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Find out how to achieve the incredible patina on this book cover in our new booklet Coloring Base Metals: A Practical Guide by Christine Cox.

Centuries ago there lived — "A king!" my little readers will say immediately.
-- From The Adventures of Pinocchio by C. Collodi

Alas, there are no kings, queens or royalty of any stripe in ‘The Adventures of Pinocchio’. Having been brought up on the Walt Disney adaptation of ‘Pinocchio’ – the feel-good 1940 animated movie – I was surprised and delighted while paginating (preparing the text-flow for printing) the original, non-Disney, translated-from-the-Italian version. This depiction is much darker: think ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales.’ I wanted to make an edition of ‘Pinocchio’ that would do justice to the noir flavor of the story.

The image of Pinocchio on the front of the book pictured was etched into copper. Etching is an easy process that fits with most art styles and is very easy on the pocketbook too, as no special equipment is necessary. Of course, after you’ve got your feet wet and have decided to etch more often you may want to buy a special etching tank, but it’s not required.

The etchant (ferric chloride) has some serious day jobs. It’s used for things like clumping bacteria for water filtering and for etching copper circuit boards. It’s that second application that has metalsmiths excited. Ferric chloride is an acidic salt that is diluted with water for etching any metal alloy that has a certain level of copper. You can buy it pre-diluted at well-stocked computer houses.

Step by Step

  • The first step in etching is to get an image onto the clean and fingerprint-free metal. This image will act as a resist to the etchant so that whatever metal is covered by the image will not be etched. Wherever there is no resist will be eaten away by the etchant. The simplest way to get an etchant-proof image onto the metal is to rubberstamp it using solvent ink, such as StazOn. Just stamp normally as if the metal was a slick piece of paper.
  • If you don’t have a stamp of the image you want to use, fear not, you can photocopy or print the image onto any brand of acetate. The copy must be toner and you’ll need to reverse it if the direction is important. You will then iron the toner from the acetate onto the metal
  • To iron the image onto the metal you’ll need a very hot iron. Lay the metal down on a heatproof surface (I use a stack of scratch paper), and then place the image where you want it on the metal; toner-side down. Place a piece of clean paper on top of the stack and then iron – without moving the image even a tiny bit – for 1-1/2 to 3 minutes, depending on your iron. Once the appropriate time has passed (this takes some experimenting), remove the top piece of paper and steadily and without jerking or hesitating, pull the acetate off the metal. Be careful! That metal will be hot, hot, hot. Dump the metal into a dish of cold water and then dry it.
  • If the image isn’t the quality that you’d like, you can either sand it off and start over with a new piece of acetate or you can touch up the image using a solvent pen, such as a Sharpie.
  • Now that your image is perfect, protect the edges of the metal from the etchant by running a solvent pen around all sides. Protect the back of the metal using a piece of contact paper, boned down well. Nothing that you don’t want etched should be exposed when you put the metal into the etchant.
  • To etch the metal in a dish, pour enough etchant into the dish to cover the metal piece completely. Lay the metal – face up – into the ferric chloride. Some people make a little “hammock” out of masking tape to make removal of the piece from the dish a less messy job. Because the etchant is not aerated the copper residue formed by the etching process floats around and settles onto the top of the piece. In effect, the copper becomes its own resist as it disintegrates.
  • This layer of copper scum on top of your image slows the whole process down (which is why an aerated tank is better – it keeps the copper residues from resting on the piece of metal) so occasionally you’ll need to remove the metal from the dish and carefully rinse off the etchant and bits of copper from it. Do not touch or remove any of the resist or the metal underneath will begin to etch away when you return it to the etchant. Depending on the desired depth of your etch, the freshness of your etchant and the gauge and copper content of the metal you started with, etching in a dish can take from 2 to 6 hours, or even longer.
  • Once the image is deeply etched (you should be able to feel it very distinctly by running your finger over the image) remove it from the etchant and neutralize the acid by washing the piece in soap and water or by rubbing it with a paste made from baking soda and water and then rinsing it thoroughly.
  • Remove the black toner resist from the image either with sandpaper or sanding and polishing papers (400 or 600 grit). This moment is magic! Your image should be deep and beautiful and wherever the toner resist was should be as bright and shiny as the metal you started with.

Issue # 15

Christine Cox was a regular contributor to ARTitude Zine. This article originally appeared there and is reprinted here with permission. Unfortunately ARTitude is no longer published.

Etched Metal: Pinocchio!

Notes from the field:

As chemicals go, ferric chloride is relatively benign. Follow a few simple precautions (on the bottle) and you’ll be safe. Wear gloves!

I only etch in an aerated etching tank. It takes so much less time and doesn’t require the periodic rinses to get rid of the copper residue on the surface.

An upside-down 16” X 20” clear plastic box picture frame (available at Michael’s and other art and framing stores) is a great tray for holding your etching tank. It’s large enough to catch the drips and it isn’t eaten away by the etchant, as a metal cookie sheet would be.

If the etchant gets on your clothes it will permanently stain them, and will stain anything that is washed with them. Just ask my husband about wearing yellow socks.

You absolutely must not dump the etchant down the drain. Some instructors are advising students that it's OK to flush the etchant down the toilet. This is not true, even if it's neutralized. The problem isn't the ferric chloride, it's the metals in the sludge at the bottom of the tank. In our county we are able to take it to the dump on special ‘household waste’ days. Check with your city or county to see how best to dispose of it in your area. Before discarding the solution it should be neutralized by slowly adding baking soda until it quits bubbling. It should then be stored in a plastic jug with a loosened lid (to allow for expansion) until it can be taken to the dump or otherwise safely discarded.

Baking soda will neutralize the etchant for safe disposal

Keep adding baking soda until the bubbling subsides

Volcano Arts sells the following for this project:

I also recommend my Etched Metal: How-To and Idea Booklet and my booklet on patinas Coloring Base Metals.

Close-up view of the etched Pinocchio figure

For the edition of “The Adventures of Pinocchio” pictured, I used a 2-part epoxy to glue my copper Pinocchio image to a piece of record album that I had cut to the same shape but slightly larger. I like using pieces of albums behind images so that they ‘pop’ when placed against a busy background. A jeweler’s saw cuts through the vinyl “like butter” and it’s easy to file. The same 2-part epoxy can be used to glue the whole unit to another piece of metal that you’ve previously patinated and sealed.

There is so much room for experimentation and creativity with etching. My Pinocchio could have been larger or smaller or riveted directly to the cover. A different patina would give a completely different feel to the covers and different sealers give very different results (I used polyurethane on this project). The leather, eyelet and thread colors have a big effect on the finished look.

Experiment, have fun, but above all please use the etchant safely.