Etching Stainless Steel: Which Technique Works Best?

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The integrity of every design is impacted by material selection. Choose the wrong material, and your application is subject to an unpredictable, potentially short life. Choose the right material, and your application has a much higher probability of success.

For many projects, stainless steel is the correct answer. While higher in initial costs, this material delivers long-term value to the applications it serves. In addition to being low-maintenance, 100% recyclable and aesthetically appealing, stainless steel is resistant to corrosion and ductile.

It’s characteristics like these that have made stainless steel a staple across various industries. In the automotive industry, stainless steel is used to fuel the development of durable parts that help vehicles run at their optimal performance. Meanwhile in chemical and food processing, plants rely on this material to resist corrosion.

When it comes to the techniques for etching stainless steel, there are a number of options available. Here are some of the more common methods.

Different Techniques for Etching Stainless Steel

Laser Etching

Laser etching, also called laser engraving or laser marking, is used to create a visible mark on the surface of many substrates, including metal, plastic, stone and glass. The process involves the use of a high-heat laser to modify the surface of the substrate.

Depending on the substrate and energy involved, the modification to the material can vary. Typically, though, the goal is to create a legible or aesthetic mark on a product.

Electrolytic Etching

Electrolytic etching has the same goal as laser etching: to create an aesthetic mark on an object. However, this type of etching can only be done on metal.

In electrolytic etching, a metal piece is connected to a positive and negative pole of a direct electric current source. When the current flows, ions penetrate through the material surface to selectively etch the intended areas. Other complex electrochemical effects can take place based on the level of voltage used, as well as the concentration of the electrolyte.

Chemical Etching

The first step in chemical etching is to laminate a sheet of metal, or the substrate, with a layer of light-sensitive resist. Once the photoresist is exposed to UV light and a positive image of the product is produced, the masked sheet is exposed to an etching solution. Unmasked areas of the sheet are removed by the etchant, and the masked areas stay protected, creating a part. The photoresist is removed from the finished part, or sheet of parts.

Like laser etching and electrolytic etching, chemical etching can also produce controlled-depth marking. But typically, the main goal of chemical etching is to produce a part, with or without marking.

What’s the Best Technique for Etching Stainless Steel?

Of these techniques for etching stainless steel, chemical etching offers greater capability for manufacturing and stands out as the optimal choice.

Thanks to the flexibility of the process, you can design and manufacture highly precise parts with intricate elements like sharp edges and round holes. In just a matter of days, you can produce rapid prototypes at a cost-effective rate and easily scale to production once your design is locked in.

That’s why chemical etching is at the core of Switzer’s business. This precise, repeatable and scalable technique gives us the means to create the tight-tolerance metal parts—as thin as .001 in.—that our customers’ applications require. Whether used to supplement the chemical etching process or as standalone operations, stamping, punching, forming and part assembly all fall under our umbrella of metal fabrication services.

Want to learn more about the benefits chemical etching can bring to your project? Get a free copy of our ebook, 3 Ways Chemical Etching Improves Your Metal Parts.

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