Day 6, Thursday October 29th, Week 14

Etching       Dave Sully gave a quite rapid and quiet introduction, describing the tools and equipment.  Then we toured the workshop and looked at the various processes.  Copper plate, ‘ground’, engraving tools, acid (ferric chloride), ink, press and paper.  We are using a ‘hard ground’ made of beeswax, resin, bitumen.  Smoking taper, stop-out varnish and white spirit completed the main tools, but there are more, and plenty to learn.  Dave went on to describe the process; he demonstrated the plate preparation and explained the various stages.

Dave blackening a coated plate with a taper
Dave blackening a coated plate with a taper

Dave explained that etching is about the time spent by the plate in the acid – the ‘bite’ into the plate.  Times are coded in a table; for today’s effort we will trying about an hour.

After this we were each given a copper plate about 15cm x 10cm and set about filing the edges so as to avoid a line at the edge of the print. We degreased (using household ammonia), coated and smoked each plate and then started drawing onto the plate – scraping away the ground.

At lunchtime the drawn plates were put into the acid after putting tape on the back to form a handle and to protect the plate.

In the afternoon we retrieved the plates, washed off the acid and prepared them for printing by washing off the ground in a white spirit bath. I noticed several unwanted scratches on mine and tried to polish them out. Dave demonstrated applying the ink and making a print.  Plate face up on a sheet of newsprint paper on the print bed, several small plates at a time, then the print paper, damp but excess moisture removed, then a sheet of tissue then the blanket, then turn the wheel to move the bed under the roller.  Blanket off, then recycle the tissue and …

A plate on the press, waiting for damp paper, blanket, then pressed.
A plate on the press, waiting for damp paper, blanket, then pressed.

My first attempt was much too pale – not enough pummelling to get the ink into the etch. Second attempt was darker and a third was a little darker still.  I could see several unwanted scratches.

My first attempt at etching
My first attempt at etching

My overall impression of the process was that to achieve good results a serious attention to detail was needed, and a good understanding of the fine points of the process. Several members of the group had better results than me and I felt I had rather rushed at it – patience! I enjoyed the session and look forward to a more leisurely attempt.

My plate being inked
My plate being inked

There is obviously lots to learn about this deceptively simple process.  Most of our group wanted to try aquatint as soon as possible and as we have time next week and Dave is available we voted to do this.  One question I didn’t ask but should have is if a plate is prepared in the workshop is it robust enough to take elsewhere to be drawn on?  I think a paper wrapping might not be sufficient protection, perhaps polystyrene packaging might work?

Nit picking: I was a little concerned at the shortage of space to sit with knees under a bench, I worked at the filing bench.  In the adjoining area where there are desks these were all taken by another group.  There is only one small hand basin for the whole room and no strong hand cleaner. There are no coat hangers, or rather there are four hangers where the inky aprons are hung so coats and bags were piled onto the floor. The disposable gloves were very flimsy, not really up to the job, so inky fingers, which is to be expected to some extent on a printing course but then stronger hand cleaner is needed.  I am resolved to get my own overall or apron and longer life gloves, if possible, and some gel hand cleaner.  That will also mean using a bag which is good for inky things.

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