Etching has been a favorite process of mine ever since I first learned the technique at Tyler School of Art, in Philadelphia back in the late '90s. I loved the idea of combining patterns and images with metal. I constantly come back to etching because, for me, it is such a great way to add even more of myself into my work. Not only that, but I truly enjoy the process from beginning to end.
The process of etching, when reduced to its most basic steps, is quite simple. Apply a resist to the surface of the metal in some, but not all, areas. Then expose the uncovered areas of the metal to something that is corrosive. The exposed metal is slowly corroded away while the surface protected by the resist remains untouched.
I currently do traditional "chemical etching" (as opposed to electro-etching). I etch silver and prefer to use a Ferric Nitrate solution as my corrosive etchant. There are other options available, but Ferric Nitrate is the least hazardous. Ferric Nitrate is technically a salt, though I don't advise sprinkling it on your fries. The pale, purple crystals are dissolved into distilled water to form the etching solution.
Now that I know my metal and my etchant, the next thing is to choose a resist. I use the toner from my laser printer as the resist for my etchings. Toner is made of of tiny particles of plastic, and when transferred to metal, it creates a very resilient barrier against most corrosive etchants. I print my images onto a paper created for toner transfers, and with the application of heat and pressure, I am able to re-melt the toner and adhere it to my metal.
With my image transferred onto my silver sheet, and the back of the sheet protected with tape, I suspend the sheet upside down in the etching bath. By suspending the silver sheet upside down, the silver that is corroded away can fall to the bottom of the bath, and leave the metal clean for a crisper etch. And now, I wait. The amount of time needed to etch depends on several things, most notably the strength of the etching solution and the depth desired by the artist. The other key factor is knowing how much exposure to the corrosive etchant the resist can withstand before it starts to break down. This is the part of the process that requires a good bit of trial and error before results are predictable.
Seeing the etched metal for the first time fills me with the same excitement I felt as a kid any time I opened a present. Despite it being dirty and covered in partial deteriorating black ooze, I can really see the jewelry that is about to come to life. Cleaning the metal is done with a bit of acetone to remove the remaining toner and then fine pumice powder and a stiff bristled brush. Once the metal has been fully cleaned it's time to start creating!
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