A swirling set of matching silver-backed copper necklace and simple studs.
I’ve had a lot of interest in my etched copper jewellery since we published our super-pretty copper etching video, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my workflow. I’ve been doing some experiments to improve the issue, and in the past few days I’ve made some great progress!
Resistance felt futile
My first problem was in selecting the material which will form the design, and resist the etchant’s blandishments, leaving bright, smooth, shiny copper behind. Here are a few I’ve tried in the past, and how they’ve let me down:
- Wax – Fiddly to apply, brittle – will chip or flake when you scratch a design.
- Staedler Lumocolor pen – When working on a very detailed design, subsequent lines will lift off ink, especially around the edge of each stroke, wit ‘orrible results. Can be good for broad coverage though, if applied quickly so it all dries together. Easy and neat to scratch designs on. Hard to mend, though.
- Sharpie – Different kinds of sharpie use different inks, and it tends to dissolve itself, as above.
- Nail polish – Horrible stuff to work with! Thick, gloopy, and peels off very easily when you’re trying to scratch a design. Takes an age to dry.
- Acrylic paint – Another fiddly medium, hard to get good coverage without it balling up, and can’t scratch designs without it flaking off. Also takes an age to dry.
It’s a struggle to fulfil customers’ expectations when I can’t rely on being able to produce consistently good etches (discarding what falls below my standards!), and I have to laboriously re-draw every detail each time on recalcitrant surfaces with uncooperative materials.
I had read about using laser printer toner – transferring designs from paper to metal using a household iron – and it sounded like the perfect solution. After my housemate adopted a stray Brother laser printer I performed a variety of unsuccessful experiments with almost every kind of paper I could find in the house, and was just about to bite the bullet and buy expensive specialist paper when I came across a fantastic tip! The secret: using the left-over backing sheets from Avery laser-printable sticky address labels! The very thing I’d recently started using for shipping out my jewellery orders!
The next part is the backing. It’s important to protect the back of whatever you’re etching, so that there’s still something left when you pull it out of the tank. In the past I’ve coated pieces individually with nail varnish, wax, ink or paint – fiddly, time-consuming and with variable results. I’ve recently, however, come up with a new batch-making process – coat a small piece of plastic with a thick layer of acrylic paint, drop the copper pieces onto it, and wait for the paint to dry before drawing on the designs with pen and dropping the whole thing into the etching tank. Effective, but time-consuming, and sometimes a pain to get off the copper pieces afterwards.
But now, I think I have the ultimate solution – vaseline! :D I use the same general idea, smearing it thickly onto plastic, but now I prepare the design in advance, then smoosh the copper pieces into the vaseline and throw the whole lot straight in the tank. My tests worked beautifully, with perfect protection of the back, holding the pieces very firmly but releasing them easily (running the whole lot under the cold water even solidified the vaseline, so most of it was left on the plastic), and the clean-up was super easy.
My first test (my Making Tuesdays dancing crocodile logo) transferred beautifully, far better than I could have hoped – not a speck of toner was left behind! It was tricky to line up the design with the disc, though, so I’ll have to work on that. The vaseline did its job beautifully, and the whole process was probably the quickest and smoothest etch I’ve ever done! It was a quickie (1 hour etch) so the design isn’t as deep as it could be, but I’m really happy with the techinques, and will be diving into the rest of my commissions with joy. (After a few more tests with resolution, detail and alignment…)
Working with members of the great Tortoise Butler (Alia Sheikh and Andy Vine), I was filmed making a sample etched copper piece, and the whole thing set to a lovely piece of music by Roger Paul Mason.
As always, I’m stunned by their arcane mastery over lens, lighting, camera and editing, and this time was proud to add my own touch in the text and credits.
If you can watch HD and full screen – it’s worth it.
I don’t know about you, but I’m inspired! I use the technique (along with a little sterling silver magic) to create some of the jewellery in my Etsy shop.
While in SwitzerFrance I was part of a CERN Robotics Club mission to send a helium balloon and sensor package (well, android phone) to the edge of space. Buy me a sandwich some time and I’ll regale you with the tale of the truly epic recovery mission, diagrammed below. To commemorate, I etched copper ‘mission badge’ keyrings for the four co-conspirators.
I’ve also included pics of a pendant with the Swiss mountains, CERN logo and date, for a friend who went home early.