Etching your tools

By Mike Fegan

When you are a member of a club, or often meet with a bunch of friends to work on your trees, you will eventually run into the problem of tool mixing: most tools are very similar, and as such, you can easily mistake your tools for those of someone else. To safe you from a fight and embarrassment, you could of course mark your tools with tape. But besides the tape letting go after some time, it is just not that pretty. What would be pretty? To have your initials etched into the tools. How does that sound?

Mike Fegan wrote a usefull tutorial how anyone with very simple equipment can etch their tools themselves, and was nice enough to allow us to put it online. So without further delays: The tool-etching tutorial using home-made etching equipment.

For which tools?

Basically the process below will show you how to etch a mark or design into metal without any fancy equipment or anything like that. The tutorial is aimed at etching carbon steels. I am not sure how well it would work on stainless steel. Although it probably would work, it may take much, much longer. As I have never personally done this on stainless, I cannot attest to the results one would achieve.


Shopping list

  1. a bonsai tool
  2. electrical tape
  3. 4 alligator clips
  4. 2 lengths of electrical wire
  5. a battery (Here we use one of those 6 Volt block batteries, but other kinds will work too)
  6. some cotton swabs
  7. brine (salt water, see below)
  8. rubbing alcohol

Getting started

The first thing you want to do is gather all of your materials and prepare the setup.

– Make brine by dissolving salt into warm water until no more salt will dissolve

– Attach the alligator clips to the lengths of wire, so that you have a clip on each end (4 clips total)

EtchFegan2Prepare the tool. What we need to do is mask off the tool with electrical tape and cut out the portions you would like to etch: The first thing to do is to clean the area very well will rubbing alcohol. You need to clean any oil or dirt from the area to be etched, and directly surrounding it. The electrical tape is what will protect the rest of the tool during the etching process, so be sure to do a good job on this part, and make sure that there are no exposed areas near the place where you want to etch. After you have applied the tape, take a sharp razor blade. Cut the outline of the area you want to etch, and carefully remove the electrical tape from the areas to be etched. You could also use nail polish to paint the design on the tool. This will be easier for marks with curves in them. Just remember, if you use nail polish, then make sure you apply it pretty thick, and allow plenty of time for drying/curing. And of course, you pant outside the area to be etched.

Of one wire, connect one crocodile beak to the positive post of the battery and the other side to an exposed metal part of your tool. Now dip a cotton swab in the brine so that it is wet but not dripping (I usually give it a couple shakes to make sure it won’t drip). Now connect one crocodile beak of the other wire on the wet cotton of the swab, and the beak on the other side to the negative post of your battery.


If you have done everything right, you now have a positive wire running from your battery and clipped onto your tool, and a negative wire running from your battery to your cotton swab. it should look something like this:

Start etching

To begin the etching process, simply move your wet cotton swab over the area you want to etch. You will need to apply light pressure. You should be able to hear the etching if you listen carefully.


NOTE: Only allow the cotton swap to touch the tool. Do not touch any exposed metal with the alligator clip.

Already after a few seconds of etching you will notice the brine starting to get black. This is the result of corroding away the exposed metal. Usually, I will wipe a couple times and dip the swab in the brine to keep it moist.


When you are happy the depth of the etch, wipe off the excess brine (which is now pretty grimy and gunky), and thoroughly clean the area with rubbing alcohol. The last thing you should do is leave corrosive salt-water on your tool. Then remove all the tape, and thoroughly clean the whole tool with alcohol just to make sure. As you have cleaned your tool thoroughly, do not forget to apply whatever oil you use on your tools.

I wish it was possible to give you the exact time the etching takes, but that depends on the battery you are using and the area you want to etch, and how deep you want to go. For me, using the big 6 volt battery, it took about 2 minutes per etch. Basically, the longer you etch, the deeper your mark will be.


One Comment on “Etching your tools”

  1. Awsome, I will be trying this. Seems way easier than the traditional electric engraver.
    Thank you for sharing this process.

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