Acid Etching Metal Jewelry, Part 1

by Virginia Vivier.
(Esprit Mystique Jewelry)

Etched brass design by Virginia Vivier

Acid Etching Brass, Copper and Silver Jewelry

Part 1: Design Transfer

What is your favorite design? Wish you could transform it into a series of etched pendants?

If drawing multiple designs by hand would take hours, here is speedy way to transfer complex designs to metal for acid etching.

First, scale the design to the exact size you need.

You can do this on your computer, or you can go to any photocopy store to reduce (or increase) the image size.

Make sure you have a flat design with strong black and white contrast areas. (Shaded, or gray areas, won’t work.) The design must be black and white:

Above is an example of a design that can be used as a positive or negative image. (You could reverse the design via the “invert” setting on your computer in or PhotoShop graphic application.)

While you are in the Copy Store, make a few copies of your designs on a copy machine that uses dry toner.

Make each copy as dark (bold) as you can. The layer of dry toner that is transferred from the paper copy to the metal acts as a “resist” to the acid.

Below is an example of brass that was etched using ferric chloride:

In acid etching, the black design areas act as a resist to the acid, the white design areas will be etched deeper than the black design areas.

Generally, the etched (white) part of the design can be thought of as the background.

If your design has any letters or numbers, make sure you make a “Mirror image” so the words will read right when you transfer them to the metal.

Here is an example of a name plate for a key ring.

In the design below,”Nikki” is a mirror image:

… that will read correctly after it is transferred to metal:

If you have a copy machine at home that has a dry toner cartridge, it should work fine.

But do NOT use an ink jet printer.
Ink jet copies WON’T transfer.

I have an old Canon K140 copy machine that uses dry toner.

You should test other dry toner copiers before you buy one to make sure the toner transfers well.

The best transfer paper is free. Save your old magazines and use them as transfer paper:

(You can also use Sunday newspaper magazine section, but if the sheets are too thin they may get stuck in the copier.)

The heavy paper from a fancy magazine works best.

Regular copy paper does NOT work.

You can “gang” your designs on one sheet of paper to transfer multiple images on a single sheet of metal:

I know this sounds strange, but trust me, only the dry toner from your paper copy will transfer to the metal. The print on the magazine page won’t transfer.

Think of the magazine paper as a “carrier” for the dry toner. And, isn’t it great that we can recycle the magazine paper while we are creating something new and beautiful?

Set your designs aside and prepare the metal (bronze, brass, copper, or silver) for transfer.

The metal needs to be spotlessly clean. Bar Keeper’s Friend is a powdered cleanser (with oxalic acid) that works well to clean off any oil from fingerprints and tarnish on the metal. It also roughens the surface enough to help grab the dry toner.

The most important step is to make sure your metal is meticulously clean and the water sheets off evenly, without any spots.

If your metal has even the tiniest bit of dirt or oil, the toner won’t adhere to the metal.

Next, find a flat work area near an electric outlet where you can plug in an iron and press the dry toner paper onto the metal.

Use your regular iron in dry setting (not steam), and turn it up as high as it will go (usually the “Cotton” setting).

Press down on the iron to make sure the paper design makes good contact with the metal.

(If you wish, you can place a piece of paper towel between the iron and the paper design to keep the bottom of your iron clean, but if you do it right, your iron won’t pick up any of the dry toner.)

Let the iron set on top of the paper design for at least 2 minutes.

Don’t rush it and don’t move the iron, or it may smear the dry toner before it is set. (Leaving it for 5 minutes will work as well, if not better.)

Next, carefully lift the iron up and turn it off.

Let the metal and paper transfer cool on its own.

When the metal is cool enough to touch, put it in a bowl of water to soak off the magazine paper. Don’t rush it.

Let the paper get thoroughly saturated.

After the paper is softened, you can rub it off with your thumb and the toner will remain intact.

Don’t worry if some of the paper is attached to the toner. It will dissolve in the acid etch bath.


Alternate Method:

If you don’t want to use your iron, you can use an old electric skillet.

In the center of the electric skillet, layer the design paper (right side up), then metal, and on top of the metal, place a brick to press the metal onto the paper design.

Heat your electric skillet to 350 degrees for 2-3 minutes. Turn it off and let everything cool gradually before you remove the metal.

In some cases you can touch up any missing spots with a special type of felt pen, but the entire design etches best if the resist is uniform.

