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Etching - For A First Experiment

[Etching]  [Dry-Point (pointe-seche)]  [Preparing The Plate For Acid]  [Drawing On The Plate]  [Biting The Plate]  [Reworking Ground]  [Soft Ground]  [Aquatint]  [Mezzotint]  [A First Experiment In Etching] 

( Originally Published 1917 )

I propose to give here only the most necessary materials required to carry a plate through to the printing stage. The cost of those purchased should be under five dollars. I would not advise this limited equipment for more extensive work.

The artist should choose a simple subject employing as few positive values and lines as possible. Draw with an even pressure, being sure to expose the copper with each stroke.

Materials to Purchase:
Ball of Etching Ground

Plate.-Get a small plate from one of the firms mentioned in the appendix, or use the back of an old visiting card plate. You can get some old plates from a card engraver. These must be cleaned and polished and the edges filed.

Ball of Etching Ground.-It will probably be found more convenient to purchase a bottle of the liquid etching ground or a small ball of the ground about the size of a walnut. The cost of the materials for making a larger quantity will be about the same.

Acid should be pure. Get it from the druggist.

Nitric is best for the first trial.

Varnish.-Get asphaltum varnish or any good varnish that is impervious to acid and can be removed readily with turpentine.

Scraper.-One of medium size will do.

Burnisher.-The burnisher and scraper can be purchased from any dealer in etching supplies.

Charcoal.-One stick is enough.

Lampblack.-While not absolutely necessary it will be useful to mix with olive oil and rub on the plate so that the work may be seen.

The following materials can be easily procured if you do not already have them:

Stopping-out Varnish
Water-Colour Brushes
Olive Oil
Chamois Skin
Oil Stone
Hammer Tray
Large Wire Nail
Blotting Papers
Etching Needles

File.-Any file that will round the edges of the copper.

Vise.-A pair of tweezers will do, wrapping cloth about the handle to protect the fingers from heat. Remember to put a small piece of blotting paper on the face side of the plate to prevent the tweezers from scratching the surface.

Turpentine.-A small bottle of turpentine will answer.

Whiting.-Electro Silicon as used in the house for silver-polish will do as well as whiting. Gilders whitening is good.

Ammonia. Washing ammonia can be used.

Tapers.-Any smoky flame may take the place of tapers. For instance: that from a spirit lamp. As the blackening of the ground is only for seeing the work more clearly, in a first plate it is possible to omit it.

Tray.-Photo developing trays are not expensive, but any flat-bottomed dish will do. I have known of a wash-basin being successfully employed.

Blotting Paper.-Large, soft sheets are required.

Dabber.-For making the dabber.

Etching Needles.-For this experiment a sewing needle in a handle of wood will do; or get a couple of broken tools from a dentist and sharpen them.

Stopping-out Varnish.-Dissolve some of the etching ground in chloroform or benzole.

Water-Colour Brushes.-You have plenty of them no doubt.

Olive Oil.-As used in the house

Oil Stone.-Such as is used for sharpening a knife.

Hammer and Wire Nail.-These are used to knock up the plate from the back in case you have scraped a depression in the surface. Place the plate face downward on a piece of soft blotting-paper and mark the spot by measuring from two adjacent sides with a pencil.

Feathers.-A couple of small ones will do.

Rags.-Clean cotton rags are the best.

Heater.-A gas burner is best. You can use a gas-jet if necessary.


List of Materials

Printing Muslin
Plate Oils
Palette Knife
Stumping Muslin
Ink Dabber or Ink Roller

