Photo etching is a beautiful, intricate process of creating or recreating an image on a decorative plate. While the process is thought of being closely related to laser engraving contemporaneously, photo etching is in fact an ancient art that dates back to early civilization, and has undergone a great deal of evolution to become what it is today. As a result of its many evolution's as both an art and craft, photo etching is not only used for the rendering of photos and pictures for decorative items, but also used to fabricate and mass-produce intricate products and materials as well.
The common notion is that photo etching is simply the process of scratching or scraping a surface in order to create a design. While in the most basic sense this is true, the actual process of etching is much more involved than that, and begins with the treatment of the surface that is to be etched. This process, which is known as Intaglio -- the family of printing and printmaking techniques in which the image is incised into a surface -- first begins with the treatment of a zinc or copper plate, usually with a wax or resin. Then, the artisan uses a needle or stylus to etch through the wax, scratching the surface. Once the etching is complete, the artisan dips the plate into an acid bath, and the acid creates a pronounced line wherever the wax has been scraped away through the etching process. This is known as "biting," and it is what gives etching its distinct look.
After the biting process, the wax is removed, and often times, ink is applied into the design to further enhance the design. This in effect is the approach developed by the "old masters" during the Renaissance, and still continues today in modern artisan circles.
Of course, the process described above has been revolutionized with laser engraving technologies. In the past, photo etching was a painstaking process, and one false stroke could ruin the entire plate. Today, however, computer styli craft pristine laser etchings of photos, and they can do it in a shorter amount of time with no human error. The photo itself can still be a "human" rendering, either taken with a camera or a drawing, but the application of the photo onto a plaque or plate surface is a purely automated process.
The other important development for modern photo etching is that now stone and wood surfaces can be photo etched as well, giving consumers a wider range of different style choices for their photo etching needs.
At Laser Engraved Memories, we pride ourselves on being experts in the field of photo etching. If you have a photo etching project in mind, be sure to check out our Engraved Photos page for lots of great ideas!
By Michael Nace