BIG Experiments

Oh Spring, you certainly kicked my ass once again.

Now that it's the beginning of June, I find myself finally starting to lift my head to look around and wonder what happened to March, April, and May? 

Why don't I pick back up with a super technical post that will take you approximately 3 months to read? That seems like a fair trade ;-) 

Over the winter I kept hearing about a non-toxic (less-toxic) ground for intaglio called the B.I.G Etching Ground from Andrew Baldwin at Trefeglwys Print Studio. I knew I would be teaching a less-toxic intaglio class at Asheville BookWorks in April and this sounded like a great alternative to the typical floor wax or water-based relief ink ground options. So, of course, I was super excited to finally get my hands on both the black and red versions at the SGCI Vendor's Fair in Knoxville. In the USA, BIG Etching Ground is available from Takach Press

I spent the next few weeks testing the ground, and while I have not learned to handle all of its particular quirks, I do think it is a very promising option for replacing traditional grounds.

Andrew Baldwin is extremely generous in sharing his notes on how to use the B.I.G. Etching Ground, which are available on the Trefeglwys Print Studio website along with a series of super informative videos on all of the ways you can use the ground. I strongly believe that being generous and sharing information can help us all be better makers, and I suspect that Andrew may feel the same way. 

Copied below you will find my notes thus far on using the BIG Ground. You will notice that I have taken Andrew's step by step guide to using the BIG Etching Ground and reworked it adding my own tips, tricks, and experiences. 



Kristen Necessary's Notes on Using the BIG Etching Ground by Andrew Baldwin

Preparing the Plate

  1. When using a new (copper) plate, first degrease both sides of the plate with Bon Ami to remove the protective oily film that is typically present.

  2. Spray the back of the plate with a protective coat of matte spray paint and allow to dry. Wait a minimum of 24 hours before placing the plate into the Ferric Chloride for the best adhesion.

  3. Next, bevel the edge of the plate to protect your hands, the brayer, and the press blankets.



Thorough degreasing of both the plate and your work surface is very important in order for the BIG ground to properly adhere to the plate.

Degreasing with a mixture of Whiting and Vinegar/Salt

Degreasing with a mixture of Whiting and Vinegar/Salt

  1. Wet the surface of the plate with cold water (hot water can tarnish copper)

  2. Spray with a vinegar/salt mix and sprinkle on a small amount of  whiting.

  3. Using this paste like mixture, methodically scrub the entire surface of the plate.  Pay attention to the edges of the plate as these are the most often underworked areas.

  4. Rinse both sides of the the plate with cold water; making sure all deposits of whiting are removed.

  5. The water should now flow as an uninterrupted sheet across the clean surface of the plate. Pay close attention to any areas where the water begins to “crawl” or resist flowing across the surface. Those areas are still greasy.

  6. Repeat the degreasing process with the vinegar/salt + whiting mixture.

  7. Once you are satisfied with the degreasing, dry the plate using a sheet of clean newsprint. Don’t dry with a hair dryer as some water systems have a lot of chlorine, which can be left on the surface of the plate.

  8. Before you apply the ground, you will also want to degrease your glass palette, ink knife, and dedicated ground application brayer using a non-toxic household cleaner.


Applying the Ground

The secret to a successful application of the BIG ground is to roll the plate up evenly and not too heavily.

New Plate

  1. Squeeze a small amount of the ground onto the glass palette.

  2. Spread out a ribbon of the ground using the ink knife.

  3. Using your brayer, roll the ribbon of ground into a thin, even slab.

  4. Pass the evenly loaded roller over the plate in a fairly vigorous fashion, occasionally spinning the brayer to ensure an even coverage of ground.

  5. Don’t try to get it all in one go, build the ground up from several thin coats.

  6. Keep it thin, stop just as the plate is 100% covered.


Previously Etched Plate

  1. Begin to roll up the plate as you would a bare, unetched plate.

  2. Then, with your finger or a small chip of matboard work the ground down into the etched lines that are not being sufficiently covered by the brayer.

  3. Even out the entire ground with a lightly charged brayer.

  4. If the ground has become too thick during this process, strip some back using a dry brayer.


Soft Ground | Hard Ground

Before etching, BIG ground must be heat cured. But at this stage, you have the option of using the uncured ground as a soft ground.


Soft Ground

Let the plate and ground air dry for just a minute or two in order to reduce the initial tackiness of the ground. Unlike other non-traditional grounds, BIG used as a soft ground  has a relatively long open work time. Zea Mays Printmaking reports using it to good effect as long as 24 hours after the initial application, but recommends working within the first 12 hours of application.

Indirect Drawing With Soft Ground

  1. Lay a sheet of newsprint or drawing vellum over the plate to act as the transfer paper.

  2. You can now draw directly on to the transfer paper, or place another sheet of paper with your source imagery on top of the transfer paper.

