Intaglio Steel Etching Printed and Framed by Jenny Gunning

A Small Description.  

Intaglio Etching is a traditional and amazing way to make plates and print from them. Working from an original drawing, the line is drawn backwards onto the plate through the wax ground that has been dabbed or rolled onto a degreased plate.

The mordant or acid will etch the intaglio line into the etching plate either as variations or the same depths of line. An Aquatint is then sprinkled onto the surface of the plate either by hand, pot or box and melted using a hotplate, oven or blow torch. Each tone from white to dark is painted out and each time the plate is put into the acid bath for a period of time. The longer the plate is in the acid the deeper the acid etches around the aquatint powder which creates very small crevices that the ink can sit in. The deeper these crevices the more ink they will hold and the darker the tone will print. Once you have made your intaglio plate it is ready to print.

Materials Needed

For making the Intaglio Etching plate

For printing the Intaglio Etching plate 


1. Choose your image. Find your drawing, design or photograph that you would like to make a plate of. Use Photoshop and rotate it horizontally it so its backwards (as it will print backwards) either use carbon paper or scribble on the back of the paper so that you can draw and transfer the lead across onto the metal grounded plate. If you are tracing your image from your own drawing it is simple to retrace onto the plate by turning the tracing paper upside down so your ready to inscribe it into the plate. If you are tracing a photograph the same applies. Make sure the size of your plate is the same size of your drawing.

2. Preparing your plate to ground and then draw your image. Clean your edges of your plate by filing them so they are not sharp and make sure the metal you are using is clean with no blemishes where you don’t want them as these will hold ink and print.

Metals used for Etching

  • Aluminium – this is a soft metal that gives good line and tone quickly but not good for long print runs.
  • Copper – this is apparently and historically the best metal to use and the most expensive, it gives excellent line, good tones and very good whites. The print run is not half as good as steel.
  • Zinc – this is the students metal but you can get great and quick results from it. The print run from a Zinc plate is small as its a soft metal to work with.
  • Steel – you have to work at steel but you can get an excellent range of tones and lines and very good backs and whites. Steel gives very large print runs. 

Dave Gunning Stonehenge Steel Etching Plate

Each metal gives a different result and will react differently to the etchant or mordant that you use.

Follow this link to see the Etching Acids Recipes. Here you will see the acids and mordants and the metals that they etch with the recipes of how to mix.

3. Degreasing the plate. If you are using zinc, copper or aluminium they usually come polished where as mild steel comes needing to be cleaned and polished. Which ever metal you are using you will need to degrease the plate. Use washing up liquid as this does the trick very nicely and it negates having to go to the trouble to mix up whiting powder and other ingredients to come up with a degreaser.

4. Dry your plate using a very clean towel or rag. Put your plate on the hotplate to heat up. Depending on what hotplate you have or what ground your using you will need your hotplate to be around 90 degrees.

(For those of you who do not own a hotplate you can use a blow torch to heat your plate up and then apply your ground with a dabber or a roller. Or you can use liquid ground that you paint on or Lascaux Non Toxic Acrylic ground)

Grounds available to use are as follows

To apply the ball grounds heat your plate up on the hotplate at around 90 degrees, once your plate and hotplate is up to temperature draw on the ball ground and then either roll or dab the ground over the plate until its even all over.

5. Remove your plate from the hotplate and let it cool. It is now ready for you to either draw straight into the ground using etching needles

Or it is ready for you to trace your image onto the plate – remember to do this backwards. Trace the image as a whole onto the plate and then draw through the ground with your etching needles. Cross hatching and variations of line is good but do not get rid of large areas of the ground as you are just concentrating on line now NOT TONE.


Intaglio Etching Plate by Jenny Gunning

6. Paint the back of your plate out with Stop Out Varnish or Straw Hat Varnish

You can also paint out the front of your plate as well in between the lines that you have drawn or any areas that your ground might be looking weak or any areas that you feel you definitely do not want the acid or mordant to etch through. I have done this on the plate pictured above.

Stop Out Varnish is white spirit based, so you would clean it off with white spirit, this is a dark varnish so you can see where your painting. It takes longer to dry than straw hat varnish but you get cleaner lines and is easier to paint with.

or Straw Hat Varnish which is Methylated spirit based, so you would clean it off with Methylated Spirits. It drys a lot quicker than Stop Out Varnish, it paints out well and is clearer than Stop Out Varnish

7. Etching your Intaglio Line. Choose the etchant or mordant that suits your metal and etch your line. Follow this link to see the Etching Acids Recipes. Here you will see the acids and mordants and the metals that they etch with the recipes of how to mix.

No mater which etchant or mordant your using it will be the same process but the timings will vary. Its best to do test plates to determine what works for you and your choice of metal.

You are firstly etching your line, put your plate into the etchant or mordant for 5 minutes first and then take your plate out and check the depth of your line. You do this by putting your sharp etching tool into the line and feeling the depth of it.

