One of the coolest things about a Curio machine is that it can etch materials. Initially, it was created to etch metal. Some super innovative folks have been finding other materials to etch. In particular, my friend Cindy Pope uses it to etch leather (so that it looks like tooling) and metal clay. She also came up with the idea of etching acrylic, which is the topic of today’s post. I’ve just gotten brave enough to try this and I’m HOOKED!
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What is acrylic etching?
Acrylic etching is the process of scratching away some of a piece of acrylic in order to create a design. The design then looks white and the remainder of the piece is its original color. It shows up best on clear acrylic, so that’s what I’m going to show you.
What materials do I need?
It’s easiest to etch acrylic on a Curio because of the rigid base. The different way the motor runs along the bar may also have something to do with it. Also, the Curio has the most clearance between the mat/base and the tool, so you can use thicker materials. When you have a Curio plugged in, you have access to the embossing panel to select the embossing fills. And Silhouette America makes an etching tool that’s specifically for the Curio. In this post, I’m going to cover how to etch on a Curio.
You can also etch on a Cameo 3, although it’s not quite and easy and sometimes not as crisp. My friend Kay Hall of Clever Someday has come up with some ingenious tricks for this. Instead of using the embossing fills, you use sketch pen fills. And you use a jig (see more info on jigs below) utilizing the Print and Cut feature. She has an illustrated guide with this bundle of acrylic. I’ll be sharing tips on using a Cameo to etch acrylic in a future post. The Portrait 2 should also work the same way as the Cameo 3. You should know that if any damage happens to these machines as a result of using the etching tool, it voids your warranty. If you’re past that 1 year, you decide if it’s worth it.
The earlier machines — Cameo 1 and 2 and Portrait 1 — are not recommended for acrylic etching. Here’s the key reason: those machines have 1mm of clearance under the roller bar, while the newest models have 2mm (the upcoming Cameo 4 will have 3mm). The consequence of that is that you aren’t going to have enough room for a piece of acrylic to fit under mechanisms. It will catch the bar, tool or motor box as it goes by.
To do etching on acrylic or any other material, you need an etching tool. The one that Silhouette America sells works great. I’ve used it for all my etching I’m showing here.
Amy Chomas also sells etching tools. You can typically find these on Amazon or Etsy. She has different tips for wider and more delicate designs. Make sure to get the one for the Cameo (which works in the Curio as well), as she has them for other brands of machines also. The trick is that because they are not made specifically by the Silhouette America company, they may not sit at exactly the right spot in the tool holder. Sometimes they drag and create scratch marks across your material as they move from one area of the design to another on a Cameo. It can take some testing to see how far down in the holder they need to go. Again, I’ll cover this more in a future post on etching in the Cameo specifically.
What you’re looking for is acrylic (clear is also called plexiglass) that’s flat, fits on your mat and is thin enough to fit under the bar. For a Curio, you can go up to about 3mm, probably more because you have the ability to use different platforms to adjust the height of your mat. On a Cameo, it needs to be thinner –under 2mm. I’m going to show you both some 3mm and 1mm projects. If you want to do something longer than the mat, you can do it in sections if you’re careful about placing and moving it. But obviously you can’t go wider.
I use the Cast Acrylic from Craft Chameleon. They are a vendor at the All Things Silhouette Conferences where I teach and so I’m familiar with them. There are plenty of other sellers as well. But here’s the advantage — they sell jig templates as well that match their shapes. That will make more sense as I explain what a jig is. You also get a file with etching designs and/or shape outlines.
You can even try something like this or this from Amazon.
It’s also imperative to have a jig to help hold your acrylic in place. A jig is simply a thin piece of chipboard, plastic or even cardstock with the shape of the acrylic piece cut out of it. Because the acrylic sits down into that hole, it can’t move side to side during the etching. This is critical because the machine will be moving quickly and pushing with a good amount of force.
You can purchase jigs at some places that you purchase acrylics. Or, you can create your own. Here’s one of mine that’s plastic:
And here’s one from chipboard:
The key is to have a very precise hole and to keep it absolutely locked on your design area. (I put the hole in a separate layer from my design and lock that layer).
I found this post by Kay Hall on creating your own Curio mats to be very helpful. You follow the same basic procedure to cut the outer edge and the holes that fit over the platform pegs. Because it needs to be as large as the whole mat, you use a Cameo or Portrait for this. Or, you can do it by hand if you only have a Curio. Then put that on your Curio platform and cut the holes for the acrylic shapes there.
Here are some tips for making your own jig:
- The jig should cover the entire mat so that the dust the etching creates stays off the sticky area.
- You can put several shapes on your jig. I usually put only 2-3 and center them on the page. You need space between them.
- Keep the pieces you cut out. When you’re etching only 1 shape, you can use them to fill the other holes so you keep dust off the mat.
- I often use the Silhouette chipboard. It’s sturdy enough and a good thickness. Another good choice is thin plastic cutting boards from the Dollar Tree.
