Design/Etch By Richard Smith
An Introduction to the Art of Glass Etching


A little bit about Glass etching and how it's done
  • Traditional etching
  • How I Design/Etch glass


  • Different techniques which can been used in etching
  • Technical descriptions

    Glass Mirror

  • Different techniques which can been used in etching
  • Technical descriptions

    Plexiglass and Plexiglass Mirror

  • Differences between Glass and Plexiglass
  • Different techniques which can been used in etching
  • Technical descriptions
  • Further information can be found through out my Question and Answer Pages

    A little bit about Glass etching and how it's done:

    Glass etching has been used for centuries as a decorative addition to glass. Traditionally, hydrofluoric acid was the method employed to etch glass, by using a wax resist (stencil) to keep the acid off the parts of the glass that were not to be etched. This is a dangerous way of etching glass as the fumes given off when the glass is placed in the acid are extremely poisonous.

    I started working with glass back in the early 1980's, first using an acid etching and then carborundum wheel engraving. I found that sand-etching (the use of sand, glass beads, or similar aggregate, blasted at the substrate with compressed air) could be used to obtain a higher quality, and more even finish, in the final work (this also can be dangerous as small particles of glass dust cause the lung disease silicosis). I can create sand etchings that range from the very fine "acid-looking" etch to the more rugged "sand-blasted" look.

    To render any concept in these media, I have found that adequate research and design development are the important prerequisites to an effective and unique sand-etched design. The image must be carefully analyzed to determine which areas to etch and which to leave un-etched.

    With two-tone images I can scan them into a computer, correct, reverse them (if they are to be etched on the back of the substrate, all the work is done "backwards") and print out the design from which to work.

    Following are the steps required to produce a hand-cut sand etched work:
    1. Place the resist (whether it be self-adhesive vinyl, or another material) onto the substrate - it must cover the entire substrate to avoid it getting marked up.
    2. Analyze the image to determine which areas to etch.
    3. Draw the image onto the resist, making sure that it is complete.
    4. With a fine, sharp knife carefully cut out the image (the etch will only be as good as the cut image).
    5. Remove all the pieces of resist to expose the substrate to be etched.
    6. Clean all the adhesive that is left from the vinyl off the glass that is to be etched.
    7. Sand etch the image with the aggregate and air pressure required for the application.
    8. Remove any secondary areas of resist, and etch these using finer aggregate and less air pressure.
    9. Remove the rest of the resist, and clean the substrate.
    10. If image is to be coloured, decide on specific colours and apply.
    11. The etching is now ready for framing or other usage.
    The artistic possibilities are almost limitless . . .

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    Sand-etching on clear glass can be varied by using different sand sizes, aggregates and changing the air pressure to etch in two or three stages. Also, each side of the glass can be etched, to give depth to an image. An extremely fine, light etch is possible on glass because it can't get lost in a mirror's reflection of it's surroundings.

    The positive etch is one in which the image itself is etched on the medium (see the Greek Soldier on the Art page); while the negative etch is the reverse - the background is etched to reveal the image as clear glass (see the Partitions page). This can be confined to an area around the image, or encompass the entire piece of glass (used sometimes to enhance privacy when placed in a window or door).

    Etchings used as etched art can be framed with wood, and backed by a matboard or fabric, with the colour specifically selected to complement each particular etched image.

    By edge lighting the glass panel, the etched image (if deep enough) will pick up the slight tint of colour inherent in glass and the etch will "come alive" (edge lighting requires the use of special frames to enclose the lighting, usually florescent).

    Glass comes in a variety of descriptions:

    Thickness ranging from .125" to .75" (3 mm to 19 mm).

    • Tempered, a process of hardening - used as door glass (as is used on vehicle windows).
    • Tinted glass includes bronze, blue and green.
    • Coloured (stained glass) almost any colour of the rainbow.
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    Glass Mirror

    The face etch on mirror can be a fine textured and detailed etch, which can be felt on the face of the mirror. A real neat effect is created by the etch reflecting in the mirror (because the etch is on the face, the mirroring has not been damaged), this reflection adds a depth to the image, making it seem almost three dimensional (see the Hiaku on the Art page).

    The rear etch on mirror is a crisper image, more two dimensional than a face etch, and because the mirroring is removed, the etch is much more dominant. I use this etch for images that I want seen easily from a distance, or, for the etched piece to stand out. Of course, by far the greatest advantage to rear etching is the capability of back-lighting the mirror, so that the etched areas are illuminated with light. By back-lighting, I mean the placement of lights (usually fluorescent tubes) behind the substrate either in a wall cavity, or in a specially constructed case. This creates an entrancing effect, bringing the etching to life (see the Four-masted Barque on the Art page for an example of this effect). Back lighting can also be used for ceiling medallions, or wall accents (mirror pieces from floor to ceiling, and maybe a foot wide placed at an angle to the wall, with another mirror, or wood closing the angle) these can be etched, and coloured with the lighting placed above/behind them.

    I finally found, after three years of searching and experimenting with different compounds, a transparent glass ink that I use in tandem with rear etching. This creates a multi-coloured "stained glass window" appearance on a single piece of mirror. Especially when back-lit, the effect is absolutely awesome (see the Heraldry page). This transparent colouring method on mirror can be used as a substitute for stained glass windows (if there are no windows left free, for instance), in an ecclesiastical setting.

    Glass mirror comes in a variety of descriptions:

    • Thickness ranging from .125" to .25" (3 mm to 6 mm).
    • Edges either beveled or ground
    • Tinted mirror includes bronze, blue, peach and green.
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    Plexiglass and Plexiglass Mirror

    Plexiglass is a thermoplastic synthetic resin invented here in Canada at McGill University (Montreal, Quebec) by research student William Chalmers in 1930. There are similar products available with different properties - Lexan is an unbreakable form (though scratches very easily), Marguard® is a mar resistant polycarbonate used for heavy equipment windows.

    The main difference between glass and plexiglass is the ability for the plexiglass to take more of an impact before breaking. On the other hand, the plexiglass will scratch, so great care must be taken, along with the use of special anti-scratch cleaners when cleaning it.

    Another difference is the tint of the plexiglass, where glass usually has an inherent greenish tint, the plexiglass is perfectly clear - an advantage when colouring the etch.

    All the techniques that I use in etching with glass and mirror, also apply with plexiglass and plexiglass mirror. One method that can be used with plexiglass is mechanical removal of the substrate (using carbide burs) which can be faster than just the use of sand if the image is to be etched quite deep.

    Plexiglass and plexiglass mirror come in a variety of descriptions:

    • Thickness ranging from .125" to . 5" (3 mm to 13 mm).
    • Standard size of plexiglass mirror is a 4' x 8' (122 cm x 244 cm) sheet. Larger sizes can be custom ordered.
    • Tinted plexiglass mirror includes amber, burgundy, pink, copper, red, grey, gold, yellow, orange, avocado, purple, bronze, blue, peach and green, although all colours are not always available.
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