When I was in college, I figured out that the most dangerous room on campus wasn’t what you might expect. It was the print-making lab where I spent a goodly portion of freshman year. There were several large and powerful presses that could crush your fingers, plus a large box full of sawdust soaked in kerosene from cleaning ink off of metal plates. And my personal favorite, a vat of acid for etching copper plates. Thankfully, you don’t have to use something nearly as corrosive and dangerous as acid to do your own etching.
Etched metal is absolutely gorgeous and oh-so-Steampunk. In short, etching is a process where metal is removed chemically or with electricity. The metal is selectively protected by a resistant medium (called the mask or the resist) and the etching occurs on the exposed metal surface.
The oldest method of etching, called intaglio, is the same one I used for print-making. A metal like copper, zinc, or steel is covered with a substance that is resistant to the etching solution. The design is incised into the mask with a sharp tool, leaving some of the metal exposed. Then the plate is bathed in a corrosive solution which “bites” into the metal and leaves lines behind.
If you are making a print, you rub ink into the lines, wipe off the plate, and use a press to transfer the ink to paper. When making jewelry or other accessories, the next step is often to treat the metal to give is the right patina.
Do It Yourself
To do etching at home, you don’t have to need much in the way of fancy equipment. All you need is some salt water, batteries and some tape. It turns out that the toner used in laserjet printers is a resistant to some corrosive chemicals used in etching. Plus, it’s easy to transfer designs that you have scanned into the computer onto your etched thing-to-be as long as you print onto the right kind of paper. So you can draw whatever you want and print it in black and white, and then presto! you get to see it in metal. Sharpie and sticky-backed vinyl can also be used for your mask.
There is an article in the Steampunk Bible about making awesome etched tins, and the author Jake von Slatt has also posted a great page on the Steampunk Workshop website with pictures. You can check out the tutorial here.
I also found a nice instructional video that focuses on jewelry. Enjoy!