Etching Tutorial and FAQ

Tracy Mickley -

Bob Warner http://www.warnerknives.com/ has allowed us to incorporate two of his tutorials, Making a light box and Making an etch machine.

Mike Fitz. - researched and compiled the supplier listing at the end of this tutorial.

The equipment you will use is:

An etch machine. These can be constructed for around $25 to $50 in parts or purchased  commercially for up to $900 for a complete kit. Most knife makers  purchase a machine for around $100 to $200. eBay often has etching  machines for sale. I picked up mine, a Marking Methods 300a from eBay at a very good price. Later in this tutorial, we include Bob Warner’s  tutorial on how to make your own etch machine for around $50. A lot of  people have made this machine and it works very well from what they say.

You will need a stencil. The stencil is roughly, a rubber coated piece of fine mesh fiber screen maybe 2” x 3”. You can make a stencil or have them commercially made from a half dozen different companies. Making your own requires you make a  light box to expose the stencil and then developing them in a solution. I have made stencils by putting them under glass and going outside on a  sunny day and exposing them to sunlight but it is hard to get consistent results. Cost to make your own stencils will be around $25 in supplies  and a home made light box for another $25. You will be able to make a  couple dozen stencils using your computer printer. Producing you own  stencil will take 15 minutes. You can also purchase stencils  commercially by just calling up one of the suppliers and telling them  what you want. Often there is an art or setup charge ranging from $25 to $40. The stencil costs vary widely but can be averaged at around $35 to $40 for 4 to 6 stencils on a sheet. A typical individual stencil might  be 2” x 2”. Have a look at the supplier listing Mike Fitz assembled for more.

These are Marking Methods, Inc© commercially made stencils in the green and gold. The green is the most popular material although Marking Methods will ship the gold stencil also. In this case they came 6 to a sheet. Cut one out and use it. Marking Methods has great stencils but can be, at times, difficult to work with as they are geared for the larger manufacturing company. I will use their green stencils for my makers mark in place of any that I might make. They are simply excellent stencils. They do have an assortment of stock stencils on hand with various scrolls, flourishes, boxes and animal images available. If you order from them, ask for the knife makers information kit.

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Etching solution. This can be as simple as salt water solution and some do use that successfully. Most makers purchase etch chemical from one of the various suppliers as there is a difference between etching stainless and carbon steels. A quart of commercial etch solution runs from $6 to $15. One quart will get you through several dozen impressions. A neutralizer solution is often available and I use it all the time. Windex and a good soap and water scrubbing will also work to neutralize the etch solution when you are done. There are different eletrolyte solutions for different base metals. Make sure you get one for carbon steels and one for stainless steels so you can do both.

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Here are etch chemicals from both IMG and Marking Methods. The 5 pack you see is a knifemakers special from IMG of differing chemicals for various knife compositions. This will allow you to experiment to get the best etch. IMG is very interested in servicing the knife makers market and you should seriously consider giving them your business. I wish I got something for the plug for IMG, I didn’t and won’t. I just think they are a good outfit and deserve the business. Looking closely in the upper right corner of this picture you will see a marking block connected to a black wire. It has an etch pad already attached to it using a rubber band. Note the cotton squares from Wal-Mart are also used.

Etch pads. Think of a cotton cosmetic pad or thick felt approximately 2”x2” square. These can be cotton, felt type material or synthetic can be purchased from one of the suppliers again. I’ve used cotton cosmetic pads when I ran out of commercial pads. It worked good enough. These are use once, and throw away. The process is very simple once you have what you need.

Your etch machine will have two power leads. One lead will connect to the knife with an alligator clip. The other lead connects to your etch lead. The etch lead is a piece of carbon or steel covered with an etch pad. Use a rubber band to wrap the etch pad around the metal or carbon end of your etch lead.

Clean the knife to be free of oil, grease, wax etc. Place your stencil exactly where you want it on the knife. Use tape to hold it flat and in place. I have used masking tape but etched right through it so now I use electrical vinyl tape. It is important that it is flat and doesn’t move around. If it moves, you will get a fuzzy or doubled up etch.

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Your set up is not going to look like this unless you are using a Marking  Methods machine. But it will be pretty close. One lead is clipped onto  the knife, the other lead is plugged into a clear lucite block that  holds a piece of graphite. Over the graphite is a pad that will hold  etch solution as it is pressed over the stencil. I use vinyl electrical  tape to mask off the area and to hold the stencil in place.

