Acid Etching Metal Jewelry, Part 4b

by Virginia Vivier.
(Esprit Mystique Jewelry)

Acid etched silver pendant with brass background, by Virginia Vivier

Acid Etching Metal Jewelry

Part 4b: Etching on Silver
Using Ferric Nitrate

. . . Continued from Part 4a


A 50/50 solution of ferric nitrate takes twice as long to etch silver as ferric chloride does to etch copper and brass.

CAUTION: Don’t be blasé about it. I learned the hard way.

Below is a photo of a nice, thick piece of silver I was etching for a bracelet.

I got involved in another project and lost track of time. It was in the etch bath for 6 hours and the ferric nitrate etched holes all the way through the silver in some spots:

I was miffed at my neglect (and material loss), but it was a valuable lesson.

I was pleased to see that the dry toner resist held up very well the whole time. The red Staedler border ink mask did break down somewhat. I should have taped it, but I didn’t think it would be etching for 6 hours!

Since then, I always carry a loud alarm timer set for 30 minutes as a reminder to check on the etch bath.

(Fortunately, I was able use the middle section of the design, so it wasn’t a complete loss. And, you can always send silver (mistake) scraps to a refiner in exchange for a $$ check.)

The back of the silver sheet was covered with clear packing tape to protect it from etching. So the etching came from the front side of the piece.

The clear acetate shows how well the dry toner melted onto the metal.

Only a few spots of the black dry toner are left on the clear acetate. Most of the dry toner melted on to the silver nicely.

In case you place the iron on the design too long, delicate lines may run together.

So it might take a bit of experimenting to see how long it takes to melt the toner and still retain crisp design elements.

You can always start over if the toner smears or doesn’t transfer completely.

Just clean off the metal with acetone (or alcohol) and begin again. No loss.

You’ll get the hang of it after a few tries.

Summary of Etching on Silver:


“Branch” Bracelet, sterling silver, by Sandra Noble Goss.

a.) Draw your design directly on silver using a red Staedtler pen.

b.) Or, use Future clear floor wax (or fingernail polish) as a resist. Scratch out a design through the resist. You can also use tape as a resist to block off areas.

c.) Or, draw a design on paper, then scan it, resize it, and save it on Photoshop using the darkest black / white contrast available.

Print out the design in highest resolution possible.

d.) Make sure any lettering or numbers in your design are “mirror” image, so they “read right” when transferred to the silver:

e.) Copy the design at a photocopy store (or use your own copier) on a machine that uses dry toner. Set the copy as dark as possible to achieve a thick layer of dry toner on a sheet of heavy magazine paper or acetate transparency.

f.) Cut out the dry toner design copy leaving a ¼ inch margin around the perimeter.


a.) To recap – Layer design, silver and paper towels, per diagram as shown:

(Make sure your flat workspace is not harmed by the heat of the iron. I have scorch marks on my dining room table! An old desk or wood table works well. Must be completely FLAT. An ironing board does not work.)

b.) Heat an old iron to hottest setting. (Note: A newer, expensive iron that has an “automatic shut off” won’t work.)

c.) You can use an old electric skillet, set at 350 degrees, just reverse the order of the diagram above so the silver design is facing up. Use something very flat and very heavy (an iron?) to lay on top of the design. Don’t wiggle it when you remove it or it may smear the melted toner. It helps if the weight has a handle so it can be lifted straight up easily.

d.) The iron (or skillet) remains in contact with the silver until the dry toner melts on the metal.
Note: The time may vary depending on the thickness of the silver, depth of toner and heat of the iron (or skillet). You can hear the iron and the skillet thermostats clicking on and off to maintain the temperature.

e.) When you lift the iron off the metal, don’t remove the paper (or transparency acetate) from the silver. Let it cool down slowly. When it is cool enough to touch, carefully pick it up by the edges and drop it into a glass jar of water. When it is cool, you can pop off the transparency acetate or soak off the magazine paper, leaving the dry toner layer that has melted onto the silver.


f.) Tape off areas of your design (such as the back) that you do not want to etch.

g.) Attach silver (dry toner side down) to a piece of Styrofoam, or a piece of plastic bubble envelope, so it will float (like a flat bottomed boat) on top of the ferric chloride etch bath.


a.) Using a plastic or glass container, wide enough to accommodate your silver “boats,” mix 50:50 solution of ferric nitrate. Container can be shallow in depth since the silver will be floating on top of the ferric nitrate solution.

