ETCHING Plate Making and Printing

Intaglio comes from Italian word intagliare and roughly means, "to engrave, or to cut into". In printmaking this refers to a family of techniques where an area below the surface of the plate is created through engraving, etching, or scratching. This incision is then capable of holding ink, and transferred onto paper.

In etching the process a plate is covered with a protective ground- typically an asphaltum mixture. This ground is then removed in areas to create a design, and the plate is submerged in an acid or corrosive bath. The solution in the bath removes plate material where exposed and creating a recessed area. The ground is removed and ink is spread over the plate and pushed into the grooves made by the solution. Dampened paper is placed onto the plate and the whole thing run through a press.

Preparing the Plate

The plate must be beveled and polished, and cleaned before a ground can be applied.

  1. Cut the plate to the required size.
  2. Use a scraper and file to bevel edges of plate to a 45 degree angle.
  3. Use the file to round the corners.
  4. Remove any protective film on plate.
  5. Use Pomade, Jewelers Rouge, or Brasso to polish the plate.
  6. Degrease the plate with ammonia & whiting, alcohol, or dish soap.

Applying the Ball Ground

Most Hard Grounds are a mixture of Beeswax, Asphaltum, and Rosin. The ball ground used at CCSF is heated and then rolled out with a brayer.

  1. Set the hot plate to ~ 200 degrees.
  2. Lay down a sheet of tin foil / newsprint to keep hot plate clean.
  3. Set your plate onto hot plate and let it warm.
  4. Apply Ball Ground covering about a third of the plate.
  5. Using a brayer even out the coating across the plate.
  6. Be careful not to overcook the ground. Overcooked ground is brittle and will tend to chip when drawing.
  7. When your plate is cool, you can begin to transfer image and/or draw.

Draw On The Plate

  1. A drawing made with soft graphite (6b) can be transferred to the plate by running through the press.
  2. Use an etching needle or other tools to remove ground.
  3. Group lines in optical gray methods to achieve tone, i.e. crosshatching.
  4. Amassing too large an area of open space will lead to ink fall-out.
  5. Remember that the image will print in reverse to what you see on the plate.

Etch The Plate

Once some drawing is complete you can submerge the plate into the etching bath.

The two basic approaches to etching are;

Additive where some drawing is completed, and then etched. Then additional drawing and etching steps are performed until the image is complete.

Reductive where a completed drawing is submerged in the etching bath, and after some amount of time is removed, and parts of the image are stopped out. The etching and stopping out continues until the image is complete.

In Additive etching, the first lines will print the darkest, and in Reductive the last lines will print the darkest.

Etching Process

  1. Stop out any unwanted areas.
  2. The longer the etch the deeper the line. The deeper the line, the more ink it holds, and the darker the line will print.
  3. You can Stage Bite to achieve different qualities of line from the same drawing.
  4. Rinse the plate in both of the wash baths throughly when finished.
  5. If desired add more drawing and etch again.
  6. New drawing will start the clock over. Old drawing will continue to etch. You can add new drawing or stop out some of the old drawing.

Clean Off The Ground

  1. Set the hot plate to ~200 degrees.
  2. Lay down a sheet of tin foil / newsprint to keep hot plate clean.
  3. Put your etching onto hot plate to warm ground.
  4. Apply vegetable oil and work around the plate with an old rag and/or toothbrush.
  5. When ground starts coming up remove from heat and continue to clean.
  6. Use a detergent to degrease the plate.
  7. If not immediately printing you can skip de-greasing the plate. The film left over will help the plate to resist oxidation. To store the plate, wrap it in newsprint.

Ink The Plate

  1. Lay out and modify ink.
  2. Card ink onto plate.
  3. Use dirty tarletan and daub the ink evenly over the plate.
  4. Wipe the plate with tarletan in a circular motion. Alternate clockwise and counterclockwise, starting with heavier pressure and lighting as plate is cleaned.
  5. Try to wipe the entire plate in every pass. Pay attention to the corners.
  6. Clean the edges of the plate with a rag. Give a final wipe with a new tarletan or your palm.

Prepare Your Paper

Many Western printmaking papers can take a while to soak before they are flexible enough to print with. Consider placing some paper in the soaking bath at the start of the class, or preparing a wet pack.

  1. Measure and tear paper down to size. It can be helpful to initial the back and indicate the type of paper for future reference.
  2. Place paper in soaking tray initials facing up. (I Recommend ~20-30 min for BFK)
  3. Remove paper from soaking tray and blot dry with towels.


  1. Check that press pressure and blankets are set correctly.
  2. Place registration template and plate on press bed.
  3. Place paper onto print and registration template. It's easier to handle the paper from opposite corners.
  4. Place a sheet of newsprint on top.
  5. Gently fold down blankets.
  6. Run plate through the press with a even and steady pressure.
  7. Clean off any ink on the registration template or press bed.
  8. Dry prints between blotters or newsprint under weight to prevent curling.
  9. Allow a day for ink to dry if printing multiple drops.