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This blurry blob of a picture shows me etching a knife.
Applying the etching lead, count slowly 1-2-3, lift slightly, do it again, etc. This will vary from machine to machine and various steel types and only experimentation will give you consistent results. Experiment and record your best results.
 


Making your own stencil

There are several different manufactures of stencil material and methods of making them. We will use IMG materials for this tutorial.

The overall process is fairly simple.


First we need to make a light box. The hardest part will be finding a box you want to use. It can be made from wood, metal or plastic, it really doesn't matter. Don't get too hung up on finding the perfect box -but every one does. The stencils we will be making are only going to be a couple of inches square. The box has only one function, to expose the photo sensitive stencil material to a light source. You really don't even need a box, you can just work in a darkened room (you will have a dim yellow colored bug light on to see - the stencil material is not sensitive to yellow light) , flip the light on, time it, flip the light off, develop it. No one reading this will stand for such a simple deal so all of you are going to have to make your own light box. Keep it simple - every one gets worked up about the box and they shouldn't. It has to hold a light socket and a 100 watt florescent light bulb. It needs a lid and a piece of opaque plastic for the light to shine through. That's it.

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Here is my light box. It is some kind of electrical utility box I bought at Home Depot. The lid was made to screw into place. I used Duct tape for a hinge (see below) and it works great. I bought a piece of scrap opaque Plexiglas at the local closeout store for a buck. This box is maybe 9”x9”x4”. At Home Depot I also bought a lamp rewire/repair kit. It had a light socket, cord and switch all for a couple bucks. The light is a 60 watt florescent screw in light bulb, I'd get a 100 watt if I were you. It will be a couple minutes quicker. Looking at the top of the lid, I mounted some craft foam from Wal-Mart. It's about 1/16” thick foam that is the in fabric department. Go ask the ladies back there for it. They'll get a kick out of how lost you look in the fabric's and craft department. I used White, I should have used black to absorb stray light that leaks around the back of the stencil. Felt would work just fine also. It is simply there to hold the stencil and transparency in place. Line the box with aluminum foil to reflect more light. I didn't but Bob Warner does his that way. I forgot to. This picture is taken with the light box on and under yellow light. Note the hotspot of light in the light box. That is where I place the stencils.

My sophisticated developer tools. One Ducks Unlimited high ball glass, acid brush, dixie cup with measuring lines for mixing and off to the side that you can't see is a stop watch I wear around my neck for timing and a little goose neck lamp with a yellow 60 watt bug light bulb in it. I use the glass to develop the stencil in. The developer solution is mixed in a ratio with plain tap water. The IMG process we are using here uses 3 parts water to 1 part solution. A small amount is all you need for several stencils. I just grabbed a glass I had around the house. Who drinks high balls anymore anyway? I wrote the instructions, mixing ratios and exposure times I have settled on right on the light box in sharpie marker. It won't get lost that way and I know I will forget it all between uses. I write on a lot of my tools.

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My light box with some acetate transparencies. Bob Warners is much fancier. You can see the designs on the acetate sheets are a little different. I've been experimenting with etching different designs on bolsters for faux engraving. I have mixed feelings on this. On some knives it comes out and looks fairly decent. On other knives it looks cheap. An etch like this will never come close to replacing engraving but it can add something to a knife if it is done right. When I've shown a knife with patterns etched in to people, even to some other knife makers, they thought it was engraving. It will never fool any one with a good knowledge of engraving but a lot of people like it. These patterns came from copy right free CD-ROM’s from Dover Publications. I've also made a few using my CAD program. Keep in mind getting very fine lines to reproduce in your stencil will take some practice and trial and error testing, but it can be done. The stencil material is no where near as light sensitive as photo film is so a little light in the room is OK but if you find that the fine lines never quite develop as well as you like, your stencil material may have been exposed.

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Here is the only picture I have of an etched knife with a pattern from one of the Dover books. See how the name is etched in and has been etched black. The pattern etch has been engraved with a frosted background which is another switch on the Marking Methods machine. You can etch your name in a knife blade almost as deep as a hot stamp will be for forgers. You will have to decide if you like the affect or not.
 

