How to Etch Brass and Copper for Jewelry Making

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You love to make art jewelry and you are looking for new techniques to expand your metalsmithing and jewelry making skills. Etching copper allows you to add texture to your designs, whether incorporate the etched copper plate directly into your design, enamel over the copper or brass sheet or run the etched copper through a rolling mill to imprint your design on sterling silver or gold. This tutorial will explain the steps needed to etch a design onto copper or brass sheet metal.

Things You'll Need

  • 18 gauge copper or brass sheet
  • scotch brite or steel wool
  • masking tape
  • resist (paint markers, nail polish, asphaltum varnish, press and peel film, Sharpie pen)
  • cleaning solvent (acetone or mineral spirits)
  • ferric chloride etching solution
  • a glass tub
  • hot plate (optional)
  • rags
  • rubber gloves
  • cotton balls
  • Clean the copper or brass sheet metal with acetone.

  • Sketch out the design you want to etch onto the copper or brass sheet.

  • The acid bath removes metal as it etches and leaves decorative high spots. Understand that any part of copper or brass left uncovered will be etched when placed in the etching mordant. Transfer your design onto the copper or brass sheet keeping in mind what surface you want etched away and what surface you want raised.

  • Add a resist on your sheet metal on all places that you do not want etched away. Although asphaltum is a traditional metalsmithing resists, there are many household items that can be used as a resists; these include: tape, Sharpie markers, finger nail polish and paint pens.

  • After you have completed your decorative pattern, remember to cover the back and edge of the copper or brass sheet with tape or other resist. Be sure the entire back and the edges are completely covered so they will not be etched away.

  • Wear gloves and old clothes when dealing with chemical etching solution to protect your hands and clothing. Wear goggles to protect your eyes from chemical splashes.

  • Place the prepared piece into the etching mordant bath with the design facing the bottom of the pan. Do not allow the piece to sit on the bottom of the pan. When using a ferric chloride etching solution, the copper or brass sheet must be suspended design side down in the etching bath. To ensure the piece is suspended, you can place a sponge in the pan to encourage the piece to float.

    Another method of suspending the piece is to tape a long strip of tape across the back of the piece; attach the etched piece to the center of the tape and put it in the etching bath so it floats just below the surface of the etching solution and secure the ends of the tape to either side of the tub.

  • Check the bath and monitor how the etch is progressing. Depending on how deep you want the etch, it can take from half an hour to three or four hours. Be sure to check the piece from time to time so you do not over etch. To check, pick up one end of the tape and lift the piece out of the bath. Rinse the surface of the sheet metal when you check and then return the piece to the etching bath.

  • You can hasten the etch by adding heat or agitating the bath. Place the bath on a hot plate to add heat, but be sure not to allow the bath to boil. If you agitate the etching bath, be sure not to splash.

  • When you are pleased with the depth of your etch, remove the brass or copper sheet from the bath. Rinse it with a solution of water and baking soda to stop the etch by neutralizing the acid.

    Then scrub the etching solution with clear water, soap and scotch brite.

    Use a cotton ball and acetone or rubbing alcohol to ensure all the etching mordant is cleaned off the piece.

  • If you have a torch, anneal and pickle the etched brass or copper just to make sure the sheet metal is completely clean.

  • Your etched piece of brass of copper is now ready to be cut, formed, finished and used however you like in your jewelry making studio.

Tips & Warnings

  • Etching solution can be reused. If you pour your etching solution into a tub with a lid, you can easily store the solution until you need it for your next etch.
  • Always neutralize etching solution after use. To protect pipes and the environment, never dump etching solution directly down the pipes. Be sure to clean off all etching solution in an environmentally safe manner.
  • Wear gloves and goggles when working with chemicals.
  • Be sure to work in a well ventilated space.

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