Etching, Engraving and Other Intaglio Printmaking Techniques

Etching, Engraving and Other Intaglio Printmaking Techniques

by Ruth Leaf

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Thorough, comprehensive handbook covers materials and equipment, tools, printing papers, presses, and other essentials. Detailed instructions for etching — hard ground, soft ground, aquatint, sugar lift — engraving, drypoint, collagraphs, tuilegraphs, and the Blake transfer method. Profusely illustrated; also includes bibliography and updated list of… See more details below


Thorough, comprehensive handbook covers materials and equipment, tools, printing papers, presses, and other essentials. Detailed instructions for etching — hard ground, soft ground, aquatint, sugar lift — engraving, drypoint, collagraphs, tuilegraphs, and the Blake transfer method. Profusely illustrated; also includes bibliography and updated list of suppliers. "Excellent, comprehensive . . . superbly organized." — AB Bookman's Weekly.

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Etching, Engraving and Other Intaglio Printmaking Techniques

By Ruth Leaf

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1976 Watson-Guptill Publications
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13924-1


Materials and Equipment

One of the most exciting aspects of printmaking is the great number of materials and pieces of equipment that you can use. There are, of course, certain things such as metal plates and acids that are indispensable—I describe them here so that you'll be able to work with them in later chapters. (See Supplies and Suppliers for information on where to buy these materials.)

However, you're not limited to the materials and equipment which I list. As you print, you may often discover new ways to use old objects—a scrap of lace may give you the texture you want, or spray paint may give you the fine aquatint you need.


You can use many different kinds of plates when you print—plates can be made of metal, plastic, Masonite, vinyl, asbestos, and other materials. With the different materials you can achieve different effects.

Zinc. Zinc is the metal most commonly used for etching plates since zinc is easier to work with than steel and less expensive than copper. You'll usually use nitric acid to etch zinc plates, the backs of which are coated with an acid-resistant material so the acid cannot react with the back surface of the plate.

When you etch a zinc plate, you can use any of the grounds described in this book. You can also use this kind of plate for engraving, although the burin will tend to slip: a sheet of zinc is not uniformly hard. Also, zinc is softer and coarser in structure than copper, the best metal to use for engraving.

You can buy zinc plates of .062 to 16 or 18 gauge. The 16 or 18 gauge is a standard commercial size and is therefore more easily obtained, although there are many other gauges—thicknesses—to choose from.

Finally, remember that zinc affects certain colors—yellow ink will turn greenish, and all other light colors such as white will turn slightly gray.

Steel. Polished or commercial grade mild steel—cold roll-.062 to 16 gauge is the best kind of steel to use for etching. You can pull many more prints on an etched or engraved steel plate than on a copper or zinc plate because steel is so much harder—lines and aquatints will wear down and hold less and less ink faster on copper and zinc than on steel. However, steel is very difficult to polish or scrape. Unless you purchase an already polished plate, your print will invariably have a darker tone than a print from a zinc plate bitten in the same manner. And if you want to remove scratches from the plate's surface, you'll have a very difficult time scraping them out.

The backs of steel plates are not usually acid-proof when purchased. Before placing a steel plate in acid—nitric acid—coat the back with a stopout solution, spray paint, or contact paper (see Chapter 12). Use any ground on a steel plate that you would use on a zinc plate, and also try using steel for engravings or drypoints.

Copper. The copper you use for etching and engraving should be cold-rolled, 16 or 18 gauge, and hard rather than soft. Soft copper, used for enameling, is less expensive.

The harder the copper, the better. Remember that rolled copper crystalizes in the direction in which it was rolled and will be harder in that direction. A hammered copper plate would be hard in all directions, but unfortunately, these plates are no longer available. Old copper plates, if you can find them, are as hard as hammered copper because copper crystalizes with time. Also, photoengravers work on copper plates-if you can find some of their used plates, polish the backs and use them.

Copper is very good for engraving and drypoint, as well as for etching. When you etch with copper use Dutch mordant, a solution that is made with hydrochloric acid. You can get very fine lines on a copper plate with hard ground. Soft ground, lift ground, and aquatint may also be used. Don't, however, use white ground on copper.

Copper plates can be purchased with an acid-resistant coating on the back surface. If the plate is not coated, apply a stopout solution to the back of the plate before you put it into the acid.

When you print with color on copper, note that the copper will interact chemically with vermilion. You can use any other color, in general, without trouble.

Brass. Brass plates are more expensive than zinc, are etched with Dutch mordant, and don't come with a acid-resistant coating on the back surface. They can be used in the same manner as copper plates.

Plastic. You can use plates made of Plexiglas, Lucite, or acetate for engravings and drypoints, but not for etching. Plastic plates are less expensive than metal, and they have the advantage of being transparent—you can place your plate directly over a drawing and engrave by tracing the design.

You can sand the surface of the plastic to give your prints some tone. For a variety of lines, try using a power tool to carve into the plate. Finally, remember that plastic scratches easily, so handle it carefully.

