Copper Etching: Not just for PCBs

etching buttons

[Morag Hickman] is an artist who makes use of ferric chloride for something other than etching a PCB. She uses the process to etch beautiful designs into her jewelry.

[Tortoise Butler] is a small film crew that created this three and a half minute film on the art of etching copper, and it is an absolute pleasure to watch. There are no computers, no toner transfers, and she doesn’t even etch on a flat surface. It’s an excellent example of doing something different — why not add etching to finish off a project? If you’ve already done PCBs, it can’t be that hard to do a logo instead!

Anyway, it’s been a while since we’ve shared a handmade hack, and we think this is a great example that deserves the spotlight. Don’t forget to send in your own handmade projects to the tips line!

Stick around after the break to enjoy the film — we recommend watching it full screen and in HD.

28 thoughts on “Copper Etching: Not just for PCBs

  1. Yawn..

    There are some questions though:
    1) what kind of marker can survive “a few hours” in ferric chloride — all that I tried get destroyed within 10 minutes (in hot water bath though)
    2) what kind of etchant solution is it if in “a few hours” there’s still anything left of the button? (it’s not in a hot water bath though)

      1. Hi Folks! I use a dilute version of the chunks of ferric chloride you can get from Maplin, and at room temperature I usually leave my work in there for about 3 hours to get a nice deep etch – about 0.8mm in a 1.2mm sheet. The marker I use is a Staedler Lumocolor, but you can also use acrylic paint, wax or nail varnish.

          1. Ebay! :P It’s called a ‘doming block’, and either you can buy matching ‘dapping punches’ with it, or you could do what I do and make matching positive forms from wood (shown in the video) or thermoplastic (aka polymorph, friendly plastic, etc.).

          2. Thanks for that :)
            They look a bit out of my price tag after accounting for shipping to Oz so I may just make my own.

          3. Ahah, in Oz they’re apparently called ‘dapping blocks’, they can be pretty pricey but they last forever. My one’s brass, but I did originally make one from wood (laboriously, by hand, with a hand-carved plastic punch to match!).

            Here’s my top tip though: Make it out of thermoplastic! If you just want a tool to make a single size of dome in one metal: Get a small metal ring, such as the focusing lens housing parts from a camera – you want a sturdy cylinder that’ll support the rest of your project. Almost fill it with warm thermoplastic (polymorph, friendly plastic, heat-setting plastic – source from school, tool or jeweller’s suppliers, see other comment for a link to more info on it). Take a glass marble or other large spherical object that has your target shape, lubricate it with oil or something, and push it into the soft thermoplastic while it’s still workable. When it cools, you’ll have a tough plastic dapping block! Try to make sure the top is otherwise flat, and that you have a crisp edge.

            To make the matching punch, again smear oil on the block (I use vegetable oil) to stop the thermoplastic sticking to itself, shape a rough ball or rod of thermoplastic, and smoosh it into the negative shape. If you’re going to be hitting it with a hammer, make sure either that it’s got a broad flat top that you can hit easily, or that if it is shaped like a mushroom with a stem you’re going to hit, there’s plenty of room that your fingers won’t get pinched!

            The first picture in this gallery shows a large one:

            http://entanglement.co.uk/projects/methods/thermoplastic-tools

            Which I use for creating things like these:

            https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/165017429/landing-crow-pierced-silver-silhouette

            http://entanglement.co.uk/projects/jewellery/fleur-de-lis-pendant

            http://entanglement.co.uk/projects/jewellery/constellation-cufflinks

            http://entanglement.co.uk/projects/jewellery/butterfly-chokers

            Good luck :)

        1. So it seems that a diluted solution and cold etching equals lesser stress on the resist and probably less undercutting. I once made a “marksplate” in a piece of copper using photo resist, it worked but some underetching was a problem — take a look (it’s miniature, about dime-sized): http://svo.2.staticpublic.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/steam/08-marksplate.jpg

          Have you considered electrical etching? In electrolyte you can etch deeper without undercutting too much. But it’s not nearly as relaxed as what you have established.