AN etching press has nothing in common with a type printing press. The principle is that of the ordinary clothes-wringer or laundry mangle. The essential parts are two steel rollers, ten inches or more in length, placed one above another, the lower being larger in diameter. Originally these rollers were made of wood. Between them is a movable bed of steel on which is sometimes placed a sheet of zinc and upon this the plate to be printed is laid. If the pressure is uneven, pieces of paper can be put under the zinc plate. To pass this bed between the rollers, the upper wheel has attached to its axis a hub with either long-handled spokes or a geared wheel. The former type is known as the Star press, the latter is called a Geared press. A rigid enough frame to hold these parts in position and a couple of screws connected by grooves in the frame with the upper roller to regulate the pressure, complete the essential parts of an etching press. Custom has sanctioned the practise of putting several thicknesses of cardboard between the axis of the upper roller and the screw. All presses have this cushion, as it is called, but I have been unable to find any one who would maintain that as good a print could not be made from a press in which these boards were lacking. However, in the early form of presses, these bits of cardboard were necessary to regulate the pressure. The saying still exists in printing establishments, "Take a card out," meaning to reduce the pressure. As the pressure in printing etchings is very great, all parts of a press should be especially strong. Some beautiful examples of old presses are to be seen in the Plantin Museum at Antwerp.

Blanketing.-Blankets used in printing are of two kinds, Swanskin and fronting. Two thicknesses of the fronting go next to the plate and three thicknesses of the Swanskin next to the top roller. These blankets act as a pad and help to force the paper into the lines of the plate. They should be washed from time to time, oftener when using sized papers. The corners of the blankets should be rounded off and the upper ones made smaller than the lower. The blankets should be a little wider than the plate to be printed.

Etching Inks are made from the lees of the grape after the wine has been pressed out. The inks most commonly used in printing are:

Frankfort Black
Forcing Black
Winston Black
Heavy French Michael
Angelo Black
Light French
Rembrandt Black

Burnt Umber is used to warm the ink.

The following formulas are good, but different combinations can be experimented with.


1 part Heavy French.
1 part Winston's Frankfort Black.
1 part Michael Angelo Black.
3 parts Light French.
Burnt Umber to warm. Use medium and thin oils in equal parts.


Frankfort Black.
Burnt Umber to warm.
Medium Oil.


1 part Heavy French mixed with thin oil.
1 part Michael Angelo Black.
1 part Haddon's Forcing Black.
2 parts Light French.
Burnt Umber to warm.
Equal parts medium and thin oil. Grind as stiff as possible.


1 part Heavy French.
1 part Forcing Black.
1 part Frankfort Black.
2 parts Light French.
Burnt Umber to warm. Use medium oil.


Frankfort Black.
Burnt Umber to warm.
Use thick oil.

Good inks are sold in cans ready for use.

Plate Oils.-Three grades of burned linseed oil-thin, medium and thick-are employed in printing. Thin and medium oils are used for etching, the thick for mezzotinting. The essential thing is to get burned oil, as boiling is not enough. The oil is placed in caldrons under which fires are lighted. When the boiling point is reached red-hot pokers are plunged into it. It is burned from six to ten hours. The longer the burning the thicker the oil. This burning of the oil was one of the most picturesque features of the old printing establishments.

Palette Knife.-A large size palette knife as used by painters will do.

Ink Dabbers.-The best way to make an ink dabber is to take as a foundation a wooden stocking darner shaped in the segment of a sphere with a handle attached to the flat side. Cut old stocking legs into sections and pull them over one at a time until you have made a ball at least four inches in diameter. Some of them can be pulled over the handle. To finish the dabber stretch over it a circular piece of printer's blanketing and lace at the handle with strong thread. This handle can be previously covered with a piece of kid from an old glove. The blanketing is laced that it may be easily renewed without making a new dabber.

Ink Roller.-A good ink roller is made by using as a foundation a small size rolling-pin. Proceed as with the dabber, covering tightly with blanketing laced at either end.

Slab.-A smooth surface for grinding the ink may be of polished marble, granite or lithographic stone, in size from eighteen to twenty-four inches square. A good shape is eighteen by twenty-four inches.

Muller.-A piece of marble, polished on one side and shaped so as to be comfortably grasped with both hands.

Heater.-The best heater is a smooth sheet of iron on legs under which a gas burner is placed. Some etchers make this plate so large that by placing the burner at one end the other remains cool thus doing away with the jigger.

Jigger.-A jigger is a wooden box of the same height as the heater and placed beside it. The front of the box can be hinged and the interior utilised for keeping the printing muslins.

Printing Muslin.-A very satisfactory material to use for removing the ink from the plate in printing is a kind of muslin known as tarlatan. For retroussage or stumping, a fine grade of cheesecloth is satisfactory.