Whatever you use, it needs to be thinner than your piece of acrylic but sturdy enough to hold it in place and store flat.
- For something like a 2″ circle, it’s pretty easy to add your acrylic shape. If it’s more complicated, you may need to work at it more. Cut it from paper first to see if your acrylic piece fits in the hole. Keep testing and tweaking until you get a nice fit.
- For circles, center your shape on a vertical grid line. That way, if your acrylic piece has a hanging hole in it, you can line it up more easily when you put it on the mat.
- Test your jig by cutting it from paper. That way you can check the fit on the mat stack.
- Use a sketch pen to write the name of your jig on it so you remember what shape it’s for.
- Once you’ve created the jig, save it as its own file. Anytime you are going to etch a piece of acrylic using that jig, you can start with the file and then save it with a different name. I like to use layers so that I can lock the jig shapes into place and they won’t move.
I’ve seen some folks use the cutting mat, and others use the embossing mat on their Curios. I’ve had good luck with both. The embossing mat’s surface suctions the piece so that it stays still a bit better. I still recommend a jig with it.
- You want some double sided tape to help secure the acrylic to the mat if you’re using a cutting mat. If you’re using an embossing mat, you don’t want to do that. It will tear up your mat when you try to remove it.
- Painter’s tape helps hold the acrylic piece still as well. Again — make sure you don’t get it on an embossing mat if that’s what you’re using.
Creating the design
Start by opening your jig file and saving it with your project name. Or copy the jig shape with the keyboard shortcut CTRL/CMD+c and paste it to the exact spot on a new file with the CTRL/CMD+f keyboard shortcut.
Now add a design from your library. I’m making some stakes for my herb garden, so I’ve added a cut file of rosemary and typed the word Rosemary. You can see that I locked the acrylic shape in its own layer.
Honestly, I’ve had great luck with most designs. The machine can etch in very fine detail. I have found that lines that are extremely close together tend to come out looking like a single line. Here’s an example:
In that one, I probably should have made the overall shape bigger or increased the spacing between the lines of the design. A good way to test it is to draw out the designs with sketch pens before you etch.
Resize your design so that it fits on your acrylic shape. Make sure to leave some room at the edges and around any hole in the acrylic. Note that we will be mirroring the image so that we cut on the BACK side.
I find it helps to make the entire design a single compound path. That means you only have to choose fills once.
Rotating makes a difference
The software assigns the fills based on the design being un-rotated. In other words, if the top of the bounding box is not parallel to horizontal, your fills will not be either. It may not matter but it’s just good to know.
Adding the fills
Now we want to add some etching fills. I’ve had the best luck with the Crosshatch fill, and have heard that as well from other teachers who have done more testing than I have. Here’s another trick I’ve learned — to get a really solid fill, it can help to make the spacing between the lines of etching smaller than the software allows. Experiment with what you like best. I’ll give you directions for each, but I typically use the tighter spacing.
Select your design and open the Emboss panel. Make sure you’ve got Deboss selected at the top. If you choose Emboss, the software will automatically mirror your entire design page when you go to etch and will etch on the wrong side of your mat. Select the Crosshatch fill and take the Spacing as far down as it will go — .005.
Notice that the line color changed to blue to let you know this is an embossing fill. If I zoom in really closely, you can see what it did.
The machine will use the etching tool to scratch all the lines you see, including the outer edge.
Select your design, open the Transform panel and go to the 2nd tab for resizing (the Scale tab). Click 200% to make the design twice as large.
With the design still selected, open the Emboss panel. Make sure you’ve got Deboss selected at the top. If you choose Emboss, the software will automatically mirror your entire design page when you go to etch and will etch on the wrong side of your mat. Select the Crosshatch fill and take the Spacing as far down as it will go — .005.
Notice that the line color changed to blue to let you know this is an embossing fill. If I zoom in really closely, you can see what it did.
Now, this is a critical step for this method. Select Release Emboss at the bottom of the panel.
With the design still selected, go back to the Transform>Scale tab. This time choose 50%. That takes your design back down to its original size. The machine will etch all the lines you see, including the outer edge.
By releasing the emboss on the tighter pattern, when you take the design back to its original size the etching lines are twice as close together. If would NOT do that if you just resized the design without releasing the emboss pattern. It would just adjust the pattern within the design using the same scale. Releasing it changes the emboss pattern to regular lines so that when you resize it acts like any other design.
Here’s a comparison. The first one is my regular spacing (first method). The second one is the tighter spacing (second method). The designs are the same overall size. It’s just the inner etching fills that are different.
As I stated previously, you want to etch on the back side of the piece typically. This make the front look the nicest. So you need to mirror your design. Select the design and flip horizontally in the right click menu or the Object>Mirror drop down menu. If it’s not still centered on your acrylic shape, move it now.
Setting up the etching job
Now that the design is ready, it’s time to set up the platform and choose cut settings. I like to create a custom setting so I have it every time I etch. Here are my settings, which I’ve learned from some of the other teachers.
