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Designer etching with a nail polish resist

Create crisp lines and consistent results in your etched jewelry pieces

When I saw these fingernail image plates on sale at the local mall, the metalsmith in me immediately wanted to experiment with using them on metal. I do a lot of etching with PNP paper and nail polish, so I knew any technique able to transfer nail polish images to metal would work for etching. The effectiveness of this kit is in the simplicity of its tools, which consist of stainless steel image plates, a scraper, and a stamper. 

Click below for instructions, or click here for the free project PDF, with additional information on using, storing and disposing the acid for etching.

Materials

  • Sterling silver sheet, 24 gauge (0.5 mm) (amount is dictated by your design)

Additional tools & supplies

  • Stainless steel fingernail image plates, stamper, and scraper
  • Metal shears or a jeweler’s saw with a 4/0 blade
  • Thick nail polish
  • Acetone-based nail polish remover
  • Packing or duct tape (optional)
  • Etchant (such as nitric acid)
  • Glass container (for acid bath)
  • Plastic or bamboo tongs
  • Baking soda

Toolbox: Finishing

Instructions

Designer etching with a nail polish resist 1
Photo 1
Designer etching with a nail polish resist 2
Photo 2

Plan your design and make a template. The key to getting your etchings to come out the way you want them is to plan your design before starting. Each image plate has six to eight images, from smaller graphic designs to full-nail designs [1]. If you’re careful, you can even plan out pieces that use more than one image.

I like to create paper templates by sketching the desired shape of my piece, folding the paper in half along the midline of the form, and then cutting out the shape [2]. This creates a symmetrical template you can trace onto your metal.

Alternatively, you can use plastic or metal shape templates. These are especially handy for standard shapes, or shapes you want to reproduce several times with consistent results. Once you have determined the overall shape of your piece, decide where on that shape you want to etch the images from the plates. Remember, the areas covered by nail polish will be the raised parts of your etched design. To demonstrate this technique, I made a pair of earrings.

Designer etching with a nail polish resist 3
Photo 3

Cut out the metal shapes. Use a permanent marker to trace your templates onto 24-gauge (0.5 mm) sterling silver sheet [3]. Cut out the shapes with a metal shears, or saw them out with a jeweler’s saw and a 4/0 blade. Use a hand file to file the edges and sandpaper from 220 to 400 grit to sand them smooth.

If you are joining your metal shapes using jump rings, as I did, use a center punch or an awl to make a divot at each place where you want a hole, then drill the holes with the appropriate size drill bit. 

NOTE: A second design option is stamping a nail polish design onto your metal sheet, then cutting out a shape to frame the stamped design. This free-form approach may suit your design style better, but it’s also easier to chip or mar your nail polish design while you are cutting or sanding the metal. If this happens, you’ll have to remove the affected areas with nail polish remover and restamp the image.

Assemble your materials. Once you’ve chosen which plates to use, put the other plates away to avoid clutter and confusion. It’s a good idea to keep a cotton ball saturated with nail polish remover handy; you’ll use the cotton ball to clean your plate, stamper, and scraper after each stamping to ensure the clearest image transfer. I also like to keep paper towels handy to wipe off excess nail polish.

Set a few paper towels down as a work surface, and loosen the top of your bottle of nail polish enough so that it’s easily accessible but not enough that it will spill if you knock it over.

NOTE: You can buy nail polish formulated specifically for this technique, but it is expensive. I’ve found that older nail polish works well; most nail polishes will thicken over time, which is exactly what you need for this technique. Children’s nail polish or thin nail polish will not give you good results. Color doesn’t matter; choose a color that you can see on the metal.

Designer etching with a nail polish resist 4
Photo 4
Designer etching with a nail polish resist 5
Photo 5
Stamp the designs. Apply nail polish to the image plate, fully covering your selected design [4]. Using the scraper tool, scrape over the whole design, pulling the nail polish off the surface of the plate onto the paper towel. The only nail polish left should be in the design, not on the surface. You can pass the scraper over the design more than once if you are working with a large design — just make sure to wipe the extra nail polish from the scraper onto the paper towel between passes [5]
Designer etching with a nail polish resist 6
Photo 6
Designer etching with a nail polish resist 7
Photo 7

Pick up the stamper. Most commercial nail stampers have two rubber stamping ends, one slightly smaller and firmer, the other larger and softer. Experiment to see which side works best for you. Hold the stamper with your chosen side toward the plate. Firmly roll the end of the stamper over the image [6] to pick up the nail polish design [7], and then firmly roll it over your metal using the same motion to deposit the image onto the metal’s surface.

NOTE: This process — paint, scrape, pick up the image with the stamper, and roll the image onto your metal — should only take approximately 30 seconds. Any longer than that, and the nail polish will begin to dry in the image plate and on the stamper.

Designer etching with a nail polish resist 8
Photo 8
Designer etching with a nail polish resist 9
Photo 9

Repeat to deposit all of your selected designs onto your metal [8]. If you make a mistake or are unsatisfied with the results, simply remove the nail polish from your metal with nail polish remover and restamp. This technique takes some getting used to, so don’t get discouraged if the images aren’t perfect right away. 

Etch the metal. Before submerging your piece in etchant, protect the back side, edges, and any other areas of your piece that you don’t want etched by painting them with nail polish. Allow the nail polish to dry completely.

NOTE: If your piece is large, you may want to use packing tape or duct tape on the back instead of nail polish.

Fill a glass container designated for etching only with just enough nitric acid or other silver etchant to cover your piece. Submerge the piece face up in the acid bath [9] and gently agitate the container to dislodge any air bubbles. Check the depth of the etch periodically with plastic or bamboo tongs, and remove the piece from the acid once the desired depth has been reached. Neutralize the acid on the metal with baking soda, and wash the piece thoroughly with soap and water.

SAFETY TIP: Acid is dangerous if it comes into contact with skin or eyes, and it also has harmful fumes. Wear protective gloves, safety glasses, a respirator, and an apron when working with acid. Also, be careful when placing pieces into the acid bath, as dropped items can splash. If any spills occur, immediately neutralize the acid with baking soda. 

Finish and assemble. Remove any traces of nail polish with nail polish remover. Lightly sand your piece with 600-grit sandpaper to remove any oxidation that occurred during etching. (Don’t worry — a light sanding will not remove any detail.) If you wish to solder your etched piece as part of your design, use an anti-flux like yellow ochre to prevent solder from running into the etched areas. You can also apply liver of sulfur or another patina, then buff the high points of the etching to make the image stand out.

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