It’s Electric! (Boogie woogie woogie)…
Now that you are all *hopefully* having wonderful flashbacks to the lovely Electric Slide, let me tell you about my project for the maker faire!
I do a lot of arts and crafts-type projects, especially at work, so I decided I wanted to try something new and different… and possibly involving electronics. But I also didn’t want to break the bank, and as I’m sure at least some of you discovered, electronics are EXPENSIVE! So I went on a quest to find something electronic-y or electricity-centered.
Imagine my delight when I discovered electro-etching! All I needed, in addition to common household items like salt and black nail polish, was some wiring and a 9-volt battery! Not expensive at all! So I set to gathering all of my supplies, and mentally preparing myself to etch into metal using a simple chemical reaction!
As you can see, most of these items are fairly common, and not at all difficult to obtain. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any wiring sets, so I ended up buying some alligator clips and attaching them to 22 AWG wire to make little mini-cables. They almost look like miniature jumper cables! This process took me a long time, because I had issues stripping the wires, and I also kept yanking out the wires after threading them through the opening in the alligator clips, but I eventually got the hang of it, and made my own wire set!
The basic idea of this project is to create a circuit connected to the metal and the salt and vinegar solution that allows the electricity to cause the solution to burn into the metal, thus etching the design drawn into the nail polish onto the knife (or whatever metallic object you choose). It’s a little more complicated than that, but I wanted to give you an overview before I get too far into the project (I will include my full instructions at the end, as well as a link to the original source.)
Overall, I was really proud of myself. I didn’t think it was working at first, but when I cleaned off the nail polish, I found that my design had actually been etched!
The next day, I was still feeling pleased with myself, and also extremely nerdy, so I began a fandom knife with easy symbols from various fandoms that I felt I could recreate on the knife.
What did I learn?
I made a few discoveries while I was in the early stages of this project. First of all, I realized I really needed to decide on a design before painting the blade with the nail polish, because otherwise it would dry and ruin everything. As a very indecisive person, this was rather time-consuming for me, but I was happy with what I decided in the end. I also found that mixing the solution while waiting for the nail polish to dry allowed the salt more time to dissolve into the vinegar. If I had not had any of these supplies before starting, I estimated that it would cost $15-20 to purchase all of the materials, because most of the items can be found at any local dollar store. The only reason it would be more is if you bought wires that were already attached to the alligator clips, or if you were buying materials for more than just one or two people.
The other big takeaway I got from this project was that it feels really good to accomplish something on your own. Yes, I used a set of instructions for the basis of my project, but as I was working through it, I found myself tweaking things here and changing steps there, truly making it my own. Martinez and Stager (2013) tells us that “the constructionist theory that making, complete with the process of making things better, leads to understanding” (p. 54). The more I was able to adapt the steps to suit my needs and my thought process, the more I could make connections.
Would this work in a library?
Overall, I think this could be a fun project to do with a small group. I’m considering doing it with my teens, because I usually have around 7, so I think this could be easily replicated. I do not think this would work well for a large group, because there are enough steps that will take different people different lengths of time, that it would get frustrating trying to all work in a group. It could be a fun station within a makerspace though, if you had a few sets of guidelines to explain the setup, because there is a lot of freedom and creativity within the project; the design can be whatever you can imagine and draw.
I also think this could fit well into a STEAM curriculum, because it involves both the art of designing a pattern or picture and the science of a chemical reaction by using the solution to etch into the metal. One thing I will say is that if you can find somewhere to buy the wires pre-made, I would suggest considering that, or at least prepping them all beforehand, because that was pretty time-consuming for me. But aside from that, as long as you have the time, and enough of a budget to cover supplies, I think this would be fairly easy to reproduce within a library setting.
And now, I shall share my process!
Stainless steel knife (or other unpainted metal)
White distilled vinegar
Black nail polish
Nail polish remover
Newspaper (or something to lay down on the surface you’re working on)
*In total this project took me 33 minutes the first time, and about 32 minutes the time after that. I have included the time each step took in brackets and italicized. I spent a lot of time on the design the first time around, and a little less the next time, but allowed more time for the knife to dry, so it stayed pretty equal timing-wise
- Once all of the supplies are collected, start by painting the part of the knife (or other metal) with your nail polish [2 minutes]
- As the nail polish dries, use a toothpick to carve in your design [10 minutes]
- Let the knife dry completely [5 minutes]
- While the knife is drying, mix up the solution of vinegar and salt. Use about a tablespoon of vinegar and ¼ teaspoon of salt, and allow to dissolve: when it is ready, dip the Q-tip into the solution [3 minutes]
- Connect the wires to the battery, the knife, and the Q-tip: the red wire should connect to the positive terminal on the battery and the handle of the knife, while the black wire should connect to the negative part of the battery and the part of the Q-tip with solution on it [1 minute]
- Swab the design slowly and evenly; the longer you swab, the deeper the etching will be (I went through multiple Q-tips per design; this will be at the user’s discretion). Don’t worry if there is hissing and sizzling or a little bubbling while you swab, this is part of the reaction and means it is working – there may even be a few little wisps of smoke! [10 minutes]
- Use the nail polish remover to clean off the nail polish and to see your design! [2 minutes]
Please let me know if you have any questions!!
Magpirate. (2015 March 11). Cheap & easy metal etching with household items [Blog post]. Craftster. Retrieved from http://www.craftster.org/forum/index.php?topic=438435.0
Martinez, S.L. & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.