Create Character with Acid Etching
by Andrew Lunn
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It gives me pause to
think of the old masters. I’m inspired by
their works, and sometimes by their tools. Old
carved handplanes have to be some of my favorites.
Or tools made by anonymous craftsmen who bothered to
decorate them and make them extra special.
All things being equal,
I prefer the tool that is unique. So perhaps
not surprisingly, when it comes to making my own
tools, I have looked for ways to make them… well,
unique. And one technique I have found very
useful is acid etching.
In principle acid etching is
simple—metal is covered with a substance that will resist acid,
and the design you wish to impart to the metal is left
unprotected, exposing it to the acid’s bite. In practice,
however, acid etching is an art a lot like any other art, where
the best examples are produced by some deep alchemy of
experience, understanding, and talent.
After all, the greatest
practitioners of etching include the likes of Rembrandt and
Goya. But thankfully we don’t have to be Rembrandts or Goyas to
do a good job etching our tools! The fact that such notable
artists found etching worth their while simply means that
etching possesses sufficient range and subtlety to accommodate
anything you or I might imagine.
All that is required to get started
is an acid, a resist, and a stylus of some kind with which to
draw in the resist. And of course you need something to draw!
Coming up with a design is half the fun. My own designs
stem from my love of carving and from my fascination with
firearms engraving and medieval armor. I do a fair amount of
sketching to help sort out my thoughts, but then I stop short of
drawing anything I think of as “the” final design—the final
design gets drawn right onto the tool. I like the sort of
organized spontaneity that results that way—you aren’t doodling
on your tool, but you aren’t trying to just copy something
The former would lead to obvious
ruin, and the latter would likely result in a design that looked
stilted and tenuous,… as if you were copying. Of course if
you wanted there are techniques you can use to transfer an
entire design onto your tool without really having to draw it, a
process similar to using carbon paper to transfer designs in
carving. And then you could use the design over and over.
But there is something I like about one-of-a-kind items,
especially ones where you can see the lines and proportions
directly rendered by someone’s hand. There is something a
little magical about lines that were drawn at some former time
but that still have that flick and vitality that we so
intuitively sense is the stuff of life itself.