  3. Transfer your drawing to the plate using a soft pencil, I prefer a 2B or 3B.

Impressions With Soft Ground

If you want to use BIG as a soft ground to create impressions of leaves, feathers, etc…

  1. Set up your etching press with two blankets (no cushion) and slightly less than normal printing pressure.

  2. Tape the top two corners of a sheet of screen printing mesh larger than your plate to the bed of your press.

    •  In my workshop, we used both 140 mesh count and 230 mesh count screen with good results. However, the 230 mesh count provided a notably smoother “dot” pattern, while the 140 mesh count occasionally left a distinctive grid pattern in the transfer.

  3. Secure a registration sheet for your plate below the screen printing mesh on the press. (newsprint with a drawn the outline of the plate works well)

  4. First, coat the plate with a thin, even layer of BIG ground to approximately 90% coverage.

  5. Register the plate, then lower the mesh into place.

  6. Place a sheet of newsprint or wax paper on top of the mesh,  and run it all through the press.

  7. A small amount of the ground will be transferred to the mesh.

  8. Lightly apply a second coat of ground to the plate so that you once have a smooth, even surface with 100% coverage. Again, keeping it as thin as possible.

  9. Register your plate back in the same position on the press.

  10. Place your impression materials on top, lower the mesh into position, and place a sheet of wax paper on top.

  11. Run everything through the press.

  12. Remove your impression materials and check your results.

  13. You are now ready to cure the plate, effectively transforming the BIG from a soft ground to a hard ground. One advantage of BIG is the ability to combine soft and hard ground techniques in a single ground application.  

Soft ground impressions were by far the most popular option for using the BIG ground in the workshop I led at Asheville BookWorks. Check out the images below for more details.


Hard Ground

If you do not wish to start with any soft ground techniques, begin by applying several thin layers of the BIG ground to the degreased plate. Stop just as you reach 100% coverage of the plate.

Here a participant in the Asheville BookWorks non-toxic intaglio workshop has added a hard ground drawing to the plate after curing the ground. Combining soft and hard ground techniques on one plate prior to etching is an advantage of the BIG etching ground. 

Here a participant in the Asheville BookWorks non-toxic intaglio workshop has added a hard ground drawing to the plate after curing the ground. Combining soft and hard ground techniques on one plate prior to etching is an advantage of the BIG etching ground. 

You must now cure the plate. The ideal method to do this is in a convection oven. In this process it is important to keep dust levels low and to establish the correct temperature and length of time for baking. This is vital to the success of the BIG ground.

As a benchmark, Andrew Baldwin recommends baking at a temperature of 135°C or 275°F for 6 minutes. To assess whether the plate is properly cured, let the plate to cool and check the feel of the ground. A cured ground should not be tacky to the touch.

If the plate is properly cured, you are ready to begin working with the new hard ground. Unlike traditional and other non-traditional grounds, BIG claims that it will retain its quality indefinitely and will not dry out. A properly cured BIG ground is very smooth and receptive, yet decidedly strong - allowing you to draw directly onto the plate with a litho pencil, or to transfer a drawing using carbon transfer paper.



Curing a Soft Ground | Creating a Hard Ground: My Adventures With Test Plates

Currently, there are only two unresolved issues I am struggling with when using the BIG ground and we have now reached Issue #1 - Finding The Proper Curing Time.

Test Plate 1

First, I followed Andrew’s suggestion and cured two small test plates at 275°F for 6 minutes.  What I did not immediately realize is that I had failed to properly preheat my new convection oven, or to turn on the convection feature. I drew through the ground on both plates, and allowed them to sit overnight. The next day, after etching Test Plate 1 I found that my ground began to break down and foul bite after only 8 minutes in Edinburgh Etch at 38° Baume.


Test Plate 2

After taking a moment to read the instruction manual for my oven, I realized I had made a few mistakes. Since I had already drawn on Test Plate 2, I decided to chance baking the plate for a second time for 6 minutes at 275°, this time with the convection feature turned on and oven properly preheated.  The ground performed very well and showed no signs of foul biting after 22 minutes in the Edinburgh Etch at 38° Baume.


Testing, Testing: Check One, Two

Next, I tried raising the temperature to 300° for 6 minutes. I quickly realized this temperature was too high and that the ground was burning, as indicated by the small amount of smoke rising from the plate. I did not attempt to etch this plate.

Test Plate 3

At this point, I was working under a deadline preparing for the upcoming workshop at Asheville BookWorks. Although the BIG ground was new to me, I could already see the advantages over other non-traditional grounds I had used in the past. Convinced I could figure it out in time for the workshop, I pressed on with my experiments.

I wanted to test the etch of the acid at Asheville BookWorks so that I could offer a clear, printed guideline of etch times to my workshop participants. While it didn’t seem ideal, Test Plate 2 had shown me that I could achieve good results by baking the plate/ground for 6 minutes at 275°F, letting it cool, and then repeating the baking for another 6  minutes at 275°. So that’s what I did.