Make sure your ferric nitrate container is sitting on top of, or beside something that vibrates, (Part 3 refers to dryer or aquarium air pump) to help move the etched particles off the metal.

b.) Set timer for 30 minutes and lay the silver “boats” on top of the ferric nitrate solution.

c.) Check every 30 minutes for level of etch you wish to achieve for your design. (I admit that sometimes I quickly stick my fingers into the ferric nitrate to pluck out a floating boat, and all it does is stain my fingers a bit. If washed off quickly, no stain on skin, but sometimes need to soak fingernails in weak bleach solution to remove the stains later that night.)

Note: I found it necessary to rinse off gunk that accumulated on the design side of the silver “boats” every 30 minutes or so.

This was not necessary for etches on brass and copper using ferric chloride.

Also check for any missing areas in your design that may have deteriorated. You can rinse off the ferric nitrate and repair missing areas with red Staedtler pen if needed. Then return to acid bath.

d.) When design is etched to your satisfaction, remove from ferric nitrate and place in separate solution of 3 TBL baking soda and 1 cup water. When the solution stops fizzing, remove the silver and rinse thoroughly in water. Remove all tape and rinse again.

e.) Make sure you put a secure (plastic) lid on the ferric nitrate solution.

Admire your etched design

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

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


Totally fabulous
by: Rena

Thank you so much, Virginia! This is an incredible tutorial series.

I love your experienced tips and notes – and most of all, your incredibly inspiring jewelry photos!

Bravo, Virginia!
by: Bob C.

I can’t begin to tell you how helpful and inspiring this tutorial has been. And can’t imagine how many hours you spent writing it up and explaining everything so well. Great pictures, very helpful that you included photos of pretty much everything. Also thank you for sharing your sources and secrets for doing things less expensively. This tutorial was far better than what I’ve seen in most how-to books, both in how well it teaches, as well as in the quality of the project itself. Thank you, Virginia, for all of your efforts and generosity in publishing this phenomenal tutorial!

I am in awe of etching
by: Leah

I love the idea of etching but wonder if it is difficult handling the chemicals needed in this process.

I had a chance to visit your website and you do wonderful, original work! Kudos. 🙂 Lots of charm to your jewelry.

Use of Ferric Nitrate and Ferric Chloride
by: Virginia Vivier


I felt the same way you did when I first started etching on metals. I think the words, “acid,” “ferric chloride” and “ferric nitrate” are so foreign to us that they seem scary. Actually, they are “salts” and not true acids.

Use the same care as you would using household bleach or ammonia. If you keep them stored in glass containers with plastic caps (no metal), and safely away from children and pets, they are no more dangerous than bleach or ammonia.

Occasionally,I have dipped my bare fingers into these solutions to quickly pluck out metal pieces to check their etch depth, which stains skin, but other than that, no problems. They only react on metals. If you picked up a very rusty iron wrench, it would leave similar stains on skin.

When you purchase these acids you will receive safety instructions which should be heeded carefuly. But again, both acids are useful in making jewelry.

Nitric acid, on the other hand, is VERY NASTY stuff and I would avoid using it if you have other options. It can cause serious, serious damage if not handled carefully.

Do your “due diligence” in learning how to handle these solutions and you will soon be very comfortable with this process.

Great Encouragement
by: Leah

Thanks so much for the encouragement Virginia! It is funny … I work exclusively with sterling silver and consider myself a beginner silversmith. I have my ceramic bricks, my torch, my butane, my tools, my pickling solution and my crock pot. I am always trying to figure out where to put this stuff! I have contained it for now (lol) but I will need a studio if I want to really explore other techniques!

I agree with you – if I get the right tools, regard my safety highly and experiment, I am sure I would absolutely LOVE what you do! But the stuff is kind of dirty and I can’t do it in the house anywhere.