If I did it over again, I would make the light box big enough to use for (small) knife pictures also. I use a stopwatch to time the exposures. Set the timer, hang it around your neck, go do something until it beeps. There is a lot of tolerance in exposure times so hitting the exact second of your established exposure time isn't real critical. There are only vague guidelines given for exposure times since the light level will vary so much. I suggest you start with a small test logo at 2 minutes and keep doubling the times until you find the sweet spot by going past it and exposing the stencil material too long. It will take 4 or 5 trial runs to zero on an acceptable time. (I bolded that as every one seems to miss it) Use fresh developer and constant temperature water with each trial run so you eliminate those variables. After you have the exposure time established, you can get several stencils developed from one small batch of solution. Keep in mind the cost of this is very minimal given the small amount of materials so I use fresh developer for every stencil. It will make a difference in the quality of your stencil.

 Exposing and Developing the Stencil

Lights out in the room, safety light on (the yellow bug light). Make sure your stencil material is not yellow light sensitive. I use IMG’s stencil material. If you use some thing else, check their instructions.

Open the stencil material light tight bag, cut a small piece, approximately 2” square. Excess stencil material back in the bag and seal it right away.

Place your mask (see below -the pattern you printed out on your printer) on the light table.

Place the stencil material on top of the mask. Close the lid. Turn on the light table for how ever many minutes you need to.

Light table off, put the stencil material into the already mixed up solution to develop.

Swirl it around, use an brush to help the developer work better. In a nut shell, where ever light strikes the stencil, that material stays in place. The mask blocks light from striking the stencil in some places and the developer solution dissolves that material leaving a very fine screen mesh - just like a silk screen for marking T-shirts. Once it the stencil has completely developed, run it under cool water for a bit to get rid of any remaining chemical.

Let it dry for a few minutes and it's good to go.

A couple hints.

  Use a stop watch, track your exposure times until you get good, consistent results.

  I never measured my water temperature when making developer but I did make it a point to get to what I felt was room temperature just to make that a non-variable. I'd almost best too warm or too cold of water will affect the developing process.

  Very fine lines in your pattern just seem to be more trouble than they are worth.

 Bob Warner has an excellent tutorial on how to make a light box at http://www.warnerknives.com/

 

Making a Pattern Mask

  I use my ink jet printer and I have used a laser jet printer. I buy the overhead transparency material that is made either for the ink jet or laser jet. It's available at the big box stores and office supply stores. Buy the small package. How many different 2”x2” logo’s will you need? A dozen will fit on one page and you probably only bought a page or two of stencil material.

If I am doing an ‘artsy’ logo, I scan in an image from Dover’s books http://store.doverpublications.com/ or I'll make a simple one in a word processor. It will need to be the exact size you want on your knife. I usually make several sizes on one sheet as the transparency material is a little pricey. Make it print on the finest resolution your printer can go and set it for the blackest print out it can be. The pattern has to block light to work. Blacker, darker, highest resolution, highest contrast is best. Your pattern is limited only by your imagination.

 

Making your own Electro-Etch Machine

  Again, it is Bob Warner to the rescue. He has plans for one here: http://www.warnerknives.com/

 Now Bob has just been getting hammered with questions for a couple years on these plans. He's answered most every one of them already here: http://www.knifenetwork.com/forum/forumdisplay.php?f=13 so please go there and do a search or post a message there for any questions. Do Bob a favor and don't email him a question like, “If I don't follow your plans and I substitute 10 different parts than what you specified, why doesn't it work? They are your plans.” I've seen some of the emails he gets like that. It's insane. He won't know the answer and doesn't want the liability if he did and you electrocuted yourself. There are several people that have made this etch machine and it is working great for them. Post your question on the forum there. I didn't build it, but the plans are pretty simple and straight forward. If you are on a strict budget, build it. If you can't solder, pony up the cash and buy one from the supplier listings at the end of this tutorial.


Conclusion

Making your own stencils is easy -- once you know how. Most are used for logos or makers marks but I think this process is over looked more than it should be, at least in the U.S. Etching is more common in Europe as a method to embellish knives and guns. Once you get up and going, start etching every thing you own just for the practice. I have a handsome set of hammers with multiple etches of my name on them for all posterity. You have read the entire sum of my knowledge and I encourage you to post any questions here: http://www.knifenetwork.com/forum/forumdisplay.php?f=13 after doing a search there first. I bet your question has already been answered.



Mike Fitz got busy and put together this great supplier listing. I have not verified it as I put together this tutorial so if you find a dead link or out dated information please let me know and I’ll update it. Expect the prices have probably increased a bit. Mike has put comments in on his experiences with many of the vendors. I have placed Ron Caiborne at the head of the list. He builds and sells a great unit, from many reports, that is fairly priced and he is active in the community.

