Etching How-To: A Step-By-Step Guide

A close-up image of an etching plate immersed in copper sulphate


We love etching here at WYPW, so we thought we’d spend a bit of time telling you all about it!

What is Etching?

Etching is an intaglio method of printmaking which dates all the way back to the 1500s! An acid or mordant is used to corrode or ‘bite’ recessed lines and textures into a metal plate, which can be inked-up and printed from. Etching as an art form is still very much alive and well today, with many contemporary artists utilising it’s clean lines, soft textures and smoky, rich tones to create stunning prints!

How do you make an etching?

A metal plate, (such as copper, zinc, steel or aluminium), is covered with a thin layer of waxy ground which is resistant to acid. The ground is scratched through with an etching needle to create a line by exposing the bare metal underneath. When the plate is immersed in a mordant, the drawn lines are ‘bitten’ into the plate, so that they will hold ink when printed. The longer the plate is left in the acid, the deeper the lines become. Hard or soft grounds can be used to create a variety of marks on the plate.

To take a print, the plate is inked-up with a sticky printing ink, and then wiped clean with a material called scrim, removing ink from the plate surface and leaving it only in the etched lines. A print is made by rolling the plate through a printing press at high pressure with damp paper on top to produce a print.

What are the steps?

Some of the materials used in etching can be hazardous, and safety equipment such as gloves and goggles should always be worn.

  • The plate edges are filed down, and the plate is degreased using whiting powder and a little water to make a thick paste. This is important to ensure the waxy hard-ground adheres properly to the plate.
  • The plate is placed on a hot-plate, and the waxy ground is melted onto the plate and rolled out to an even layer. (Acrylic-based paint-on grounds can also be used).
  • A sharp etching tool is used to draw through the ground, exposing areas of metal.
  • A backing is applied to the plate, and it is placed in the etching solution for 5-10 minutes. Only the drawn lines will etch, and the ground will protect the rest of the plate.
  • The ground is removed, and the plate is printed by applying ink and wiping back, to leave ink only the etched areas.
  • The plate is run through an etching press with damp paper on top at a high pressure, and the paper is then peeled back to reveal the printed image.

Where can I learn?

Etching facilities are becoming more and more rare here in the UK and can be difficult to find, so we are proud to offer etching courses for all levels in our well-equipped etching studios! (Check out our upcoming courses here). We have facilities for etching zinc, steel and aluminium plates using copper sulphate solution as a mordant. We also have a solution of Edinburgh Etch, (a mixture of ferric chloride and citric acid), to etch copper plates. We use a variety of grounds including liquid and ball grounds, and we have a traditional rosin box for aquatint box. All course participants and members are shown how to use these materials safely, and personal protective equipment is provided. We use Hawthorn stay-open oil-based inks with a little linseed jelly added to reduce the tack, and all cleaning up of printing inks is done with vegetable oil rather than solvents. We can also facilitate advanced etching processes such as aquatint, sugarlift, spit-bite, soap-ground etching and photo-etching.

We also created this little process video: