My Etching Studio: A Word Essay


There is a lot involved in an etching studio. My own studio consists of three rooms in the basement of my house and an outside shed. Each area has a specific purpose in the process: the work room is where I paint, dry-point, scratch, burnish and otherwise manipulate the plate; the paper room is where paper is stored and prepared for printing; the press room is where the printing is done; the outside shed is where the acid and solvent work is done.

The Work Room

The work room is where I work on a plate from the initial stages up until I’m ready to print. It’s the heart of the etching studio.

My work room is 9′ x 12′ and has a work table with a 4′ x 4′ working surface and a 2′ x 4′ built-in light box. The light box has a plexiglass panel for copying and a shelf underneath for an under cabinet lamp as a light source. The desk is painted white and finished with a tough acrylic seal that has withstood years of etching abuse. The table is home-made: many years ago, my dad made some 4′ x 6′ wood frames and covered them with wire for outdoor art shows. My outdoor career was short-lived, but I used the frames to make customized work tables by covering with plywood (and in this instance, plexiglass for the light box) and adding legs.

The table has served me well. I use a desk lamp for local light. Unlike other art mediums, I don’t find light to be important when working on a plate as no color and very little nuance is involved, so a small lamp is fine as a lighting source. I keep my etching tools within easy reach, although I often find myself not putting things away and leaving the work area cluttered, which in turn limits my work space. I have a small television on the table that’s turned on as background entertainment and an old office chair with wheels to sit on.

I also ink plates on the work table. My etching process is to work on several plates at once, doing each stage of the process at the same time, so I’m usually working on plates for several months and then inking the same plates for printing during the following few months. This helps me simplify the work process: when I’m working on the plates, I have the necessary tools out and at hand; when I’m inking, I put the tools away and get the inking materials out. Both cycles are messy and dirty. I use newspaper to cover the table and old clothes, latex gloves and paper towels are a necessity. When I use stop-out (which contains solvents), I turn on a ceiling ventilation fan. If I need to stop-out large areas of a plate, I take the plate outside as it can take hours to dry and the vapors can linger and spread throughout the house if it’s done inside.

The work room has a lot of storage space. The previous homeowner built the room as a work office, putting in built-in book shelves and cabinets. I added two five drawer flat files at the other end of the room for storing finished prints, with several plastic storage bins on top for additional storage. There’s a lot in this room but it’s all within reaching distance of my chair. It’s cramped but it’s perfectly laid out for what I need to do.

The Paper Room

The paper room is 11′ x 12′ and open, and contains a dehumidifying system as well as the home water heater and interior heat pump unit on the far end. I use this room to store and prepare paper for printing. It has a large table which holds both a water tray (to soak paper for printing) and the blotting paper to dry it. Like the table in the work room, I built the table on a 4′ x 6′ wood frame that’s covered with a plywood panel. The legs are 42 inches high and fastened with steel brackets to make sure the table doesn’t wobble or collapse from the weight of the water tray. I made the legs long so I could fit two five drawer flat files underneath. The table is painted white with an acrylic seal.

The flat files contain the paper to print on as well as finished prints. There is enough space above the flat files and below the table top to put two 32 x 42 inch plastic bins, one of which holds newsprint for printing and the other holds blotting paper for drying.

I have three different sized trays for soaking paper. Unused trays are put in the corner. I don’t have a water source in the basement so I have to carry water in a five gallon bucket from the upstairs kitchen in order to fill a tray. To change water, I empty the tray into the bucket with a siphon hose. This is the only time I could really use a basement water source and a drain, so the lack of running water is not a big issue in the grand scheme of things. Basements are notorious for being humid, especially during the summer months. This is especially dangerous when you are working with good paper made from cotton or linen. When I moved into the house years ago, it was in August and I noticed a book that was stored in the basement quickly started to mildew. I immediately put a portable dehumidifer in this room which brought the humidity down to an acceptable level. I had a HVAC company run a hose from the dehumidifier to the heat pump so it would drain on its own and I turned the dehumidifier off during the cold months when the humidity was low. I recently replaced the portable dehumidifier with a big time dehumidifying system, which keeps the humidity down in the basement and circulates air throughout the house, which in turn cools the second floor in the summertime. It’s a win win situation.

The Press Room

The press room is where the actual printing is done. It’s a 10′ x 11′ adjoining room and has a Conrad etching press with a 30 x 60 inch bed. There is 3 feet of space between the press and the walls, which is enough to fully operate the press. I built shelves underneath the press for storage.

There is a large overhead fluorescent light. I like to have bright light in this room so I can look closely at proofs as I pull them. The fluorescent light is both bright and economical — I’ve only replaced the tubes once in ten years. Elsewhere, I have four large hand-held rollers and I put shelf brackets on the wall to hold them. There is a mirror on the wall — since etching is done in reverse, I sometimes hold a plate up to the mirror to see what it will look like when printed.

For all three rooms in the basement, the walls and ceilings are drywall and painted white. This helps to illuminate the studio, although the work room has wood trim and shelves and is therefore darker than the other two rooms. The floor is concrete and painted with gray masonry paint to hold the dust down.

The Shed

For etching with nitric acid and cleaning with solvents, a room with full ventilation is absolutely required. I etch in a 12′ x 16′ storage shed located outside our side door. It has electricity (essential for night time work hours!) A large door and a window help with cross-ventilation. A work table holds two trays: one for nitric acid and one for water to rinse the plates after etching. There is enough room left on the table to clean small plates with solvents, but for larger plates I have to clean outside on the driveway or on the garage floor with the garage door open. Laying newspaper down is essential for any cleaning, so subscribing to the Philly Inquirer keeps me informed and my studio/shed/driveway/garage clean.

As for equipment, I have five trays of varying size to fit the size of the plates I’m working on: 3 trays for acid work and 2 trays for rinsing. I keep the nitric acid and the solvents in the shed for safety purposes, although I move the acid to the basement when the weather gets cold because I don’t want it to freeze. (So essentially my work with acid is limited to when the weather is fairly warm, typically April to October.) The work table is high enough to fit a metal cabinet underneath where finished plates are stored. I have a radial arm saw with a metal carbide blade for cutting plates. The work table occupies about a third of the shed. The remaining area holds other shed-type stuff: a work bench, tools, etc.

In setting up the studio, I was fortunate that the previous home owner had finished the basement and built an outside shed. A few modifications and I was ready to go. We had previously lived in a townhouse with a large open basement. An etching studio could have been built there too. The only issue would be where to use acid and solvents, which can’t be done inside. If we had stayed in the townhouse, I probably would have bought a shed for this.

The common denominator for all my studio rooms is storage, storage, storage. After etching for many years, I have accumulated a lot of etching stuff: prints, framed prints, plates, equipment, ad infinitum. Every available inch of studio space is used for working or storage.

Another common theme is there’s a distinct advantage to making your own studio furniture. I did it and it’s not hard. Tables and shelves can be made for specific purposes and to fit specific spaces, which maximizes studio space and customizes the studio to your needs.

Studios do not have to be big and complicated. You can compact everything into a room by buying a small press, minimizing equipment and etching sparingly with good ventilation. (You can also throw out all your old stuff, which is something I have problems doing.) Please note that my etching studio has evolved over a 15 year period of time, and only after I made a commitment to continue to etch and to devote the resources to do it. For your own studio, consider your own needs and resources and add a little bit of strategic planning.