Acid-etched Metal in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe

Detail of etched ornament on a thigh defence (cuisse), possibly by Daniel Hopfer, about 1515-1525, steel, Southern Germany (Augsburg). Museum no. 402-1864

Detail of etched ornament on a thigh defence (cuisse), possibly by Daniel Hopfer, about 1515-1525, steel, Southern Germany (Augsburg). Museum no. 402-1864

Etching, derived from an ancient Germanic word for ‘eat’, uses corrosive acids to bite designs into hard surfaces. The background can either be eaten away so the design stands out in relief, or the design itself can be bitten into the surface in the manner of intaglio engraving.

Etching has been applied to a broad range of luxury goods, especially durable items made in steel such as weapons, locks and tools. The technique creates a shallow relief making it possible to create highly decorated objects without compromising the structural integrity of the metal.

Between 1500 and 1750 production centred on southern Germany and northern Italy where etched armour was a speciality. Daniel Hopfer of Augsburg, a renowned etcher of armour, is widely thought to have invented etched metal plates for printing on paper. His designs were well-known during his lifetime and served as models for craftspeople working in a range of media.

Acid-etching

Acids can dissolve metal by chemical reaction. This process can be used to etch designs into metal surfaces instead of the more labour-intensive and technically demanding method of engraving by hand.

The French scholar Jehan le Begue wrote a recipe for acid-etching on iron in 1531. He distilled ammonium chloride, ordinary alum and ferrous sulphate in a mixture of water and vinegar. Craftsmen rarely recorded their methods and many developed their own techniques. However, basic principles remain unchanged.

The metal to be etched is first cleaned thoroughly and then coated with an acid-resistant substance such as beeswax. This is called a 'resist'. The design is engraved in the wax to expose the metal underneath.

The prepared metal is immersed in a solution of hydrochloric or nitric acid and water until its exposed areas have been eaten away to the desired depth. The resist is then removed to reveal the etching. Gilding or blackening can be added to accentuate the design.

Designs on etched metalwork are often freer and less exact than in traditional engraving. They capture the ‘hand’ of the etcher rather like a pencil sketch.

This content was originally written in association with the display 'Beautifully Bitten: Acid-etched Metal in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 4 July 2010 - 30 June 2013. 

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