Make sure you time how long the plate is in the acid or mordant for.

You can now etch many variations of line in your plate if you wish. You can do this by painting out lines with Stop Out Varnish or Straw Hat Varnish and putting your plate back into the acid or mordant to etch it deeper. Taking it out again and then painting more lines out and popping it back in again. The line that is longest in the acid or mordant will etch the deepest, and will hold the most amount of ink and print the darkest.


Intaglio Etching Print by Jenny Gunning Printed on the No 3 Press

If this is your first time etching make TEST PLATES and write all the timings down.

I always make around 4 large plates (no smaller than 16”’ x 20”) at the same time and this is how my last lot etched.

5 variations of line in Nitric acid. Water 5 Nitric Acid 1. Each line in for 5 minutes a line variation.

Then I applied my aquatint and etched 8 tones in total –

  • 1st Tone – 1 minutes
  • 2nd Tone – 1 minutes
  • 3rd Tone – 1 minutes
  • 4th Tone – 2 minutes
  • 5th Tone – 2 minutes
  • 6th Tone – 3 minutes
  • 7th Tone – 3 minutes
  • 8th Tone -5 minutes

8. Cleaning your Intaglio plate Once your happy that you have all the line etched you will now need to clean your plate off completely getting rid of the ground that you have put on. You can do this with which ever spirit the varnish you have used is made with. So methylated Spirit or White Spirit or you can spray with very strong floor cleaner and let soak for 5 minutes and then use a rag to wipe off wear a mask and gloves when doing this.

Next we are moving on to the Aquatint and tones.

9. Applying your Intaglio Aquatint. Now its time to put your Aquatint on and then paint your tones out. The Aquatint will help you create a tooth for the ink to sit in because it is resistant to acid or the mordant you are using. The longer the plate is etched in the acid or mordant for the deeper the tooth will be so the darker the tone will print. The more variations of tone the better the plate will be.

Your Aquatint can come in several forms and can be applied in many different ways.

This can be applied in several different ways, the first is to use an aquatint box so that your plate is put into the box for the tiny particles to float down and rest onto the plate. The second is to put the rosin powder into Scrim and then sprinkle the powder over the plate. This is less consistent but still works very well. The third way is to put the powder in whats called a salt and pepper pot, your actually putting the powder into a glass and then covering it with muslin – several layers – so when you turn the glass upside down a small sprinkling comes out, which you can evenly sprinkle over your plate.

The plate is then heated to melt the rosin so it sticks to the plate. You can heat the plate using a blow torch, an aquatint oven or a hotplate.

  • Lascaux Non Toxic Acrylic Aquatint for use in a spray gun (coming soon to our range)

This you use in a spray gun – I will write more when we have added all these products to our range – which is coming very soon!

  • Spray paint using different nozzles for different effects – this is something we can show you but we have been doing this for over 40 years and prefer to show to customers but it is self explanatory.

Intaglio Steel Etching Plate

10. Painting your tones out. Paint your tones out individually and put your plate into the acid or mordant after every painting. Paint your lightest tone out first and then put your plate in your acid or mordant.

If you go back to your notes and see how long the plate took to etch the line, you will get a good idea of how long the tones might take to etch.

If your weakest line took 10 minutes to etch then you do not want to etch your tones for that long otherwise you will loose your line work. So you can divide by 3/4 giving you 7 minutes and 30 seconds for your tones.

Now divide 7minute and 30 seconds up by how many tones you want. Please note this is not an exact formula but it is a good guide for you to start your test plates from. Its what I have developed over the years by working with lots of different metals, acids and mordants.

The one thing you never want to do is etch your tones for longer than you have the lines because you will loose your lines.

You will be painting out your tones from light to dark. Paint your lightest tone out first, this will be your white, your plate will then go into your chosen acid or mordant and once the set time is up, you will take the plate out and then paint the next tone out. This tone will be slightly darker than the last tone and so on….

Once you have come to your last tone you can leave it in for a little longer just to get that black working nicely for you.

11. Clean your plate off completely. You will now need to clean your plate, getting rid of the Aquatint and varnish that you have painted on. You can do this with which ever spirit the varnish you have used is made with. So methylated Spirit or White Spirit or you can spray with very strong floor cleaner and let soak for 5 minutes and then use a rag to wipe off. Wear a mask and gloves when doing this. The Aquatint powder comes off with methylated spirit so you will need to use this either way once you have got rid of the varnish you have put on.

12. Printing time! Do a test print and see how it has worked, just remember at this point you can still work on the plate. You can lift a tone by polishing it gently using a burnishing tool or you can etch more tone or line into your plate.

Once your happy with the plate you have lots of different options of printing.

  • Intaglio
  • Relief
  • Chine-collé 
  • A la poupée
  • Viscosity printing
  • Double drop printing
  • Multiplate printing