 

List of Etching Suppliers

Researched and compiled by Mike Fitz

 

Ron Claiborne
2918 Ellistown Road
Knoxville TN 37924
865-524-2054

Contact: Ron Claiborne

Ron makes an etch machine for a reasonable cost that has good word of mouth support on the various knife forums.

ElectroChem-Etch
545 A West Lambert Road
Brea, CA 92821

ph. 714-671-7744

http://www.ecemmi.com/

Contact: Sy Haeri


Stencil supplied was a generic that said "YOUR NAME" curved over "CITY, STATE" in a green fabric with a shiny rubbery backing. Three sizes were supplied on one sheet, six stencils total, in a bold Arial-type font, ~ 3/16, 1/8, and 1/16" tall.
The letters cut deeply, evenly, and with very crisp edges to the letters. Cleaning by hand with a mild soap returned the stencil to nearly the original appearance.

Pricing: quoting Sy: " The cost of our green stencils for a 3x6" sheet is $12. Set up per logo is usually $30, unless it is something complicated. ... We attempt to fit as many images as possible depending on image size. Typically between 6 and 9 images, and they can be different sizes, too."

In addition to stencils, ElectroChem Etch markets the "Personalizer" and other etchers, and also a kit for making your own stencils

 

IMG-Electromark
P.O. Box 379
Utica, NY 13503

ph. 800-775-3824

http://www.img-electromark.com/

Contact: Patricia Bruno

Numerous stencils were supplied of typeface and small images of animals and fish. The material was a blue fabric with a shiny, nearly see-thru back. I found that this stencil is a bit more transparent to the current than some others and as such, heat became an issue. One needs less strikes (8-10) and must pay attention to the heat otherwise one would burn up the stencil. This is not a problem, but an observation regarding technique. 1/8" tall letters in a fine Arial-type font cut cleanly and deeply, with very crisp definition. 1/16" bolder Arial-type lettering cut very well, also, including the # sign that was in the type. ~5/8" tall images of an elk and a salmon cut very cleanly also, a good test of the mix of fine and bold portions of the image. Stencils seemed to clean up well, with some residue left in the finest portions of the elk image.

Pricing: per price sheet: "Artwork charges- one time only-For each new design....$35 Revision Charges..For Minor Revisions to existing Design.....$20. Stencils per sheet 2-1/2 x 7" $8.50; 3-3/4x7" $12.95; 5x7" $15.75." Pat said they are willing to mix sizes on one stencil sheet.

Pat was a joy to deal with and very helpful. They are very used to dealing with knifemakers, and are the supplier for the blank stencil material for making your own stencils, in addition to selling a full line of marking products and solutions.

Lectroetch Co.
5342 Evergreen Parkway
Sheffield Village, OH 44054

ph. 440-934-1293

http://lectroetch.com/

Contact: Dave in Sales

Stencils were supplied on a dark green fabric. Lectroetch used my MS Word file to generate my logo as a sample. The logo is 13/16" long and about 1/2" tall, with lettering 3/16" to 1/16" in an oddball font called Maiaindra bold. This is apprently a difficult font to work with, because unretouched, the stencils cut well but with alot of lack of definition to the edges. All 5 stencils on the sheet were tried with various numbers of strikes and current, but the lack of definition persisted. Some letters were crystal clear and crisp while others were a bit fuzzy. When contacted, Lectroetch immediately sent me another two samples, one on a higher-threads-per-inch fabric (gold) and one with the font replaced by a bold Arial-style. My logo still cut poorly with the "best" material, but the Arial-type on the green cut crisp and clear with no complaints. Apparently my font selection is a bit difficult to reproduce directly from a computer file.....After cleaning, there appeared to be a lot of metal residue in the stencil, but repeat etches were well done without loss of definition.

Pricing: per Dave Badt, Pres.: "our 2.5x7" stencil sheets cost $9.75 each, regardless of the quantity of images on the sheet. There is a $25 one time setup fee for each new artboard and plate we have to create.........I have mentioned my decision to waive our normal $25 minimum charge for the makers only... to better meet their smaller requirements."

This company went out of their way to be courteous and helpful. I apologize to them for giving artwork that was not readily amenable to direct use. Marking Methods were correct that this font needed detailing by hand. Lectroetch is very willing to deal with the small requests of the individual maker, and their stencil made from their artwork was as good as any. They come highly recommended as the stencil source for a couple of the knifemaker's supply houses. Anecdotally, I was told that their stencils lasted so long one person went to a new stencil out of a sense of guilt...LOL. In addition to the stencils they carry a full array of equipment and supplies. Very prompt and professional, a joy for the small customer.

