HOW TO ETCH STERLING SILVER

PART IIIA : Preparing Your Silver; and Creating Your Resist

Preparing your Silver

 

You can etch a single piece of Silver with lots of designs on it, or cut and etch pieces individually. It’s personal preference, but I like to do them individually. This way I can ensure the placement of a design knowing I won’t offset when cutting and filing.

Once I’ve cut my Silver shapes, I file the edges and sand to get them as smooth as possible. I do this so that I have less to do when finishing that could impact the design. I don’t want to sand and polish away my design after etching because there was a deep scratch on the Silver before I etched it. I want clear, crisp profiles so I make the surface pretty damn good before I start.

Bear in mind, you do need a ‘key’ for your resist to adhere to, so don’t buff it to a highly polished finish. I’ll take a piece to an 800 sanded stage, and the resist will still stick. You can tumble your pieces too before etching and this will give you a nice, uniform surface with a slight ‘key’. You don’t need to do this, it’s just how I do it. You can etch your Silver straight out the protective film if you want to as long as you clean it.

 

NB. from this point on, I try not to touch the Silver with my sticky paws.  

Creating your Resist

 

The next step is applying your resist. There are many ways to create a resist, and I have tried so many. Whichever resist you use, care needs to be taken once applied, in protecting all areas not to be etched. This includes the sides as well as the back of the piece. Please don’t skimp on this once you’ve got your design down, as it can ruin a whole piece if etching solution has leaked onto the back plate. You can file it back but why make more work for yourself and waste more Silver. 

Something else to think about before you begin is etching orientation. I etch vertically. By this I mean, I hang my work in the etching solution. I stick my Silver to packing tape and hang this in the etchant. I create an ‘arm’ using the packing tape to extend it over the pot, and anchor it with a clothes-peg so that it doesn’t fall into the sludge at the bottom. You can also etch horizontally by attaching your work to a ‘float’ (usually polystyrene) and let this floats on the top of the solution (Silver side down). If you choose to etch horizontally you will need a different water bath set-up to mine, as the ‘baby bottle warmer’ process I describe here is probably too narrow. There’s lots of online advice on how to do this.

My favourite quick resists are Nail Stamping Polish and digitally cut Vinyl (see PART IIIB and PART IIIC). I use them all the time for their expediency, reliability, and repeatability. There are limitations in both processes. For Nail Stamping Polish it’s the size of the stamper and the fact that they are someone else's designs. For digitally cut Vinyl it’s achieving very fine detail (under 0.7mm between resist and etching areas).

 

For reference, here is a list of most of the resists I have used over the years, with varying success and enjoyment:

  • Press and Peel (PnP) Film (toner heat transfer)

  • Photopolymer film (Photo Etching process)

  • Stop Out varnish

  • Asphaltum

  • Permanent Ink pads and rubber stamps

  • Fine Tip Red Sharpie (permanent marker)

  • Oil based pens/ink

  • Car paint spray & car touch up paint

  • Liquid electrical tape

  • Liquid Floor Wax (Pledge/Future)

  • Lascaux Hard Resist with Lascaux Stop-Out Resist

  • Nail Polish & Nail Stamping Polish

  • Vinyl (and all types of sticky tape, from electrical tape to car detailing strips)​

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