What Is An Etching?
Etching is a far more complicated art form than the simple-sounding term “print” implies. Here’s a breakdown of the process from start to finish.

etching stage 1

Stage 1
A subject is selected from photographs or sketches and a drawing prepared.

etching stage 2

Stage 2
A tracing is taken of the drawing.

Stage 3 Plate preparation. In my case, the plate is zinc with an acid proof backing. The surface to be used is cleaned with ammonia and whiting, rinsed thoroughly then dried on a hotplate. (Whiting is a powder made from ground chalk and free from stony matter and other impurities.)
Stage 4 Wax (either hard ground or soft) is rolled on to the warm plate in an even layer. With the plate held in a clamp, the wax is then smoked in the flame of three tapers. When cool it sets hard and black.
Stage 5 Using the tracing, the drawing is transferred to the plate, reversing the image if the final print is to depict an actual place. The tracing is done with a hard pencil or Biro, which leaves an impression faintly on the grounded plate.
Stage 6 The drawing is done with an etching needle. The action lifts the wax ground to expose the plate but without digging into it. This produces a line image, with areas of cross-hatched shading if needed.
etching plateStage 7 The first dip in diluted nitric acid. Essential to use a mask! The “bite” in the acid is timed in minutes – three or four for a gentle bite, ten or more for a deeper line which will hold more ink and thus print darker.
Stage 8 Each section of the image can be tested with the etching needle to judge the depth of the bite. When some areas are sufficiently bitten, the plate is lifted out of the acid, rinsed and blotted dry. Then those areas are painted over with stop-out varnish – Brunswick Black.
Stage 9 When the whole bite is judged satisfactory the plate is cleaned with paraffin then dried.
Stage 10 Inking up. Etching ink is tamped firmly onto the plate then the excess is carefully removed by “scrim” leaving ink in the lines written by the acid. The plate is finished with a gentle polish with newsprint paper.
Stage 11 A piece of printing paper is soaked briefly in water, then blotted dry.
Stage 12 The inked plate (its edges carefully wiped clean) is placed on the bed of the etching press. The damp paper is positioned over it, then covered with a sheet of paper, then four blankets are stretched over and the press bed is wound through the press rollers under pressure. This squeezes the ink out of the lines and up onto the damp paper.
Stage 13 The image is carefully lifted off the plate with paper fingers - i.e. two pieces of folded, clean paper – and placed on a flat board where it is taped down so that it dries completely flat.

etching stage 5The second proof of the line bite
with the hedge added.
etching stage 5 First aquatint proof. Far too dark!
(In the acid too long...)

etching stage 6Second aquatint proof after some
burnishing. Still too dark.

etching stage 8 The final proof. Satisfaction at last!


These thirteen stages produce a line image which can be all that is wanted, especially if carefully cross hatching has varied the tones. If more delicate and varied textures are needed then a further process called Aquatint is used.

Stage 1 The plate is thoroughly cleaned of ink and polished with paper.

Stage 2 It is placed on a sheet of paper and resin dust is sprinkled over it so that a fine, even layer of powder results.

Stage 3 The plate is lifted onto a warmed hotplate where the dust will gradually become transparent. This means that each tiny particle of dust has become a hard “dot”.

Stage 4 Stopping Out. Using Brunswick Black again, areas to print white are painted out and the first acid dip is done, this time timed in seconds.

Stage 5 Progressive dips and stoppings out are done until the effect is judged to be correct.

Stage 6 The plate is cleaned with meths, for the resin, and paraffin, for the stop out.

Stage 7 Test prints are taken as in the etching stages described earlier. If the tone resulting from the aquatint process is too heavy, it can be burnished until it is as required.

N.B. The finished plate has to be reinked for each print.