Marking Methods, Inc.
301 South Raymond Ave.
Alhambra, CA 91803

ph. 626-282-8823

http://www.markingmethods.com/

Contact: Customer Service

My original post regarding my dealings with MM:
http://www.ckdforums.com/showthread...=&threadid=7740
While I must say they aggravate me very much because of the way they conduct business, I am obligated to say they make a fine product. I have used my Mark 300 for nearly 17 years without problem and the stencils have always cut beautifully; despite having an apparently difficult font to reproduce, they did it by hand and the stencil cuts as crisp as anyone's.

Pricing: $12 per sheet for gold stencils..they wouldn't cut mine on the green stuff. $20 plate charge. $21.73 art charge per plate. I had my logo reproduced in three sizes, one sheet each, 5 per sheet. Cost was around $170 total.

 

Martronics Corp.
P.O. Box 200
Salkum, WA 98582

ph. 800-775-0797

http://www.martronics-corporation.com/

Contact: Shirley


Three stencils on three different materials were supplied. My small 5/8" logo was provide on a purple fabric. It seems someone may have been eating a snickers when they packaged it, as it arrived gooey and dirty, plus it had a crease in it. It cut terrible, with ill-defined and incomplete letters. A second stencil made from a green rubbery-backed fabric saying "SAMPLE MARK" in 1/4" tall bold Arial-type font cut very clean and crisp. The third stencil was a very large version of my logo, ~ 2", on a blue plastic film, which looked like someone had done a drum-beat on it with a butterknife edge.. there were creases all over it. Despite this, it cut very well.

Pricing: per e-mail from Lisa: I couldn't get a real good breakdown for pricing, perhaps I asked the questions wrong. I sent my artwork and asked for a quote for one sheet each in three sizes. Their response: "for one sheet of 5-6 stencils using the artwork that you e-mailed to me the cost would be right around $70 no more. For one sheet of 5-6 stencils and artwork that we had to create or do a lot of work on the cost would be $70 for the stencils and $25-$50 for the art and plate." They are really expensive or really cheap, I can't quite figure out what they mean. Perhaps they'll clarify.

Martronics is the manufacturer of the "Etch-o-Matic" etcher and sells the appropriate supplies, also.

 

Monode Marking Products, Inc.
7620 Tyler Blvd.
Mentor, OH 44060

ph. 440-975-8802

http://www.monode.com/

Contact: Karen Wagner, Sales Manager

The stencil supplied was on a purple fabric, and contained letters ranging from an artistic font italic "Monode" 3/8" tall to a phone number line in letters 1/16" in an Arial-type font. The stencil cut very cleanly and crisply across this broad range of sizes, with the only exception being a little blurriness on this really tiny "TM" after the "Monode".

Pricing: per telephone: Camera charge is $15. Art charge is $24, $15 for revisions such as a city change. Multiple sizes on the same sheet have a $32 art charge. 2-1/2x7" stencil sheets with 4-5 images per sheet are $10.90 each.

Monode carries an extensive line of etching devices and products, along with stamps, hot stamps, and stencil making equipment.

 

TUS Technologies
537 State Road
N. Dartmouth, MA 02747

ph. 508-997-3200

http://www.tustech.com/admin/home

Contact: Juergen Hallemeier

Various stencil samples were supplied on a brown fabric, available in two weights. The first stencil was in a Times-Roman serif font about 1/4" tall, and cut very well. A second stencil in a handwritten-signature style with very bold letters 1/8-3/8" tall also cut excellently. The third stencil was multiple sizes of an Arial-type font ranging from ~3/8" tall bold "T.U.S." to 1/16" fine phone number. ALl of these sizes cut very crisp and cleanly also. These stencils also exhibited a high "transparency" to the current, cutting very fast, and generating a lot of heat at the conditions chosen. Care must be taken too avoid burning the stencils.

Pricing: per Juergen: "A typical sheet stencil 2-1/2"x7-1/2" with 5-6 impressions is $12.40 each. The setup charge is $20-for 4 impressions, $22-for five, and $24-for 6 impressions, using e-mailed art as you recently supplied." I make the assumption there would be an additional charge for TUS generating the artwork or retouching a supplied computer file.

TUS is very anxious to serve the knifemaking community and has contacted me by phone to see if I was satisfied. They carry an array of equipment and supplies.

Mickley Custom Knives

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