How Plates are Prepared for Etching

Tueeulala Falls

Tueeulala Falls, etching, ©2009, Julianne B Ricksecker


Last week I started preparing plates for a new series of etchings for the “7 Printmakers” exhibit in San Diego in October. I wondered as I worked how many non-etchers know what goes into preparing metal plates to create an original etching?

Milled plate surface

Milled plate surface

Etchings are original prints, printed on paper from a plate that was created by the artist, and inked and  printed by hand by the artist or a master printer.  See Intaglio Printmaking Technique for a little more information about etching the image and printing the plate.

Before the image-making work can even begin, there is work to prepare the plate for the process. I work on zinc, which is milled in such a way that the plate is smooth and flat, but it has a dull surface with a vague pattern from the milling. If inked and printed without any prep work, the plate would produce a uniform dirty grey tone.

Plate Preparation Supplies

Plate Preparation Supplies

In order to create a surface that will wipe clean for printing (remain white in the final print), it is necessary to polish the surface of the plate to nearly a mirror shine. I start by polishing the surface with a fine sandpaper, and then use progressively finer sanding films.  The last few polishes are done using very fine polishing compounds on a soft cloth.  #0000 steel wool is used to buff a nice shine.

Dull unpolished plate surface

Dull unpolished plate surface




The purpose of all this polishing is to create a very slick surface that will not hold ink when the plate is wiped for printing. It is important to create this surface before creating the image in the plate, as the act of polishing would alter the etched image. (Note the dull finish of the plate in the photo at left, and the mirror like shine in the photo at right.  The pencil is used here just to illustrate the reflectivity of the two plates.)

Reflective surface after polishing

Reflective surface after polishing



The second important step in plate preparation is beveling the plate to remove the sharp edges and corners so that the plate will go through the press without tearing the paper and the felt blankets.  Sometimes I (impatiently) skip this step until I am ready for proofing the plate, but it is safer to bevel the plate before the image is created!  A slip of the beveling tool could damage the image, I have learned to my dismay!


Unbeveled plate edge



I was taught to bevel etching plates using a metal file, but I get better results using an edging tool made for beveling plexiglass.  It allows me to shave the edges of the plate into a nice rounded bevel.  (Beveling tool is pictured at the bottom of the photo of supplies.)  The plate is clamped overhanging the edge of a table, and the tool is repeatedly scraped down the length of the plate until the desired bevel is achieved.


Beveled edge of etching plate

Beveled edge of etching plate



The scraping leaves scratch marks that can hold ink, so the bevel will need to be burnished and polished before edition printing. I usually wait until all of the etching of the plate is complete before finishing the beveled edge to a smooth shine.


Next time I will write more about how the design is etched into the plate.







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4 Responses to How Plates are Prepared for Etching

  1. Joe Darin says:

    Wonderfully written description of creating a plate for an etching. I didn’t realize how much work goes into creating the plate before starting to create the image on it. Very informative and beautifully illustrated.

  2. Julianne says:

    Thanks Joe! As a fellow artist in the San Diego art community, I know you are aware of a lot of the “behind the scenes” work that goes into creation and display of art for different media. I remember learning about old masters’ workshops where the apprentices did the work of preparing the surface for their master to create upon. I have often wished I had that kind of help in the studio!

  3. Rick Wallace says:

    can you recommend a good book I can buy that will give some detailed info into etching. I’m thinking zinc plates and a scribe will be the easiest path for me from pen and ink to etching. The detailed pen and inks I do I don’t sell or post online, they have been for family… but with etching I can make more than one and hand color. I think )

    • Julianne says:

      That’s a lovely idea Rick. I have a few hand-colored etchings in my floral page that were fairly simple line drawings, hand colored after printing. It can be simple or very elaborate. A thought for you, however. Making the plate sounds like something you will enjoy, but the printing requires a press capable of pushing the paper fibers into the plate. That can be a significant investment unless you have access to a studio or school where you could rent press time (and a little guidance on inking and wiping and printing, the first few times). A great starter book for traditional etching is Ross and Romano’s The Complete Printmaker. It gives the basics for all of the kinds of printmaking. Unless it has been revised, it does NOT have some of the newer “non-toxic” methods – I don’t use those and so I don’t know what the good books for those newer methods are. Good luck and let me know how it works for you!

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