The term ‘non-toxic printmaking’ has become synonymous with the search for safer printmaking practices and techniques that have a less harmful environmental impact. While it is difficult to use totally non-toxic materials, an awareness of health aspects while printmaking will allow you to make informed decisions on the materials that you use. There has been an enormous development in safer printmaking materials, and many printmaking studios around the world have adapted or developed to work with safer procedures. Below we list some of the stages of intaglio printmaking that require particular care, and suggest ways to make them safer.
At the very heart of etching is the use of corrosive materials to bite into a metal plate, and so in all cases, it is vital to protect your skin and your eyes. Nitrile gauntlets will protect you from solvents and mordants, while lighter weight nitrile gloves or barrier cream can prove invaluable when inking your plate. Goggles are also necessary for protecting your eyes from any inadvertent splashes of either acid, salts or solvents. If you are using traditional aquatint techniques, then a FFP3 mask (or above) is recommended. For those who feel a little apprehensive about the chemicals required for etching, Jackson’s transparent plates are ideal for drypoint etching, which involves scratching into a plate with a sharp etching tool. This comparatively safer method of printmaking is often an introduction to the world of intaglio, and a precursor to an exploration into etching. These plates can also be used for monotype and are recyclable.
Metal Salt Etching
Ntiric acid or potassium chlorate (sometimes referred to as Dutch Mordant) is traditionally used to bite into the lines drawn onto the metal etching plate. However metal salt etching offers an alternative, safer method of biting into brass and copper plates. Ferric Chloride is used in the solution instead. Also known as Perchlorate of iron, this solution emits far less hazardous fumes than many acids, and can be used in a professional printmaking environment, as well as in an artist’s personal studio.
Although it is safer than acid, care should still be taken to avoid contact with skin and eyes; protective clothing and goggles should be worn when mixing and decanting ferric or when etching plates. Ferric Chloride is sold as a solution which may require further dilution with water in very specific quantities, depending on the metal. It can be used with citric acid to make ‘Edinburgh Etch’ (© F.K. 1997), known to be the safest and best perfoming etchant for copper plate, brass and steel – but again, this is relative, and protective goggles and gloves should still be worn when handling.
For salt etching zinc, aluminium or mild steel, a solution comprising copper sulphate and sodium chloride mixture in equal parts can be used. This is known as the Saline Sulphate etch. It is particularly effective on zinc, and does not require aeration or heating.
Neutralisation and Disposal
The safest way to dispose of exhausted etching solutions is to take them to a chemical disposal company. Ferric chloride or Edinburgh Etch can be neutralised by adding soda crystals. Your local authority may then allow disposal down the drain if the neutralised solution is highly diluted, although you must check before you do so. To neutralize an Edinburgh Etch or ferric chloride solution, gradually add a strong sodium carbonate solution to it (1:1 soda crystals to water). It will fizz then settle. Once settled add more sodium carbonate solution until no further fizzing occurs and the solution is neutralised.
While traditional turpentine and white spirit are often used in printmaking studios to clean plates and ink slabs at the end of an oil based printmaking session, they emit heady fumes and can easily cause dermatological and respiratory issues. Fortunately these days, there are many safer alternatives available which help to keep the inhalation of fumes and contact with harsh solvents to a minimum. Solvents such as Gamsol and Pure-Sol (pictured above) as well as Zest-It Printmaker’s Cleaner and Sennelier Green for Oil offer alternatives that are low or even no-odour, emitting fewer fumes and are kinder to sensitive skin. These are essential for home studios and communal printmaking spaces in particular.
A top tip for degreasing without using toxic materials is offered by Andrew Baldwin of Trefeglwys Print Studios, Powys (developer of B.I.G etching grounds) who suggests that you can degrease a plate prior to applying your resist with vinegar and a little whiting. Make sure all the whiting is removed from both sides of the plate while you are drying it – which should be done by blotting away all excess water with clean newsprint. Another alternative to vinegar which can also be used for degreasing is soy sauce.
Prior to immersing a plate in acid, its back and edges need to be protected with a resist. In the past, a variety of materials have been applied by printmakers for this purpose, such as an asphaltum solution, metal enamels and wax. Many traditional etching grounds contained arsenic, lead, mercury and many other toxic elements which you could easily breathe in while using, as well as absorb into your skin when handling. Lascaux now offer an acrylic based plate backing resist which once dry is highly effective in resisting the effects of both acid and salt. After use it can easily be removed from the back of the plate using Lacaux’s specially formulated remover. Also in the range are a vast number of resists that mimic the qualities of specific types of etching, such as aquatint, soft ground etching and hard ground etching. If you wish to avoid working with acrylics, B.I.G Etching Ground is another non toxic ink based ground with a longer open time. It is made from a forumlation of resin, oil and pigments. With B.I.G it’s possible to experiment with many different effects on their etching plate. Techniques ranging from soft and hard ground, photo etching, marbling, relief etching, sandpaper aquatints and coffee lift can all be explored, and once applied the ground can be heat set in an oven. Once you have finished working, B.I.G can be washed away with non toxic cleaners.
For Cleaning Acrylic Resist Etching
Zest-it Printmakers Washdown is a non-toxic, non-flammable solvent for use with acrylics. It can be used with acrylic based inks and will remove most types of acrylic stop out fluid and grounds. To remove hardened acrylic resists, the plate will need to soak in the Washdown prior to wiping away with a rag. It can also be used for acrylic ink and paint. Because of the strength of this product, barrier cream or nitrile gloves are recommended.
Alternatively, a cleaning solution for acrylic resists can be made with Soda Crystals and water. A weaker solution can also be used to neutralise spent Ferric Chloride and Copper Sulphate etching baths.
Water Washable Oil Based Ink
Water washable oil based ink allow you to benefit from the longer open time and density of oil based ink, without needing to rely on solvents for the clean up operation. For etching there are a number of different inks available, including Charbonnel Aqua Wash etching ink and Caligo Safe Wash etching ink. Akua Intaglio Ink is soy based an will also clean up with just soap and water.