The Old Print Shop is currently hosting a show on etchings created between the late 19th century and today. Etching is one of many different printmaking techniques. The process, however, did not begin within the world of printmaking. Early etchers were in fact metal workers, who used the technique in the 14th century to embellish armor, swords and other such objects. It was only a matter of time until someone discovered is was a viable printmaking technique and by the turn of the 16th century we begin to see deeper artistic exploration.

As a technique, etching relies on acid to create the final product. The artist first coats the metal plate (suit of armor, etc.) with an acid-resistant ground, such as wax. Sharp tools are then used to carve lines through the ground, exposing the metal. When finished, the plate is introduced to acid and the exposed metals begins to erode, or as the printers call it, is “bitten.” The longer the plate is exposed, the deeper the bite, and the deeper the bite, the darker the printed line will inevitably be. When finished, the ground is removed, the plate inked and placed through an etching press with the desired paper. Thousands of pounds of pressure transfer the image on the plate to the paper to render the final product. Etching plates can be made of a variety of metals. The most common are copper and zinc, but historically other metals, including steel, were also used. Today, artists will often steel-face their plates before printing to avoid a historical conundrum – plates flattening out too quickly. Etching presses are unforgiving and each pass through them crushes the etched lines until nothing but a smudge is produced. Steel-facing not only allows artists to obtain larger editions, it allows each print in the edition to be of the same quality.