I etched Test Plate 3 at Asheville BookWorks in a bath Ferric Chloride (Edinburgh Etch? I’m not sure.)  at 48° Baume. The ground showed little to no foul biting after 32 minutes.


Test Plate 4

Feeling more confident in my ability to work with the BIG ground, and not finding the bake-cool-bake-cool routine to be the most efficient, I decided to try Andrew Baldwin’s benchmark suggestion again. Test Plate 4 was cured with convection at 275°F for 6 minutes and then etched in the Edinburgh Etch at 38° Baume. Unfortunately, the ground again began to show signs of foul biting at 16 minutes, and the foul biting was very pronounced after 32 minutes of etching.

Quickly running out of test plates and under pressure to make sure this ground would perform for my workshop participants, it was at this time I decided to stay with what I knew would work. I know it’s not ideal, and I do believe I will find a better option, but for now I am curing each ground twice using the following procedure:


Curing the BIG Ground

  1. Apply the ground as described above for use as a soft ground or hard ground.

  2. Complete any soft ground techniques prior to curing the plate.

  3. Bake the plate/ground in a pre-heated convection oven for 6 minutes at 275°F.

  4. Allow the plate to cool to the touch.

  5. Complete any desired hard ground drawing.  

  6. Bake the plate/ground again in a pre-heated convection oven for 6 minutes at 275°F.

Allow the plate to cool and cure for a minimum of 1 hour before etching.


Etching with BIG Ground

Andrew Baldwin recommends etching in Ferric Chloride that is between 33° and 38° Baume.

I etched test plates in my own Ferric Chloride Edinburgh Etch mixture at 38°Baume and in the Ferric Chloride at Asheville BookWorks at 48° Baume and had good results with both.

You will need to make your own test plates to determine the proper etch times at the studio where you are working. As starting guide, I and my workshop participants found our best hard ground lines were achieved between 8 - 32 minutes of etching, and that soft grounds etched best at 10 - 15 minutes.

When etching a soft ground, be sure to check the plate every 3-5 minutes during etching as you often have areas that will etch sooner than others. If an area of a soft ground starts to over etch - but other areas are clearly under etched - remove the plate from the acid to stop out areas. (Rinse the plate with cold water, spray with the vinegar/salt mixture to remove any oxidation, and apply a stop out to select areas. I’ve been using Golden Acrylic Stop-Out).

Print of a soft ground impression test plate created at Asheville BookWorks.

Detail - print of a soft ground impression test plate created at Asheville BookWorks.


Removing the BIG Ground

Once you are finished etching, it’s time to remove the ground.

This is Kristen’s unresolved Issue #2 - Removing the BIG Ground.

While the performance of the BIG Ground has been impressive, what I prefer about other non-traditional grounds is the ability to remove the grounds with a solution of water and soda ash (Arm & Hammer™ Super Washing Soda).

This did not work for me with the BIG Ground, it didn’t even budge after I let it soak overnight. I tried again with hot water and soda ash - nothing.

Now, I freely admit this could be related unresolved Issue #1 - Finding The Proper Curing Time. It is likely that I am baking the ground for too long making it more difficult to remove the ground. But, I also found it nearly impossible to remove from the application brayer, which of course had not been cured.

Following the failed soda ash experiment, at the suggestions of others I set off for the local hardware store to find some CitriStrip Gel®. Even though I was not thrilled about the prospect of having to use a citrus based paint stripper. While I was there, I also came across a bottle of Mötsenböcker's LIFT OFF ® Spray Paint Graffiti Remover for removing enamel based paints. I know one of the main ingredients for the BIG ground is an ink, and it certainly looks very enamel like after curing. The Mötsenböcker's LIFT OFF ® product claims to be "green chemistry patented", water-based, and biodegradable so I thought I would give it a try too.

At home, I compared the MSDS sheet for the CitriStrip Gel®  with the MSDS sheet of the Mötsenböcker's LIFT OFF ® and decided to try the Mötsenböcker's LIFT OFF ® because of the lower VOC level. It worked great. Especially you place a piece of newsprint on top of the plate, spray that to let it soak in evenly across the plate, and then wipe off with a paper towel.

Still, since we are still in the midst of unresolved Issue #2 please note that I do not think this is the best answer for removing the BIG Ground. The Graffiti Remover includes trade secret ingredients, so I don’t know what exactly is in there. It does includes acetone, which really knocks it off the non-toxic list. So, while I’m using it for now, I use it outside and I wear gloves. I have not been using a respirator, but I will plan to do so in the future. I am very interested in learning more about how other suggested removers such as Soy Response and Estisol will work with the BIG Ground.


That is what I have so far. Feel free to leave questions, suggestions, or comments about your own experiences with the BIG Etching Ground below.