Etching Brass Bullet Casings

August 18, 2017 , In: General, Inspiration, Jewelry, Tutorials

Back in May I did a mini tutorial here on Art Elements about creating leather purses to showcase some of my larger bead embroidered pieces. In that post I had etched some bullet casings to use as end caps for the strap on one of the purses. I promised a tutorial on etching those bullet casings so here it is finally….

You can find empty bullet casings for sale on etsy or if you are lucky enough to know someone who goes to a shooting range regularly just ask for the empty shells.

The first thing I do is cut them down to a size I want using a pipe cutting tool I bought at Home Depot for copper pipes and tubing. The brass is harder but this little tool still works well. You could also leave them as is if you want the original size and shape of the casing.

Pipe cutter

Casings after cutting to size

Next, I sanded the cut ends smooth with sandpaper or you can use a buffing attachment on your dremel tool. Then I drilled a hole into the top so I can thread wire through it to use it as an end cap or earrings. I have heard that some people use a tool or nail punch to poke the center out of the top of the casing. Well, let me just say that it is so much easier to use your dremel tool fitted with a 3/16″ bit (for metal).

Drilling a hole in the top of the casing. Top row are done, bottom row is ready to be drilled

After drilling, the casings have to be cleaned to rid them of any dirt and oils or the stamping/etching process does not work as well.  They can be washed with soap & water then use alcohol to remove any oils but I just use Purell hand sanitizer to clean them. I saturate them in the sanitizer, roll them around to make sure every inch is coated then rinse them clean. Trust me, it works fine.

*ONLY use StāzOn ink pads for etching. It needs to be a solvent based ink for etching

The next step is the tricky part. Rolling the casings across the inked stamp! It takes a bit of practice to keep from smearing the ink. If you do smear, just wash them again in the Purell or use alcohol to clean off the ink and start over. I have found that inserting the end of a Sharpie, pencil or chopstick into the casing and putting a bit of pressue on the pen/pencil/stick itself while rolling across the stamp works pretty good. Keeping slight pressure while rolling and NOT sliding across the inked stamp is the key!

Rolling the casing using a Sharpie pen as your tool to guide it over the stamp

As for stamps to use…I tried an assortment for this tutorial to show you the wide range of results you can get. I do like the stamp above but the pattern is so close together that it doesn’t leave much exposed metal to be etched.  I really like the lattice pattern as it leaves much more open space for etching and my favorite etched pieces are done with text. I used 3 different text stamps. A very large cursive, a very small cursive and then a small typewriter font. (below)

A variety of stamps used for the process

You can also draw your own design directly onto the bullet casing using a Sharpie. I decided to try it on one of the casings and I have decided I want to explore this further!

Making swirls with a Sharpie to see what happens…

Once the casings are stamped and the ink is dry I use wire so I can keep them suspended in the etching solution (Ferric Chloride). I cut a length of wire and create a couple of loops to secure it inside the casing.

Make a couple of loops on a length of wire to insert in the casing to suspend over the etching solution

Casings are cut, sanded, cleaned, stamped and wired for the etching solution

Ferric Chloride for etching and plastic disposable container to hold solution

I attempted to find a container that would be tall enough to suspend the casings in the solution yet not so large that I would have to use a large amount of solution. You can use the Ferric Chloride more than once but you should keep a record of how many times you have used it and once it starts to get thick and muddy looking it should be disposed of. (You can google how to safely dispose of the Ferric Chloride) ***And always remember to have adequate ventilation and use gloves when working with Ferric Chloride.

Casings suspended in container. Wire is wrapped around chop sticks or other small pieces of wood to hold them in place.

Ideally, the casings should be covered on the open/exposed end so the solution does not etch the inside also. I used packing tape on the bottom as you can see in this photo above. That darn tape did not stay put so the inside of my casings were ‘eaten’ away as well. The last time I etched bullet casings the tape stayed put. I will try balling up the taping to stuff inside next time or maybe small corks? Or putty?

Pour Ferric Chloride solution into container up to the top of the casing leaving the cap above the level of the solution.

I left these casings in the solution for 2 hours. There were two smaller bullet casings that were thinner and since my tape fell off and the inside was etched as well they ended up with nice little lacy holes through the wall of the casing! So it’s a good idea to check them after about an hour.

Casings removed and rinsed clean. The two pieces on the far left are copper tubing I tossed in at the last minute & the copper has caused the pinkish tint to the brass that will disappear after liver of sulphur/tumbling/sanding.

Once I removed them from the solution I dropped them in plain water first, then I washed them in a solution of baking soda (to neutralize) and water and used a brass wire brush to scrub them clean. After drying, I let them bathe in some liver of sulphur for a bit, then put them in the tumbler. If you don’t have a tumbler you can just use sandpaper to sand down the casing until you are happy with the finish.

Top photo-casings after soaking in liver of sulphur and just sanded(the etched areas remain very dark)  Bottom photo- casings were tumbled for about 45 min after the liver of sulphur soaking.

The bullet casing with the design drawn on with Sharpie

Once all the casings are tumbled or sanded, the FUN begins! Playing with all your beads & components as well as deciding what to dangle from the open end of the casing.

Here’s a few I put together. The 2 on the far right were etched in the last batch when I made my end caps for the leather purse. The Ferric Chloride was getting past it’s prime plus I got impatient & only left it in the solution for an hour. The etching isn’t nearly as deep on those two.

Bullet casing tassels ready to hang from a necklace!

I want to credit Marsha Neal with that swirly ceramic donut (2nd from left); the glass pewter looking donut (3rd from right) is by Nikki Thornburg  as well as the dark purple/swirly glass headpin on the far right. I also used freshwater pearls, Mykonos metal bead, faceted glass bead, brass chain and brass charms along with some silk sari ribbon.  Anything goes when dressing up these little brass bullet casings! I actually created a couple of matching pairs (same length/same stamped design) to use as end caps for a strap in the future. I think these would also make great end caps for a kumihimo corded necklace or for a beaded rope necklace or bead crocheted necklace. The possiblities are endless.

I hope you will try etching some bullet casings to use in your jewelry. If so, please share them with us.

Cathy Spivey Mendola

Cathy Spivey Mendola has been creative her entire life. After a short career in the medical profession she became a stay-at-home mom which allowed her to dabble in various arts and crafts. Many years and mediums later she has finally found her passion-bead embroidered jewelry. When she needs a break from jewelry she creates bead embellished art quilts and wall hangings.
    • Brenda
    • August 18, 2017

    Nice tutorial. Thank you!

    • Laney Mead
    • August 19, 2017

    I love these. When I was littler my mother had some shell casing from a machine gun – my father was in the forces and these things were all the rage back in the 80s, she just polished them! I love the ones that the metal has degraded they seem more ‘story telling’ like they have been in the trenches, maybe they were part of the Christmas Day truce in WW1… that sort of thing. I love things that tell stories 😀 Beautiful etchings and very unique.

    • Reply

      Thank you Laney! I agree, I really like the ones that have the lacy holes in them. Maybe I will intentionally leave them in longer next time to get even more degradation;-)

  1. Reply

    These are really cool, love your designs with them! I always wondered how you got the design right around the cases. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply

      Thank you Caroline! It took me a while to figure out the best way to get the design around it without slipping across the stamp and smearing the ink.

    • Angela Mullis
    • August 19, 2017

    Great tutorial! Thank you so much for going into such detail with pics along the way. So very informative, I can’t wait to give it a try!

    • Terri Del Signore
    • August 21, 2017

    These are fantastic! Thank you for sharing!!

  2. Reply

    Great tutorial! I always wanted to know how to do this!

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