Thursday, November 25, 2010

Safer etching with copper sulphate

This has been a really slow week for me again, as I’ve had to take some time to recover from attending a workshop last week-end. I have a number of things I’m keen to share with you all but I just couldn’t spend much time online, and even commenting or replying to comments has been too much.So please accept my apologies if you have posted recently and I haven’t been it touch.



Do you remember that wonderful blue liquid in the science lab at school? It was my favourite colour at the time, and I always remember it was copper sulphate. We didn’t often use it in the experiments we worked on, but it was a personal favourite (I know, who has a favourite chemical? I was a weird kid!)

So it was quite nice to find that copper sulphate can be used as an etch for printmaking and that it is one of the least toxic options.

These past few years I’ve been quite enamoured of etching, while at the same time being a bit scared of the chemicals involved. I realize that ceramics involves some nasty things too, but the thing that worries me about etching is it’s acid (ouch!) AND it gives off fumes.

I’ve been very hesitant about delving into etching because if it’s going to work for me, I need to be able to set myself up here in my home. A lot of people with CFS/ME have severe chemical sensitivities, and while it’s not really a major problem for me, perfumes have been known to make my nose run and give me a bit of a headache. I don’t need to add to my problems by exposing myself to further potential neurological damage by introducing toxins to my home.



So when I saw that Impress Printmakers were holding a workshop on Sunday on etching aluminium with copper sulphate, advertising it as a cheaper, low-toxic alternative, suitable for the home studio, I was quick to enrol. After the workshop I did some research online, particularly here and here, and discovered that the process really is low toxic. A very small amount of hydrogen gas is created, but it really isn’t considered dangerous, even inside, and I am planning to work out on our covered patio.


plates tunnel

So perhaps I can really get on my way with printmaking now. Above I’ve posted scans of the two plates I made at the workshop. They both need further work to develop some strong blacks, but it was great fun getting this far. I’m actually really drawn to the plates themselves, and can see they may become artworks/book covers themselves. Has anybody else tried etching with copper sulphate?


  1. Looks and sounds great! I always liked your approach to printing, and I am looking forward to seeing more of your results, and reading about you setting up a home etching studio!

    I never etched anything. I am still pondering whether I should invest into a printing press for my lino experiments. Are you planning to buy am etching press then? If you do, I'd be interested in hearing your considerations and final choice on what type and why!

  2. Anonymous8:00 PM

    Yay! I love etchings, but just don't want to do this (ie nitric acid on zinc) in my house. I've done the ferric chloride on copper plates and it;s OK, but rather slow.
    Nest year, I may consider trying again in a hired studio situation.
    But thankyou for posting this, Amanda, as I'm pretty sure others in the BAO group will be interested.
    (I'll email you tomorrow.)

  3. Amanda - this feels a bit like 'snap' because I have just enrolled in a copper sulphate aluminium etching workshop here inMaleny in January! It's wonderful to hear that it really is low toxic and to see your results to date - they look beautiful and I'm even more inspired now. Thanks for the links as well; stay well

  4. Oh Amanda, you're such a fount of useful knowledge :O)

    I'm longing to getting back to printmaking but my chemical sensitivities make it virtually impossible. In fact I'm pretty convinced sone of them started because of long term use of screenprinting inks and screen wash in the 80s at Art School.

    Very useful links and as soon we are straight here Id love to give the copper sulphate a try

  5. Thank-you all for commenting - it's so lovely to feel connected to you from afar.
    Buechertiger: I actually bought an etching press about a year ago. I started looking for a second hand one, not really expecting to find one within my budget, but I located one really quickly. I posted about it
    For me, price and size was most important. Apparently, any smaller than this, and the roller cannot generate enough pressure to push the paper into the etching plate properly (which it needs to do to pick up the ink which is below the surface of the plate). But for relief printing you don't need that sort of pressure, as you know. I just made sure that the press was by a company that I had heard of. Some people have constructed their own, but I didn't really want to buy one of those, even though it may work perfectly well.
    Di: Well on aluminium, the copper sulphate is definitely NOT slow. I've read it can be used on zinc too and is even less toxic, because even less hydrogen is produced. I think at the workshop it was mentioned that zinc is slower than aluminium to etch, but I'm not sure now. The Warringah Printmakers site has info about using zinc.
    Fiona: I saw that workshop advertised. It's a different person teaching, but obviously low toxic is popular! I'll be interested to hear about your experience in January.
    Cusp: Aren't you lovely to say that? It makes me feel like I am offering something to people out there. I do miss the feeling that I'm helping someone, so it's a real pleasure to share any knowledge I have. It would be great if copper sulphate turned out to be a suitable alternative for you.

  6. Hello there Amanda

    I am very pleased for your new encounter with etching aluminium using copper sulphate - its brilliant and so wonderful that it can be done in ones own home. I have been doing it for a few years now so if you get stuck or have any questions remember you can get in touch. There are loads of posts on my blog about it.

    I am also highly vulnerable ( my throat chest and headaches) to fumes and toxins so I assure you that it doesn't affect us sensitive types, even if used indoors. I keep a lid on it ( a board of some kind) while I have it in use.

    Look forward to seeing some works on here by you.

    best wishes


  7. Oh wow! Aine, that is great. I may well pick your brains from time to time. I don't know why, but I presumed you used Edinburgh Etch - maybe because you're in Scotland!!!

  8. Your results are beautiful so I look forward to seeing more. I've used nitric acid on zinc in the past but don't want to set that up at home because of the little children. I think it may be a while before I get back to etching - all the more reason to enjoy yours.