          1. Oooh, that’s a lovely tiny etch! I look forward to trying photo resists.
            I had great fun with electrical etching (I used it to create this: http://www.deviantart.com/art/Celtic-copper-leaf-necklace-46183071), but the major problem I’ve had was in attaching the small work pieces in a way that was electrically stable, wouldn’t itself get eaten away, and could be removed from the finished product without leaving a ‘scar’. I will definitely consider trying it again if I start doing work that needs big, flat sheets, but chemical etching is much easier for individual pieces or small batches.

          2. Does the top writing actually say “Parovoj kozel” – Steam goat? :D What does that mean if I may ask?

          3. nowordsandnotune I didn’t realize how complex your projects get. Beautiful work! It’s true that for stable electrical etching you need more or less equal distance between electrodes which makes it hard to apply it to anything but flat surfaces.

            Matouš yes, it says exactly that :) It means nothing really, like a faux trademark. It’s a marksplate for a model steam engine, you can look it up here http://sensi.org/~svo/steam/

          4. Wow! I always admire those who make such machines, far too much precision for me :P

            Thank you! I love a challenge, it’s fantastic to get commissions that let me make crazy-elaborate things :)

    1. sharpie marker (black), staedtler (black), zebra (a marker from china, mostly works – black ), desktech (black again, found at dollar store).
      As brought up, nail polish also works great, to the point I’v made a special all-metal pen for my plotter just so I can use nail polish to do pcb resist.

      1. I’m watched someone do this exact process, but with a wax resist. It involved carefully dripping a thin layer of candlewax onto the metal and then scratching away the areas you wanted to allow the ferric chloride to make contact with. As with many things it seems etching has positives and negatives.

      2. One can also use Higgins Black Magic ink (permanent ink for calligraphy) from a bottle. We used to call it “India” ink. It is supposed to stay put throughout the entire etching process, no matter how long. You apply it with a fountain pen/nib, refillable pump fountain pen, tiny brush, etc.

  2. I wonder why they don’t quench it and temper it again after soldering? Particularly for a button. I wouldn’t imagine it would be pretty soft after the annealing.

    1. As I don’t heat it as much to solder it as I do to anneal it, it doesn’t get as soft, so it’s still hard enough to function – I might do some tests to see how much difference it makes though, thanks for the suggestion :)

      1. Cool. If you are going to quench, it’s probably a good idea to try one in water and another in oil to compare the results. If you are going to use oil it may catch on fire so DO NOT use water to put it out otherwise it could explode. Just cover it with something that is fire resistant and smother it out. I definitely love your work.

  3. Very nice work. I use a heated, bubble agitation tank of Ferric Chloride to etch copper bracelets. I can get a 1 mm etch in ~1 hr with very little undercutting. Good tip on the permanent marker, I use a combination of adhesive vinyl and electrical tape as my resist material.

  4. This is officially the most organized and informative collection of comments and responses I have ever seen on hackaday.
    All of the questions I was going to ask were answered,
    The end result is beautiful! Thank you for sharing

  5. I’ve had good results etching circuit boards with vinegar, salt, and peroxide (as documented by Quinn Dunki and others, search HaD for Blondihacks posts). Have you tried anything like that? I’m interested in trying some etching like you did above, but I’d rather avoid the strong chemicals.

    The key to (relatively) fast etching with those chemicals seems to be using non-iodized salt, btw… in case anyone’s had issues in that regard. Iodine seems to retard the reaction.

  6. I assume the back of the button has the resist applied as well? Since the whole button appears to be submerged I would think you would have to.

    1. That’s correct – in this case I covered it in wax, but that was way to fiddly to show in the video. I’ve also had great results with acrylic paint, but you have to wait for it to dry, which can be a pain.

  7. Very neat use!
    I’ve always enjoyed the kind of gentle look that comes from etching designs in copper.
    Is it a silver solder you’re using, or is it the same type of Sn/Pb solder paste I tend to use for PCBs?

    1. I use silver solder – although it requires a much higher soldering temperature (hence the blowtorch), it gives a far sturdier join, and I don’t have to worry about it coming into contact with a wearer’s skin.

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