In case you find that part of your design didn’t transfer properly, (maybe there was a bit of oil on the metal?) you can remove the dry toner with acetone and start over.

If your design didn’t transfer fully, you may want to increase the length of time under the iron or skillet. 5 minutes may work better as some iron temperatures may not be as hot as others.

Now, you are ready for the etch bath. We’ll cover that in detail, in future articles.

This is the first in a series of 4 parts about acid etched designs on brass, copper and silver.


Part 2 – Hand-Drawing Designs
on Brass and Copper for Acid Etching

Also be sure to see the new page, Acid Etching Metal Jewelry – UPDATE before beginning your etching project!

Your questions and comments are welcome!

Virginia Vivier
Esprit Mystique Artisan Jewelry
Esprit Mystique Etsy
Tucson, Arizona


Esprit Mystique
by: Anonymous

I was on your website and your pieces rock. Just beautiful, unique and heartfelt.

Your technique for transferring images is great, can’t say I totally understand,but it was very interesting.

Keep up the great work.


by: Angie S

This is something I’ve really wanted to try! I’m very much looking forward to the rest in this series!
Angie S

Great Lesson
by: Helen

I’ve always wanted to know how to do this so thanks for providing the instructions, my only complaint is that I don’t want to wait a month for the next installment!!!


parts 2 -3- 4
by: Anonymous

You do great work!
I can’t wait for the rest of the series.
I hope they will be here on Rena’s site.

Hook line…
by: Brandi C

Well I am completely hooked and wondering when the second half of the article will be coming. I hope it won’t be too long, I don’t want to lose track and forget about it all together.

Villain Accessories

Oh wow!
by: Lissie

I have always wanted to learn this!
I can’t wait for the rest of the series.

Part 2 Is Posted!
by: Rena

The next installment of this fantastic 4-part tutorial by Virginia Vivier is here:

Part 2: Hand-Drawing Designs on Brass and Copper for Acid Etching.

You rock, Virginia!

Thanks so much for sharing this exciting technique and your valuable experience.

Technique doesn’t work
by: Anonymous

I’m sorry, but this doesn’t work; I’ve been trying to do this method, and merely pressing down on the iron for five minutes doesn’t do squat to the transfer. How are you able to get the transfer to stick on those curved pieces?

Good Question
by: Virginia Vivier

If you use an iron to transfer toner ink to a piece of metal, the metal must be flat. When the etching process is complete, the piece can be shaped, domed, pierced, etc.

I have read that some folks transfer designs using heat of an oven. I believe it was set to 160 degrees, but I have never tried this.

Make sure you have transferred (copied) your design on a copy machine using dry toner on a sheet of glossy magazine paper before you attempt to transfer it. If it is printed using injet ink, which is liquid, it will not transfer.

After you copy the design on glossy magazine paper, hold the page up to a good light source and you can see the layer of toner with your design slightly raised. The toner is what actually “melts” onto the metal and acts as a resist.

Some folks have also used a laminator to transfer designs on metal. Sounds like a good idea. I think you would have to experiment with heat settings to get it just right.

Hope this helps! Let me know how you are progressing.

Virginia Vivier

Fail Technique is still Fail
by: Anonymous

Nope, sorry, still doesn’t work; I’ve stamped the metal I’m using as flat as I can get it, and it STILL doesn’t transfer properly; the middle is the only one that is transferred well, the edges don’t even transfer or get smudged.

Trouble Shooting Transfer Process
by: Virginia Vivier

Here’s some suggestions:

Start over with a perfectly flat piece of metal. If it was dome shaped and then flattened, it could still have bumps or bends that aren’t in good contact with the transfer design.

The metal must be squeeky clean. If there is any oil on the outer edges from fingers touching the metal, it won’t transfer. You can purchase “PH Down” at grocery stores and hardware stores that is excellent for cleaning metal. (“PH Down” is a chemical for swimming pools, but mixed with water in a glass jar, and heated in microwave to luke warm, does a very good job of cleaning silver, brass and copper. 4 Tablespoons to 1 cup water is good for starters, but I just dump it in without measuring.)

I also use a green scrub sponge and some “Bar Keeper’s Friend” abrasive powder to give the metal some “tooth” after it is cleaned in “PH Down” solution. If the water “sheets” off without separating, then metal is squeeky clean and ready for a good transfer.

