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The brown acid, man

I was a printmaking major in art school. Did I ever mention that? Maybe not. I was a printmaking major for about two weeks before I dropped out. It was mostly down to financial issues; I loved printmaking.

Downside of being a printmaking major: I ended up with a big glass carboy of nitric acid in my closet that worried me exceedingly, especially when it came time to move. How do you get rid of such a thing?

As it happens, I paid a man to take it away. I have no idea what he did with it. All’s I know is, the answer to most problems in life is to pay a man to take it away.

I signed myself up for a local printmaking course today, hoping to get back into it. I then went shopping for materials (shopping for materials is the best bit of any artmaking endeavor). These days, it’s apparently murder to get your hands on nitric acid — you can’t mail the stuff and you have to promise you have a proper chemical hood and everything before anyone will sell it to you in person.

All the tutorials are saying to use copper sulfate instead, which is safer to handle and and etches metal just as quickly and well.

My question is…if it’s safer to handle and just as good, why did we ever use nitric acid?

Stay tuned.

Pictured: acid carboys from my field trip to the True Crime Museum in Hastings. They were bought from the workshop of John George “Acid Bath” Haigh. The Museum bought six empty carboys; the acid from three of them was used to dissolve the body of Olive Durand-Deacon…and they don’t know which three.


Comment from bikeboy
Time: February 18, 2019, 9:50 pm

Advice to the few of you who haven’t watched Breaking Bad: Do NOT… I repeat, do NOT do your acid-bath dissolving using the upstairs bathtub, or you may not get the results you are after.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: February 18, 2019, 10:19 pm

That series was all kinds of awesome, bikeboy.

Comment from Uncle Al
Time: February 18, 2019, 10:36 pm

Good question about why nitric acid instead of copper sulfate. Maybe the alchemists hadn’t figured out what CuSO4 did yet? Reading up on the history of etching techniques is very interesting, but doesn’t answer the question.

I have a special fondness for etchings, particularly a technique called deep-bite where the plate is etched multiple times to different depths. Inks of different colors and viscosities are applied using rollers of different sponginess so that the colors end up separated on different levels of the plate. You get a multi-colored print with one pressing. You may find trying this out right up your semi-geek alley, Stoatie!

Take a look at the work of Frank Wright of George Washington University. He did deep-bite prints for several years, and I’m the fortunate owner of one of his works (The Skirmish). I’ve got print 24 of 30. The plate is in the National Gallery of Art in D.C.

Comment from Uncle Al
Time: February 18, 2019, 10:48 pm

Oops. As we get older, memory is the second thing to go!

I already made a comment here about Wright and deep-bite etching. Apologies for the repetition.

Comment from The Neon Madman
Time: February 18, 2019, 11:43 pm

I wasn’t aware that copper sulfate is an etchant. It is used for plating, I believe.

Nitric acid, on the other hand, is used to make nitrocellulose (guncotton), in a fairly simple process, as well as a few other explosive mixtures.

Comment from Weaseltablet3
Time: February 19, 2019, 12:48 am

Some of the youtubes show copper sulfate etching done with a slight electrical current.

Comment from Deborah HH
Time: February 19, 2019, 3:20 am

… (shopping for materials is the best bit of any artmaking endeavor).
Oh absolutely.

Comment from Wolfus Aurelius
Time: February 19, 2019, 2:15 pm

“My favorite teacher took a drink,
But now he is no more;
For what he thought was H20
Was H2SO4!”

(My memory says my chemistry teacher, jr. year in high school, told us that one. He had a dry wit for sure, but I might have heard it elsewhere and am just attributing it to him because it sounds good.)

Regarding Breaking Bad, I had no idea what it was about when Miss Linda started bringing the DVD season sets to me. At first I thought it lacked humor . . . but then I saw the wit behind it, and by the time Walter became the dreaded drug kingpin legend known as Heisenberg, I was hooked.

It evolved into an enormous novel of a TV series, with a story arc that made sense and an ending that was dead right. And I say novel because, well, you know how you have a favorite novel that you reread every few years, even though you know the ending? Breaking Bad is like that.

Comment from DurnedYankee
Time: February 19, 2019, 9:06 pm

Should have just found a nice CarGirl, introduced them and they’d have run off together thus solving your problem.

Sex, it’s not just for 2 genders any more.

Comment from DurnedYankee
Time: February 19, 2019, 9:13 pm

As far as acid, drinking and playing banjos –

Check out this lovely Australian Folk Song about Bluey Brink.

Once while I was singing it (doing dishes) Mrs. Durned who tolerates this sort of behavior sometimes, told me

“Stop right there”
when I got to the verse about sulfuric acid for cleaning the bar.

“Why, do you know this song?” I asked knowing she never pays attention to the folk songs I collect.
“No, but sulfuric acid kept in a jar, in a bar, can’t be going any place good.”

Wise woman, surprised she’s hung around this long.

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