Whiting (Blanc d'Espagne).-To prevent scratches on the plate, gritty particles should be removed from ordinary whiting by precipitating in water. Both Electro Silicon and Gilder's whiting are good.

Sponge.-The sponge should be very fine and soft.

Brush.-A stiff hat brush is used to bring up the pile on the surface of the paper just before printing.

Grinding the Ink.-The dry ink is ground on the slab with the muller. This takes some time and is not easy work. The several inks are placed on the slab and the lumps crushed. Then some oil is added and the muller, held in both hands, is passed many times forward and back over the slab. Employ pressure only when pushing the muller away; then bring it back with the edge farthest away slightly raised. More oil is added from time to time. The ink must be thoroughly ground or you will find scratches on your plate. Over-grinding is as bad as under-grinding. Any grit or dirt in the ink will make itself known in scratches. When grinding a lot of ink at once it is wise to divide it into small portions and grind each part separately, bringing them all together at the last grinding. For thick ink use less oil. Take some up on your palette knife to see if it is of the right consistency and thoroughly ground. It should feel like butter. You will soon learn the look of the ink when it is just right. It is better to grind the ink two or three days before using.

Inking.-The ink is put on the plate in the following manner: First, with a dabber. Put some of the ink on the dabber with a palette knife and dab it all over the surface of the warmed plate with a rocking motion, paying particular attention to the deep lines, to make sure that they are full of ink. For the first proof, rub the ink well into the lines with a bit of printing muslin. The dabber should never slide on the plate because of the danger of scratching. The dabber should have old ink taken off its surface by working it on the heater. Second, with a roller. Take up some of the ink from the slab on the roller and distribute it uniformly over the plate. For deeply bitten lines, the dabber is safer than the roller.

Wiping the Plate.-The whole surface of the plate is now covered with a layer of ink. To remove this ink, the printing muslin or tarlatan is used in the following manner. A piece of muslin about a yard square is made up into a flattened ball which can be easily held. The outside should be smooth, with no hard lumps beneath the surface. Printers have a way of folding the muslin by grasping two adjacent corners and tossing it in the air, at the same time passing first one hand and then the other underneath toward the centre of the square. You should have at least three balls of this tarlatan. With the first one take off the bulk of the ink from the surface of the plate, which should be warm at this stage. This ball is passed across the plate exerting the pressure with the palm of the hand, the idea being to remove the surface ink without disturbing any in the lines. It soon becomes charged with ink. A "fat" rag is one with quite an amount of ink on it. It is more sympathetic than a clean one. Take another ball of muslin and with a twisting motion work over the surface of the plate, which by this time should be almost cool. You may finish the wiping with this rag or use another for the final work. The last rag should be more fat than the others or your print will look weak. This is the most important part of the inking and the method is varied according to the effect desired. For book-plates, portraits, and work that needs clear printing, ink is put on the palm of the hand with the dabber. The hand is drawn several times over a piece of whiting. Mix by rubbing the hands together. With the hand thus prepared, pass over the plate with a caressing motion, cleaning away the surface ink more or less without disturbing the lines.

The first method is known as rag-wipe; the second as hand-wipe. Thoroughly clean the edges of the plate with a bit of rag dipped in whiting. When the plate is wiped to your satisfaction, it is again heated until quite warm. Now drag a bit of loosely folded cheesecloth over the plate across the lines you wish to print strong. The fluff on the cloth pulls some of the ink over the edge of the lines and gives a rich effect in the print. This is called stumping or retroussage. It is very important but should be employed with judgment. Over-stumping is worse than no stumping at all, as it gives the print a mussy appearance. The plate is now ready for the press. Aquatints should never be stumped. In the beginning one is tempted to depend too much on what Hamerton calls artificial printing. In this method the printer uses whiting to paint out parts and get effects which should have been arrived at with the needle and acid. It is much the best to complete the effect on the plate and print simply. The plate should always be cleaned with turpentine after printing to get all the ink out of the lines. O1d ink in the lines is hard to remove. Use a saturated solution of potash to remove old ink. Paper.-Etching paper is of various colours and thicknesses, from the heaviest plate to the thinnest Japanese. Plate paper is of a spongy nature not unlike blotting-paper. It is used for proofs, but mezzotints are sometimes printed on it. It is also used as a backing for very thin China paper. The paper is cut to the exact size of the copper plate, flour paste is put on the back, and it is then run through the press with a sheet of plate paper to which it adheres. Good etching paper should be soft or half-sized. Japanese paper and plate paper can be wet down just before printing. The Japanese should be drier. Most papers except the Japanese should be dampened with a sponge the day before printing and kept between blotters making sure that the edges are wet. The Japanese paper can be dampened an hour or so before. All sized papers should be wet down the day before printing. A good way to dampen paper is to pass each sheet through a tub of clean water, and then place between wet blotters. Thin sheets of zinc are used to hold the dampened paper. Thin Japanese paper should be dampened with a sponge by tapping lightly on the back. All paper should be limp but not wet on the surface. Sized papers should be brushed on the right side before printing. Old account books of hand-made French or Dutch paper are much sought after by etchers. Dry out any paper that may be left after printing before putting it away, as it is liable to mildew.