Use cotton gloves and/or handle the metal by the edges to avoid getting oil on the metal.

If the design is smudging, the iron is too hot or has been moved just as the dry toner is melting. Press the iron down firmly but don’t move it around. Lift it straight up and then move it to make sure flat portion of iron is in contact with transfer.

Try using overhead projector transparencies instead of magazine paper. Then you can see through it as the dry toner melts. It might give you a better idea of how long it takes for toner to melt. Don’t heat it to the point where the transparency wrinkles. Stop when you see the toner melt.

The copy machine toner you are using may not be good enough for transfer. Try another copy machine and set it for as dark as possible to achieve a thick layer of toner deposited on the paper.

Let me know if you are still having problems. I care!

Already tried most of your suggestions.
by: Anonymous

Don’t have a perfectly flat piece of metal, but I’ve stamped the one I have as flat as possible. Tried the cleaning and glove suggestions. And transparencies are too expensive for me to get, right now. The problem is the edges that are not adhering. Got any suggestions on how to fix that?

Trouble Shooting Transfer Process
by: Virginia Vivier

Do you have an electric skillet that can heat the metal from the bottom? I’m guessing that the slightly curved outer edges may not be getting the amount of heat and pressure needed to transfer the toner to the metal. If you take the pointy end of the iron and carefully press it on the outer edges without smudging the toner, it may work. Or, you could use a spoon or some other kind of burnisher to press the transfer into the metal if it is heated from the bottom.

But for best results, the metal does need to be perfectly flat for solid transfer.

One last thing you could try is to use a permanent marking pen, waterproof, CD marker (Sharpie makes them, also Staedtler). You could touch up the missing outer edges with marking pen by using the original design as a guide. Also, nail polish works if it is a flat area you are trying to fill in.

Let me know if any of this works?


No, you don’t understand
by: Anonymous

The exact center of the pendant is the one that gets transferred, everything else doesn’t. There’s like a dime-sized area on the center that gets transferred, and that’s it. I’ve tried virtually everything suggested on here, and the technique just does not work for me. I’m sorry, but this technique is an utter and complete failure, in my opinion, and I will not be recommending it to anyone who wants to do this kind of etching.

Trouble Shooting Transfer Process
by: Virginia Vivier

I’m so sorry you are frustrated and wish I could be there to help you. It must be some tiny detail that is missing because I just finished etching 100 pendants. Don’t give up!

The brand of marking pen is very critical. Most permanent markers will NOT work. They have to be Staedtler CD/DVD Markers or Sharpie CD markers. Anything else will be consumed by the acid.

How long are you leaving the metal in the acid? A good etch can be achieved in 30 minutes. What kind of acid are you using? Ferric Chloride or Ferric Nitrate? Are you etching on silver, brass or copper?

Perhaps the outer edges of the design are faded or greyed out. Solid black lines transfer best.

I wish I could see the step-by-step process to help you more! Feel free to email photos to me so I can help further. amulets at

Dear Anonymous,
by: Rena

I know how frustrating it is to be eluded by a jewelry technique after several tries! :o) I have had that experience on many other projects.

I sometimes find that if I step away from a project for a few weeks or more, and then return to it, I can start over with a clean slate and get better results.

And please be mindful of Virginia’s kindness and generosity in sharing her techniques and sources – as well as the time she has spent photographing, writing up, and commenting on this project.

I respect her very much both as an artist and as a person.

Thanks! :o)

Works Great
by: Leslie Todd

My husband uses this method all the time to etch electronic boards. It works great, although sometimes he doesn’t get a complete transfer and has to clean the board and go again. I got an antique electric iron with no steam holes and it works better than newer irons with steam holes.

I use the Sharpie PAINT pens for resist sometimes. I use the red color. I’ve heard it works better than black but since it’s the only color I’ve used I can’t say. The paint pen works so well I think you could etch the metal to lace before the paint etchs away. It outlasts StazOn ink, which I use a lot.

Thanks for the great article Virginia.

many many thanks
by: Alice

I am fortunate to have a heat press and use that is place of an iron. I have used old photo paper (glossy) and a commercial copy machine. The finest detail etches out beautifully. Now that I am this far i need plenty of help to know how to finish the piece. I noticed you know Pauline Warg who is my guru as a newby in making jewelry. She will save me. You are MORE than a little generous to give information to us so freely. it is time consuming for you and most appreciated by us, the readers.

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