- Action: Etch
- Tool: Etching Tool
- Speed: 5
- Force: 15-17
- Passes: 1
- Line Segment Overcut: off
- Platforms: 5 (a 2 shim + another 2 shim + a 1 for the mat). You may need to adjust this based on the thickness of your acrylic. It’s wise to start lower. The worst that can happen is that the tool doesn’t come into contact with the acrylic or doesn’t etch deeply enough. But if it’s too high, the tool will get stuck in the acrylic and then the whole piece is ruined. I used this same stack for both the 1mm and 3mm pieces.
Setting up the platform
Put the pieces I’ve listed onto your Curio base, then put the template on the mat making sure to press it down on the cutting or embossing mat. I’ve got a clear plastic jig, but you can see the plant stake at the right and a rounded rectangle in the middle.
Watch out for gaps
Here’s something I learned the hard way and had to search for the answer for. I had etched quite a few pieces, then one day started in the same way and had a TERRIBLE time. My etching kept getting off, even with the same platform stack, jig and acrylic thickness. I finally found in a video from Craft Chameleon. You want NO gaps in your platform stack. You can see here that my chipboard jig isn’t laying flat on the mat.
I used painter’s tape to secure the stack to the base anywhere I saw a gap. That solved the problem immediately.
Attach the acrylic piece
If your acrylic has a paper covering (used to keep it from getting scratched), remove it from the back side (the side you’re going to etch on).
Keep the paper on the front side and put some double sided tape on it.
Lay the acrylic piece in its hole, making sure it’s held tightly and the jig is cradling the piece so that it can’t move side to side. (My jig in this pic is clear). Checking your design, use the painter’s tape to secure the piece to the jig. Make sure the area you’re going to etch is clear (no tape there). Remember that if you’re using an embossing mat, don’t get the tape on the spongy portion.
If your jig has any open spaces, either fill those with the cut pieces I recommended you save, or cover them with painter’s tape (remembering the caution about an embossing mat). You can see in my photo I’ve done that with the rounded rectangle. Likewise, if your acrylic piece has a hole in it cover that as well.
Load your base into the machine and make sure your etching tool is in the correct slot. Also make sure your machine supports are extended on both front and back.
Then hit Send and watch the magic.
The etching will take awhile, but I recommend you stay in the room. If it gets off for any reason, you can pause right away. For example, if you hear the etching tool getting stuck in the acrylic, you’ve got a problem. That’s typically due to…
- …an incorrect platform stack. Try removing some.
- …acrylic that’s too thick for your machine.
- …a force setting that’s too high.
- …a gap in the platform stack.
If you feel the piece can’t be saved, remove the etching tool and either unpause or close out the file in the Send area. Sometimes even after closing out the job there the machine continues to cut. So by removing the tool nothing else gets ruined.
You can also just turn the machine off. With a Curio you can still etch in the same spot because of the platform system. So you might be able to save the piece, depending on how noticeable it is. HOWEVER, sometimes turning off the machine puts your motor box in the wrong spot so the next job starts in the wrong area. To combat that, you can unplug the power and USB cords from the machine and plug them back in. Double check the Send are to make sure the job is closed out. Then draw a simple square, take your tools out and send that to cut. That clears out any remaining commands from a previous job. For more info on what to do after you cancel a cut job or turn the machine off during a job, see this post.
HINT: If you mess up a piece of acrylic, don’t toss it. Keep it for testing.
The etching won’t look very pretty as the machine is working. Trust the process. Just for fun, here’s a video of my Curio in action.
silhouette curio acrylic etching
Let the dust sit on the acrylic. My design fills up almost the whole circle, so it’s hard to get a good pic. But here’s mine during the etch.
And here it is before I’ve cleaned off the dust.
The great thing about a Curio is that you can pause the job, pull the platform out to check it, put the platform back in and continue the job. It will be in the same exact spot.
After the etching
The acrylic dust will be very fine and it’s NOT something you want to breathe in. Before you remove the piece from the mat, use a soft brush to brush the dust into your trash can. If you are at all concerned, wear a dust mask (I don’t usually — I’m just careful). Make sure to brush away the dust from the template and platform too.
Remove the piece from the mat, take off the paper from the front side and look at the beauty! Run the acrylic piece under water to remove any remaining dust. Here’s my herb garden now:
Those are the 3mm acrylic. Here’s the thinner 1mm acrylic on some fan pulls. It’s the Death Star one that you see in the actual photo and video of my etching in action, and that one is the thicker acrylic:
Save your jig template and file for next time. Store the jig flat so you minimize the possibility of gaps on your platform stack.
More tutorials on acrylic etching
I’m definitely not the expert on acrylic etching or the originator of it. And I’ve only covered the basics. If you are interested in more intricate etching, Here are some tutorials from other folks to check out:
- Craftcast class on etching acrylic, metal and faux bone.
- Ebook on photo etching.
- Craftcast class on photo etching.
- You’ll find an online class of theirs here.
- Their blog isn’t updated often, but there are good tutorials on it.
- Lots of videos on their YouTube channel.
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