Notes on the Etching Technique

An etching is made by a variety of methods to create ink holding areas on a smooth metal {usually copper} plate. Basically the plate is first covered with an acid resisting ground, then lines are scratched through the coating with a needle to the bare metal. When immersed in acid {"biting" the plate} the acid can only attack the needled lines, eating into the metal to make shallow grooves that will hold the etching ink. The longer the plate is left in the acid the deeper and wider the lines become. If the plate was not properly coated the acid can attack in unintended areas, eating spots and streaks into the metal, a condition known by the expressive name "foul biting." An etching can seldom be made without corrections and alterations. After the first immersion in acid a trial print is made. This it the first "state." Improvements and repairs are made and another trial print is taken for the second state and so on. Sometimes etchings go through 30 or 40 states before the artist is satisfied with the results. After each state, if further work is required the plate is regrounded, needled and bitten again. Over-bitten areas that print more darkly than intended can be corrected by using a scraper, a sharp steel tool that shaves away metal to reduce the depth of the bitten lines; or a burnisher, a smooth polished tool that used with pressure along a line crushes the metal slightly, narrowing the line. To make the actual print, the plate is entirely covered with etching ink, the ink being worked down into the incized lines. The excess ink is mostly removed using a special coarse cloth, the last of it being removed with the palm of the hand. By using the palm, the ink is left only in the grooves made by the acid to produce very intense, deep {usually black} lines. The print is made on rag paper, dampened to soften it, and when run through the etching press the paper is forced by the great pressure down into the lines where it picks up the ink. The printed lines are raised above the surface of the paper from being forced into the grooves. The raised printed lines can even be felt after the ink is dry.

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Copyright Darrell Madis, 2000