I saw your instructional series – which was absolutely wonderful – detailed, descriptive, clear and concise. It gave me a real sense of what it would take to become an acid etcher. I am so curious – do you have a studio or do you work in your basement? How do you manage the mess and storing/cleaning your supplies, etc.

acid etching
by: jezusjonz

I use the same process but I did find that if you lay your piece in face up and not float it that your etched surface will be perfectly smooth. The grain you get in your backgrounds is cause by trapped pockets of air probably caused by the vibration from the pump.
But I usually check my piece IM working on every 30 minutes and lightly brush it with stencil brush till I get my depth I want. Most of my etch times though run 3 1/2 to 4 hours.
Is the ferric that your using a different strength than what you can buy at Radio Shack?

by: Pat

I was horrified to read that you dump the “neutralized” ferric chloride down the drain! Please please do not do so. If you neutralize the “rinse’ water, that is fine, but the container of spent etchant has metter in it that is highly toxic to fish. That water WILL end up somewhere in the ecosystem, and in any case, it is poor practice to be dumping chemicals down the drain. I’m not sure who told you it was ok to do, but I would like to know….

Instead, pour the spent etchant into a plastic container with a plastic lid. (I use large cat litter containers). Label and then take them to a hazardous waste disposal.

I enjoyed your transfer information, I have also had hit and miss experiences with pnp paper. i’ve had some success with toner copies, but less so with brass for some reason. Thanks.
Safe disposal of Ferric Chloride
by: Virginia Vivier – Esprit


It’s great that you are enthusiastically aware about how to dispose of etching chemicals safely. I too, value our environment and would not intentionally advise anyone to do anything that would cause harm. Ferric Chloride is a salt, not an acid, and when neutralized with baking soda will not cause harm to any pipes, eco systems, etc. Please feel free to Google this topic to confirm my findings. Hope this helps!

Thanks you!
by: Jazzie Jewels

I just want to say thank you for all of the great info you have provided. Ive done some salt electro etching and have had a difficult time with finding a resist that I like, that stays as long as I need it to… Though your pens suggestion is no longer available at least now I have an idea on what sort of thing to look for. I didnt know that the red was better than the black either. Very neat and useful information! Thanks millions!
LOVE your work too by the way! Awesome!

Jazzie Jewels

Yikes – Carbon based copy toner no longer available!!!
by: Virginia Vivier –

Bulletin, bulletin, bulletin! I received several comments about copy toner not transferring to metal and looked into finding a solution.

I found out that copy manufacturers have been pressured to eliminate carbon based toners and replace them with material that is “greener” for our environment. Unfortunately for us, the “greener” copy toner will NOT transfer to metal! Yikes! What to do?

At first I thought, no problem, I’ll just order more cartridges for my old copy machine, but guess what? The NEW cartridges for the OLD copy machine no longer contain the carbon needed to transfer to metal!(Expletive!) So, I investigated other means to transfer a resist to metal for etching.

There is good news! I discovered StencilPro. Now you can expose your designs by screen printing them with a high resolution material that is photo-sensitive very easily with sunlight, or a simple bulb. Then, tape your screen printing stencil over the metal and squeegee some Staedtler Red CD Lumocolor ink through the stencil onto the metal (you can buy Staedtler red ink in a jar). VOILA, you have a solid, high resolution design “resist” that will hold up under Ferric Chloride and Ferric Nitrate etching solutions for brass and sterling silver! And, you can reuse your stencil over and over, just clean it thoroughly after each use.

Here is link to StencilPro…their website has lots of info on how to do it:

Here is a link to purchase Staedtler Red Lumocolour CD Ink: (Do not buy any other kind of Staedtler ink as this is the only one that will hold up under acid etching.)

I’ll be writing a new tutorial with photos, very soon, so you can see how easy it is.

Hope this helps!

Virginia Vivier

Thank you for the update, Virginia!
by: Rena


I so appreciate your updates! Thanks so much for keeping this tutorial current. I’ll be happy to publish any updated info, images, etc. you’d like to add.


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