll cover how you can draw designs, by hand, on metal, using a special felt pen as a resist. 

Stay tuned!

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
— Mark Twain

**** Here is an IMPORTANT update to this tutorial on 4/1/2014:  In the past couple of years, the composition of dry toner has changed drastically and may not work with this method.  The reason being that copy companies have gone "green" and changed the formula of the toner.  This new "green" toner is not working for transfer designs.  If you have been frustrated using this method, fear not!  There IS a solution!  

Find a copy/printer that uses toner with the highest content of IRON as possible.  I found dry toner cartridges (MICR) that are used for printing checks have a very high content of iron since they must print checks that work with magnetic security systems.  So, look for MICR toner cartridges and make sure they work in your printer.  Their website will let you know if a MICR toner cartridge is compatible with your copy/printer.

Do what you enjoy!

Virginia Vivier
Tucson, Arizona


A Fly On The Wall said...

I have to say that this is probably the best tutorial I have seen on etching...I appreciate that rather than just listing directions you have provided your personal experiences.

I am a big proponent of using hand drawn designs (so much easier than all the copying and transferring) since they are then truly YOUR design.

Well Done Virginia!

Melinda Orr said...

Thanks...this is just what I've been looking for! Your directions are very clear and I can't wait to get started!

Jacqueline Fouche said...

Thanks for the really good tutorial. I've been looking for something like this for ages.

I finally managed to get some FerricChloride and started etching this week. I love it!

Jill said...

Thank you so much for sharing your process! Your work is fantastic! I'm looking to etch some bullet shells myself and am so pleased that you are willing to share your skills.

House of Steward Ragdolls said...

I discovered this by accident. I had tried the pnp paper and an iron but it didn't work. Frustrated I threw the piece on my smooth top ceramic stove and rubbed it a few times, threw it in the freezer, and it worked. I bought some heat resistant tape to tape it to a Teflon skillet and it worked even better. I didn't have any spots to fill in afterwards.

b.mookié said...

Thank you for the great step by step tutorial with household items!

b.mookié said...

Thanks for the great step by step tutorial, with household items! I am trying this later today.

tonya said...

This is a fabulous tutorial. I am trying to etch on rounded metal tubes. Any idea how this can be done?

Ioanna Galanomati said...

How sharp a line can you get with this technique? each time I've tried etching the lines are always a bit jagged...
If you printed a vector image on the transfer paper, would the final etched line be equally smooth as on paper?

thank you for the great tutorial xx

Esprit Mystique said...


Here are 4 things you can check to get cleaner lines:

a.) Is your design printed at a very high resolution? If it is under 300 dpi the lines may not be solid enough to resist the acid. I use 1200 dpi, or at least 800d dpi for best line definition.

b.) Is your acid too strong? Try diluting the acid with distilled water (or with filtered water from your fridge), as the stronger solution may be attacking the lines too vigorously.

c.) Don't leave metal in the acid as long as you did previously. You can check it often by pulling it out of the acid and rinsing it off with water & baking soda solution. Look at it carefully to see if lines are degraded. If so, don't let it sit in the acid as long.

d.) Is the acid bath sitting in a static place? It needs vibration to keep the etched particles falling off, so they don't clog up the etched design. Place acid bath on a towel, on top of your dryer, and turn it on "air" so it will vibrate enough to keep the particles falling off the metal without wasting electricity if you don't have any clothes in the dryer (LOL). Or, buy a cheap aquarium aerator pump ($5) and tape it to the outside of the acid bath container. It will keep the solution moving with the vibration from the pump.

You CAN get clean lines if you follow these suggestions. Good luck!

Virginia Vivier
Tucson, AZ

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know the setting to use to transfer using a heat press machine. I have seen references to people using this method but no information regarding the time and temperature settings. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you