What is Metal Etching?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Etching, from the German word meaning “to eat,” is cutting into a surface of a material using acid. Etching is done on a variety of materials including glass, Plexiglas, and metal. Metal etching in particular is an industrial manufacturing technique, an art technique, and a technique for branding and identifying property. Etching was a technique used by many European artists including Albrecht Dürer, Francisco Goya, Rembrandt, and James A. McNeill Whistler to make prints before other processes gained favor.

Etching was a technique once used by many artists such as Rembrandt.
Etching was a technique once used by many artists such as Rembrandt.

In an art context, etching falls into the category of intaglio, along with other techniques such as aquatint, drypoint, engraving, and mezzotint. Daniel Hopfer and Urs Graf were early metal etchers, but Dürer is credited as responsible for the metal etching vogue of the sixteenth century when etching became an art form. Metal etching was first done on iron, but around 1540 copper etching began to predominate.

Engraving tools are commonly made of carbon steel and hardened steel.
Engraving tools are commonly made of carbon steel and hardened steel.

The method of etching on metal can be a chemical process using acid, a photochemical process, or an electrochemical process. The basic technique for acid metal etching is to apply a resist to the areas of a metal plate, either to the whole plate or just to the areas that one wants to remain unaffected. The parts of the metal to be etched are either not covered or the resist material is scratched off from them using tools such as an etching needle and an échoppe.

The metal plate is then dipped in acid which eats away the exposed surface of the metal, creating lines. To make a print, the resist is cleared away and the surface inked. When the surface is wiped, the ink remains in the etched lines and can then be captured on paper when put through a specialized printing press. Varying line depth is accomplished by removing the plate periodically and covering the lines that have reached the desired depth with the resist material. This can also be done by applying acid to the plate directly rather than bathing it.

Industrial metal etching is also called “chemical milling.” It is used in semiconductor fabrication, the printed circuit board industry, and in fashioning aircraft components by the aerospace industry. Photochemical etching is a variation on this process in which photolithograph is the method of creating the pattern. It is used in the art world by Ostrom Glass & Metal Works. Electrochemical etching was developed for the aerospace and automotive industries in the 1940s and is only recently expanding to uses in medical technology and use in art settings. It is used by artists such as Cedric Green.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@umbra21 - It might be an inducement for young artists to learn how to do DIY metal etching if they knew what it used to be a euphemism for.

Once it was kind of a joke to say that a person wanted to bring someone up to his room to "look at his etchings".

In other words, he really just wanted an excuse to get the lady into his apartment so that he could seduce her.

It's not used so much now, but I do see it now and then. Honestly, I used to think they meant "etchings" to mean pencil sketches, but it was originally, at least, meant to be metal etchings, like the ones described here.


@indigomoth - Illustrations in books were often made with woodcuts as well. They're kind of the opposite of metal etching, since the line is made by the bits of wood left behind, rather than the bits of wood that are cut away.

It must be easier to make a metal etching picture for that reason. It's more like sketching, where the lines you draw are what you want to be seen. With woodcuts you'd always have to think about what the blank spaces are going to look like.

I don't think many people know how to etch metal nowadays though, which is a shame really, since it creates such a distinctive bit of art.


It was interesting going to a few museums in Europe and seeing their examples of the metal etching process. A couple of them had different displays on how it was done, including the finished products.

I couldn't believe how beautiful and complex the final drawings were. I don't often think much about how art is made and it's a surprise to me to think that many older illustrated books I've read were probably made with metal plates like this.

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