Non Toxic Etching – Dragging myself into the 21st Century

This term  I am teaching a class at the Fremantle Arts Centre called Etching copper with Ferric Chloride although we will actually be using Edinburgh Etch. And this is one of my etchings, made from copper and edinburgh etch.

Etching Contemplation with Teapot 15 x 10 cm
Etching Contemplation with Teapot 15 x 10 cm

My non- toxic journey

When I was at art school (many moons ago). I did a printmaking major and we learned to etch with nitric acid on zinc. Nitric acid is pretty serious stuff and while I was at Curtin University I had access to a fully equipped studio with a state of the art exhaust system. After I graduated, before I had my kids, I used to mix up the nitric acid in the back yard. I put it in a plastic tray on a couple of bricks on the back lawn. When I took the lid off I held my breath so as not to breath in the vapours which when inhaled dissolve your lungs! As I moved out of my 20’s I noticed the emergance of a previously unseen desire to preserve my health. And in my 30’s with young children collographs and linocuts became my preferred method of printmaking.  Now my kids are at primary school, but I  didn’t want to go back to using those chemicals.

Etching Copper with Ferric Chloride

I first looked into etching copper with ferric over a year ago when I did Jill Parnells jewelery workshop “Photo Etching with Ferric on Copper” at the Fremantle Arts Centre. I took the class thinking I would be able to use this direct method as a printmaker. Unfortunately for me her technique, which worked well for jewelery didn’t translate that well to printing. It did however introduce me to using ferric.
It was some time later that I began reading and downloading information on non-toxic printmaking. There are now many sites world wide talking about this, and I have discovered that printmakers are a friendly lot eager to share knowledge and help with any problems you may be having.
It was one of my students, Sally Bradbury, who spurred me on to stop just reading about non toxic etching and to actually do some. And it was her contagious enthusiasm that got me experimenting.

What is Edinburgh Etch?

While etching copper with Ferric has been known for some time there were problems

  1. Slow etching, sometimes taking hours to get the depth required.
  2. Sediment collecting in the groves and slowing down the etching even more requiring rocking the bath with the plate face down.

It was Friedhard Kiekeben an artist and university art lecturer who discovered that adding citric acid in the right proportion eliminates the sediment, speeds up the bite and lengthens the life of the etching solution. He called this solution Edinburgh Etch. You can find out more at . He has also written a very informative chapter in Keith Howards book The Contemporary Printmaker. also available from Melbourne Etching supplies

Etching Resist or Ground

In etching there are more toxic substances than just the etching solution. The traditional resist which I was continuing to use, simply called hard ground is also pretty terrible for your health, especially without adequate ventilation. It has a large warning label about lung damage and I also found out it is a known carcinogen.
I could write another 500 words on my journey through non toxic resists looking for an alternative I was happy with, but I wont 🙂 I would like to acknowledge the help of
Ros Williams and
Aines Scannell from the printmakers group on linked in that helped me through some problems I was having with the ground.  I also found this helpful blog: which shows the method I used for the resist with goood results.
Through the process of all this I have found out about etching zinc with saline sulphate and that will be my next journey of exploration.

3 Replies to “Non Toxic Etching – Dragging myself into the 21st Century”

  1. Hi Shania
    SO GLAD TO HEAR that you are finally having success with this whole process !!
    How sweet of you to acknowledge the suggestions and assistance!!
    Please do put a link to my blog
    I have posted many experiences as to my trials and errors in using this process. IT IS THERE TO HELP FELLOW ARTISTS trying to find their way with these recently evolved PRINTMAKING processes. I have also written about copper sulphate etching using aluminium and zinc. I recently have been using steel as well.

  2. Thank you for the link Shana. Glad to know that you’re converted and that you’ll be spreading the knowledge about non-toxic etching to your students.
    I love the paintings, prints and artists books on your website btw, especially the boat/water and tree images.

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