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Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Etching

The Craft of Etching

The Craft of EtchingIntroduction to Etching

Rembrandt, Goya, Piranesi and Picasso are just a few of the famous art masters who have found in etching an exciting outlet for their artistic talents. yet like all printing methods its evolution owes a great deal to the craftsperson.

Origins of Etching

The word etching derives from the Dutch word 'etzen' which means to eat and refers to the biting action of the acid used to eat away the design on a metal plate.

Early renaissance armourers etched decorative designs onto armour in much the same way as etchings are made today. To decorate a steel breast plate the armourer first coated it with beeswax and drew the design through the wax with a pointed tool. Wax resists acid, so that when the breast plate was left under bags of vinegar soaked salt, only the exposed design was etched and not the waxed areas.

Armourers, gold and silversmiths then developed the practice of taking rudimentary prints from their designs on metal. These were put on display as an indication of the fine work done in the workshop.

The availability of manufactured sheet paper increased the spread of prints in the 15th century. Woodcuts continued to be popular, but prints from etched metal plates were preferred for their durability and accuracy.

Etching for print

Etching, like engraving and dry point, is a form of intaglio printing. This means that the image of a design is taken from ink pressed into lines made in a metal sheet. The reverse of this is relief printing where the design is cut out - of wood for example - and the surface is inked and printed.

The practical skill of an etcher lies in controlling the way the mordant (the acid used to eat away the metal) lines the metal plate. This is done by first coating the plate in an acid resistant substance and then removing this resist, as it is called, in the places the etcher wishes to expose to the acid.

Creativity comes to the fore as the etcher marks the design in the resist. Practical and artistic skills are blended as the etcher controls which part of the plate is exposed in the acid bath and for how long. By removing the plate from the acid and applying resist to certain lines or sections (a process known as stopping out), variations in the depth of the markings can be achieved. This gives the final print a range of line thicknesses or, in the case of aquatint, tones.

The resist

The various resists available offer different ways of marking up the design, thus gaining different textures on the plate. Hard and soft ground are the two main ones used. Hard ground is removed using an etching needle. With soft ground a thin piece of paper is placed over the ground and a pencil traces the design. Where the pencil presses down, the ground becomes away from the metal and transfers onto the paper.

Resin is used in another popular method known as aquatint. This allows the etcher to produce tonal effects but not clear lines. A plate will often be treated first with ground to mark out the lines, then with aquatint to add shading to the stark outline.

Tools and materials

Many etching materials are dangerous and must be handled with care.

Etching needle used to mark out the design in the ground
Scraper and burnisher used to remove unwanted scratches from the surface
Metals - copper, zinc, and steel (between 1-2mm thick) are the most popular
Mordant the acid used to eat away the metal
Ground - the acid resistant coating spread over the metal sheet
Paper - the best paper is handmade cotton rag. Good mould made paper is also excellent. All sized papers must be blotted before use


Preparing the plate

The metal plate is cut to the required size on a special metal guillotine. The sharp edges are filed down for safety, but the final smoothing off is left until after the plate has been completely etched.

Any scratches on the metal are removed from the surface with a scraper followed by a burnisher. The surface is then polished smooth with a commercial metal polish

Copper, zinc and steel have a greasy surface which must be removed. This is done by wiping a mixture of French chalk, ammonia and water over the plate. This is then washed off and the plate quickly dried to avoid tarnishing

Laying the ground

Hard ground consists of beeswax, bitumen and resin. The metal plate is heated on a hot plate so that it is hot enough to melt the wax. Ground is daubed on to the warmed plate and spread evenly over the surface using a roller or dabber to give a dark brown coating. The plate could now be draw on if the etcher wishes but it is usually smoked first.

The plate is secured upside down, at an angle in a wall or hand clamp. A handful of tapers are lit and moved across the plate so that the flame licks the ground, turning it sooty black and shiny. This makes the surface darker, harder and more even, making drawing easier.

Soft ground is like hard ground with the addition of grease. It is applied like a hard ground but it is not as dark and is not smoked.


This method was developed in the 18th century to produce tonal effects on etched designs. Selected areas of the plate are covered with a layer of fine powdered resin which is then heated from underneath to fuse into the metal. Resin resists acid, so when the aquatint plate is dipped, the acid bites between the dots of resin. When inked up, this pitted surface holds the ink.

Areas of the plate are stopped out by brushing varnish on to the surface. By successively dipping the plate in the acid bath and stopping out more areas of the plate, a range of tones is achieved.

One of a number of effective ways to use aquatint is called sugar lift. A solution of sugar and water is painted onto the plate, and when tacky it is coated with a liquid ground. When the plate is dry, it is submerged completely in a bath of warm water. The sugar lifts away, leaving a positive brush mark which can then be coated with resin, fused and bitten.

The acid bath

Once the etcher is happy with the design, the plate is immersed in a glass or plastic acid bath for the appropriate time. A feather is frequently brushed lightly over the surface to prevent any air bubbles building up on the surface and interrupting the corrosive process.

The plate must be washed off each time it is taken out and more resist is applied. Once the plate has been etched, the resist must be cleaned off using mentholated spirit.

Inking the plate

Etching ink is made up of pigment and plate oil which is sticky enough to enable the ink to stay in the line but fluid enough to be wiped easily from the surface.

The plate is heated once more on a low heat. The ink is then applied to the etched surface using a roller, dabber or pieces of squeegee rubber. The plate is then slid onto a jigger or box and the ink is gradually wiped from the surface of the plate with a pad or piece of scrim. When most of the ink has been removed, a cleaner, softer piece of scrim is used. A final wipe is given with a piece of tissue.

Printing the image

Great pressure is needed to pull the ink out of the recessed lines and this is provided by a rolling press. The rolling press is made up of two cylindrical rollers held between rigid supports. When the rollers are turned, a flat bed or plank travels between them. The prepared plate is placed in the centre of the bed and covered by a damp piece of paper. Woollen blankets, which help to distribute the pressure of the rollers evenly, are laid over the paper. The wheel is turned and the bed travels slowly through the rollers squeezing the paper and plate together.

Then comes the moment of truth as the impressed paper is peeled off, and the print is revealed. The paper can be seen to have moulded itself round the plate and pulls out a cast of the ink from the lines.

The finished print is usually dried flat under blotting paper and weighted boards.

Colour prints can be made by using more than one plate or by inking particular areas in different, colours. The etching can, of course, be reproduced many times by reinking and reprinting.

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