Etching sterling silveradmin | April 16, 2010
Every once in a while someone comes into the booth, regards my jewelry and asks, “Are you making this with pmc?” NO, NEVER!!!! I want to shout, but I gulp and moderate it down to, “No, all my work is sterling silver and I do my own etching.” Now if they are really foolish they will gaze again at my work and particularly my box clasps and tell me I should use pmc. I am usually less moderate with my next answer.
But what is PMC and why am I not happy when asked if I use it and even less happy when told I should use it? It is precious metal clay that is fine silver suspended in a clay medium. It has a great appeal to hobbyists and people without technical metalsmithing skills. I am neither. Once a piece is made in pmc it is fired and becomes (if done correctly) fine silver. I have “issues” with pmc but that is for another blog entry. Today it’s about what I do to get the etched patterns on my pieces.
First, I always work in sterling silver because of its strength and its ability to accept patinas. Fine silver is not a strong metal and it won’t take a patina. Etching sterling involves a vile chemical process that I have worked long and hard to perfect, plus it’s just plan hard work. Stamping a design on a piece of metal clay is easy. Etching is a several day process.
Because of the time involved I always do several sheets of sterling silver at one time. This means it’s expensive too, so I go slowly as I don’t want any mistakes. I do have sheets of etched silver that are just downright ugly and unusable. I have learned. My etching starts long before I ever don my acid gear and put on a respirator. First, I must create patterns that I want to etch into the sterling. This usually involves many drafts and finally I scan the final version into my computer where I employ both Photoshop and Illustrator to clean up the final artwork.
I transfer that artwork to a resist… something that the acid (or in my case ferric nitrate) cannot eat through. This step is perhaps the most important, as a good resist makes a good etch. Once made the resist is carefully applied to my sterling sheets. If I should stop here and drop the metal in the ferric nitrate it would eat out what is unprotected, including the back of my sterling sheet. The next step is to protect the side edges and back of the pieces.
Then it is outside to set up the actually table and hardware to etch. Because of the nature of the chemical it is best to etch under a fume hood. I have none. I etch outside. This is sometimes a dilemma for me. Once the day I picked was the first over 100° day of the season. I stood outside in it all day in heavy acid gear. Another year it was cold and damp. Spring or Fall are my favorite seasons to etch, but I seem to run out of material in the winter and summer.
Here’s me in my chemical gear and my etching set-up, on a moderate February day. I etched 8 sheets and it was a day long process, just to do the etching. The prep work was another day. But in the end it was all worth it. I have the etched sheets that I can make into wonderful jewelry.
And in case you are worried about the vile chemical that I am using. It is a salt, a component in fertilizer, and I always keep track of it until I turn it over to the folks at the dump to depose of correctly.
Etching sterling silver is a long multi-step process. But I like doing it. I can put my own artwork in the metal, I love the varied textures, and it makes my work more personal, more a part of me. Its one of my hard-learned skills that I am proud to share and add to my jewelry.