Masonite. Masonite can be carved with woodcutting tools and printed just like a metal plate. Or, you can use it as a base for a collagraph (see Chapter 20).

Vinyl Asbestos Tiles. These are the plates used in making tuilegraphs (see Chapter 21). The tiles are manufactured in three sizes: 9" × 18", 9" × 9", and 12" × 12". They come in many colors and textures, some of which can be used for printing reliefs or intaglios. You'll find that the light-colored, non-textured tile is the easiest to work with and draw on.


Grounds are substances used to coat all or part of the plate's surface. Some—such as hard ground, soft ground, and white ground—act as a stopout solution, an acid-resist. Other grounds—such as lift ground and aquatint—are used with stopouts to create the image on the plate. See Chapters 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 for further information.

Keep all of your grounds in containers with tight covers to keep dirt and metal particles out and to prevent the solvent in the grounds from evaporating. If the solvent evaporates, the remaining ground becomes hard.

Hard and soft grounds are both used with brushes kept in separate coffee cans full of varnolene (see Figure 1). Thus you can use the brush at any time. Don't put the soft ground brush into the hard ground or vice versa. If, by mistake, you put the hard ground brush into the soft ground, clean the brush with varnolene and then wash it very thoroughly with mild soap and cold water. If you put the soft ground brush into the hard ground, skim off the surface of the hard ground to make sure that no soft ground remains. Clean the brush with varnolene, but don't use soap and water.


You'll use acids to bite metal plates, and you'll need various chemicals to make biting solutions (see Figure 2). Different acids react with different plates. Never put two plates of different metals in the same acid bath either at the same time or at different times. If you do, the acid will act as a conductor, depositing, for instance, zinc on steel and steel on zinc, and you'll have to throw out both plates and the solution.

Nitric Acid. Combine ACS commercial grade nitric acid with water to bite zinc and steel plates. You can also use this acid to bite copper if you want a very rough bite.

Hydrochloric Acid and Potassium Chlorate Crystals. Combine these two materials to make Dutch mordant, a solution that is used to bite copper or brass slowly.

Bicarbonate of Soda. Also known as baking soda, this can be used as a safety device to stop the action of any acid if it overheats while you're biting a plate. You'll know acid is overheating when it turns muddy yellow in color and starts to boil and smoke. If you don't have bicarbonate of soda handy when this happens, throw lots of cold water into the acid bath. Remove the plate from the bath with gloves on—the metal will be very hot.

You can also add bicarbonate of soda or baking soda to acid to stop its biting action completely before you throw it down the sink—this will help your metal plumbing last longer.


Solvents dilute and dissolve various materials which you'll use when you make a plate and print it. Among other things, you'll use solvents to clean grounds off your plate, dissolve aquatints made with rosin, dilute asphaltum, and liquify hard and soft grounds. Store all solvents in metal containers with tight, screw-on metal covers (see Figures 1 and 3).

Varnolene. This is an inexpensive thinner which is used instead of turpentine for cleaning plates during printing if you switch colors, for cleaning the bed of the press after printing, and for thinning and removing grounds. When added to hard ground and asphaltum, varnolene keeps them liquid. You'll also use this solvent to clean glass and marble slabs, palette knives, and brushes.

Benzine. You can use benzine in place of varnolene for the same purposes.

Kerosene. You need kerosene to clean rollers—leave a residue of this solvent on plastic or gelatin rollers to help preserve them. Never use benzine on a roller —it will dry out the surface. You can also use kerosene to clean a plate before you put it away for the day: a film of kerosene left on the plate will keep the moisture in the air from corroding its surface (see Chapter 23).

Denatured Alcohol. When combined with rosin, this solvent forms a rosin stopout solution (see Chapter 6). Denatured alcohol is also used for removing aquatint and rosin stopout from plates and brushes.

Spirits of Turpentine. This solvent is not used often in printmaking because it tends to be more expensive and oilier than paint thinners like varnolene.

Xylene. This solvent can be used to make hard ground—it acts to combine the powdered ingredients quickly. You don't have to use xylene for this purpose if you just cook the ground longer. Please note that xylene is a highly inflammable solvent.

Acetone. This solvent is used on vinyl asbestos tiles to roughen the tile and cause a tone to appear when the tile is printed. Acetone is also a solvent for spray paint, which can be sprayed on a plate to obtain a very fine aquatint.


There are basically two kinds of inks you'll use—intaglio inks and surface inks. Intaglio inks are the inks you'll push into the crevices of your plate. After your whole plate is covered, you'll then wipe off the top surfaces with paper, tarlatan, or your hand. Surface inks are the inks you'll roll on the cleaned top surfaces of the plate, over the intaglio, with a roller.

Keep all intaglio inks that don't come in their own cans or tubes in jars with screw tops, such as mayonnaise jars, baby food jars, or cold cream jars (see Figure 4). The tops of these jars and cans often become very difficult to open after you use the ink once or twice. Use a small screwdriver to pry the lid gently to break the seal of dry ink that glues the lid to the jar.

