Home > Artist Tips, Printmaking > Laser Cutter Process for Etching Copper Plates

Laser Cutter Process for Etching Copper Plates

Working with another member R.J., I tried an alternative copper etching process I learned from Steve Finkelman at Pumping Station: One hackerspace.  You want to coat the copper plate with a level amount of spray paint.  It is easier if you have contact paper, packing tape or a similar sealant for the back of the plate; that way, you do not have to spray paint both sides.  I was careful to also spray paint the edges of the copper plate.  The piece shown was a test plate.  R. J. is working toward making copper plate book covers and they are going to be awesome!  There has been a lot of buzz online for copper etching, especially for people making jewelry and items in the Steampunk genre.

After the spray paint dried, we used the laser  cutter to remove the spray paint where we wanted the copper to etch.  I did one pass at 80% speed and 100% power.  You may want to try doing two lower power laser cuts for more detailed images.  We sent this piece of metal for a swim in a fresh bottled batch of Ferric Chloride for half an hour and got a nice, deep etch on the plate.  To remove the spray paint use full strength acetone and you have your finished item.  This would also be a fun process for jewelry.

Steve Finkelman advised of a better chemical etching process which is usually used for etching circuit boards.  He recommended Muriatic Acid [smaller amount of which are available by the quart at Ace Hardware stores] mixed in a 1/1 ratio of 40 weight hydrogen peroxide.  This variety of hydrogen peroxide is available from beauty supply stores and is ten times stronger than peroxide sold as a disinfectant in drug stores.  This mixture will produce more fumes than the Ferric Chloride.  You need to work in a well ventilated area for safety!  An intake fan pulling the fumes away from the work area wold be a good idea.  It is best to put this combination in a tank with a cover and use an airstone bubbler [like the kind used for fish aquariums] to agitate the mixture.  One benefit is being able to re-activate the mixture if it is getting weak by adding a capful of muriatic acid, then more H2O2.  Steve Finkelman advises this process is less expensive, regenerable and the chemicals are more available than ferric chloride.  He gave me specific instruction on how to deactivate the mixture:

Aluminum metal will kill the solution. The way to dispose of it is to put aluminum foil into the etchant, which will cause the copper to drop out. Then add enough sodium hydroxide (lye) to neutralize the solution.  Once neutralized, the solution can be run through a coffee filter to remove the copper particles. The solution that is left over is aluminum hydroxide, the active ingredient in tums. Don’t eat or drink it.  The brown sludge is copper.
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Categories: Artist Tips, Printmaking
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