Printing the Plate.-To test the pressure on the press pass a clean plate through with a piece of plate paper. Hold the paper toward the light and looking across it, study the shine. This should be equal at both ends of the plate if the pressure is even. The strong lines of the design will be embossed on the paper.

In most cases the inked plate should be warm but not hot. Make sure that the zinc on the bed of the press is perfectly clean. Use a rag with turpentine for this. Place the warm plate on the zinc with the long side parallel to the rollers. Over this carefully place the moistened paper and upon this place a sheet of tissue paper and pull the blankets down. These are already part way through the rollers nipped in far enough to hold them. Turn the press with a steady motion not stopping while the plate is between the rollers. Lift the blankets and throw the free end over the top roller. Take off the tissue paper, beginning at a corner nearest roller. Now lift the print carefully by the two corners farthest from the rollers. A couple of pieces of cardboard folded once to grip the paper will prevent black finger marks on the margin of the print.

Treating a Fresh Print.-The old etchers had wires stretched across the room and hung their fresh prints on them face up, for a number of days to dry. It is now more usual to place them between large sheets of blotting paper. But in no case are they to be put under pressure until the ink has had a chance to harden. The ridges of ink would be crushed down under the pressure. Afterward they should be put in fresh blotters and subjected to pressure so that the paper will dry perfectly smooth. A better way, but one taking more time, is to stretch (or strain) the etching, after dampening the back, on a drawing board or academy board, pasting down the edges with photo paste. When perfectly dry, cut the paper inside the pasted edge.

Some Suggestions for Inking and Printing. -If the plate is bitten lightly use strong ink. Old ink gives more tone. A cold plate printed slowly with heavy pressure leaves more tone. For a bright proof print hot and quickly with normal pressure. Do not leave so much ink on the plate that the line is lost. To make a strong print, hand-wipe cold, stump cold with a fat rag, then heat and stump in the usual way. For plates with over-burnished lines, ink hot, hand-wipe cold, and warm up well to stump. For over-bitten plate, use Frankfort, burnt umber, rag-wipe and do not stump. Thick ink gives more brilliancy.

Greater pressure gives greater tone. To take out some of the ink in over-bitten lines, wipe with stumping muslin. Passing the print back through the press a second time gives additional strength. Start wiping with a rather clean rag and finish with a fat one. Some plates are improved by going over them with printing muslin after hand-wiping. The thinner the ink, the more mat tone the print has. The hardest plate to print is the delicately bitten one. Hand-wiping is usually best for dry-point. In retroussage or stumping, pull out the dark parts first.

If your proof is a failure, look first to the pressure and then to the paper. The paper will not print well if it is either too wet or too dry. The ink rnay not be just right. Often a beginner wipes the ink out of the lines, thus giving a poor proof. When you are through printing be sure to remove all ink from the plates by warming them and going over them with turpentine. If the plate is steel faced it must be covered with a coating of beeswax put on hot. This will prevent the steel from rusting and you can remove the beeswax with benzine when you wish to use the plate again. Clean everything which has ink on it with turpentine and leave all tools in good condition for the next printing.

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