When you're finished printing, put a layer of water in the jar or can to prevent a skin of dried ink from forming on the surface. The water won't affect the ink in any way-just remember to pour it off before you use the ink again.

Offset inks, used by commercial printers, are suitable for surface printing. You can add magnesium carbonate to these surface inks to make them thicker for use as an intaglio ink if you don't mix your own intaglio ink from powders and oil. In general, intaglio inks should be thicker than surface inks. To make the commercial inks dry slower, add a touch of vegetable shortening to the ink and mix it in thoroughly. To keep surface inks for use another day, wrap them in tinfoil or wax paper and put them into a freezer.

If you try the viscosity method of printing (see Chapters 16 and 17), it would be a good idea to get surface inks made by the Lorilleux Company in France (see Supplies and Suppliers).


There are several types of oils that you may want to use in conjunction with your inks and when you work on the plate.

Raw Linseed Oil. You'll need raw linseed oil to combine it with both surface and intaglio inks to thin them and to make the ink less viscous, or oilier. Keep your raw linseed oil in a container such as a vinegar cruet that will allow you to control the flow of the liquid, drop-by-drop.

Heavy Plate Oil. This is linseed oil that has been boiled and reduced to 1/5 of its original volume (don't confuse plate oil with boiled linseed oil). Heavy plate oil is extremely viscous, or thick, and is used for making intaglio inks.

3-in-1 Oil. You can use this machine oil on an India oil stone when you sharpen tools, although a thin film of kerosene would be better. Also coat your plate with it when you scrape and burnish the surface.


Rollers come in various sizes (see Figure 5)—the length and diameter of the roller needed depends on the size of the plate you are printing. A roller will cover a plate three times the size of the diameter of a roller and one time its length. For example, the largest plate a roller 3? in diameter and 10? long will cover is 9" × 10". Or, the largest plate a roller 4? in diameter and 10? long will cover is 12? × 10?.

Rollers can be made of plastic, gelatin, or rubber. Gelatin rollers, and some plastic rollers are very soft—they'll sink into deeply bitten areas of your plate as well as cover the surface. Other plastic rollers and some rubber rollers are medium rollers—they won't sink into your plate as much as a soft roller will. The hard rollers are usually made of a synthetic rubber. When you roll them over your plate, they'll touch only the top surfaces.

When you purchase rollers, the word "durometer" will be used to designate the hardness or softness of the roller: the durometer of a soft roller would be about 10 to 20; that of a medium roller would be about 25 to 30; and the durometer of a hard rubber roller would be from 50 to 60.

Rollers are expensive, and the larger ones are custom-made. It usually takes from six weeks to three months, depending on the kind of roller purchased, from the date of your order to the delivery.

Always clean a roller after you use it. Apply kerosene liberally and wipe the roller until no more ink comes off on a clean wiping cloth. Always leave a film of kerosene on a plastic or gelatin roller when you put it away to keep it soft and pliable. Wipe rubber rollers dry. You can wash rubber with soap and water after you wipe them with kerosene if you want to. If you do wash them with soap and water, dry them thoroughly. New materials are always being used to make rollers. Therefore, when buying a custom-made roller, ask the manufacturer what solvent he recommends.

Large rollers, with handles on both sides, should have a box or blocks on which to rest the handles while you're printing (see Figure 6). When you're finished printing, hang them in a dust-free place, if possible (see Figure 7). At no time should anything touch the surface of the roller besides a wiping cloth, kerosene, or the plate. Plastic and gelatin rollers will take on the shape of anything that touches them. If you rest one, for instance, against a pegboard wall even for a short time, the roller will have a perfect impression of the pegboard embossed on its surface.

Small plastic and gelatin rollers come with projections attached for the roller to rest on while they aren't being used. Small rollers should have a screw eye or a hole to screwing hook at the end of their handles so that they can be hung up when you're finished printing.


Blankets, or printing felts, are placed over your damp paper and plate before you print. The blankets act as a cushion as the pressure of the press pushes the paper into the lines and crevices of the plate to pick up the ink.

Blankets should either be finely woven or made of pressed wool felt. You'll need three blankets, two of 1/16" thickness and one of 1/8" thickness (see Figure 8). When you print, you'll place the two thinner blankets directly over the damp paper and plate—the thicker blanket goes on top, under the roller. It's a good idea to rotate the two thinner blankets when the one closest to the paper becomes very damp or absorbs the sizing of the paper.

When the blankets become stiff with sizing, you must wash them. This is an arduous job which cannot, unfortunately, be done by a machine. Wash the printing blankets in a mild soap and ammonia solution in cold water. Use a nail brush to scrub them, and than press out the soap and water—never twist or wring a printing blanket. When you finish, place the blankets on newsprint or on a blotter on a flat surface to dry. Never hang a blanket over a clothesline, or the line will become embossed into the blanket and will affect your prints. If possible, have two sets of blankets—when one set is being washed, you can use the other.


Excerpted from Etching, Engraving and Other Intaglio Printmaking Techniques by Ruth Leaf. Copyright © 1976 Watson-Guptill Publications. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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