DIY Custom Etched Headbadge
I wanted to create custom made head badges for a couple of my mountain bikes. There were a lot of good examples when searching MTBR and the internet; but, nothing really stuck me as what I wanted (or that I had the skills to create). I knew I wanted the design to be my MTBR avatar. I decided against a sticker. And I don’t think I have the skill to engrave or cut out something with that much detail.
A few days later I was chatting with a friend and our conversation migrated over to PC board etching. PC board etching has been around for awhile (I’ve etched boards well over 20 years ago) and widely practiced by electronics hobbyists. I then did some research and found examples of people using modern day etching chemicals (muriatic acid) to etch aluminum. That’s how I was going to do it…
Preparing the Badges & Toner Transfer
Google Search: “toner transfer”
I found a suitable logo and did some basic manipulation in a photo editing software. I flipped the image (so it’s a reverse image – you’ll see why in a bit) and inverted the image.
The piece of aluminum stock was purchased at the local building supply store and was 48” L x 3/4” W x 1/16” D. I cut out four pieces of stock about 1” long.
Instead of using specialized toner transfer paper, I grabbed an old sheet of labels and peeled them all off. This left the silicone slick backing. I printed a sheet of my images onto the slick backing using a laser printer set to print on “overhead” sheets.
Using a fine grade steel wool, I brushed one side of each badge until it became nice and bright. Afterwards, I brushed the surface with a paper towel to remove any loose bits. Be sure not to touch the brushed surface with bare hands as it will prevent the toner from sticking.
Disclaimer: I’ll spare you the long details of trial and error and provide what worked best for me. However, I will mention when I had to do something more than once and what I think I had done wrong on the previous attempts. Hopefully this will help someone learn from my mistakes.
To successfully transfer the image from the paper to the aluminum badges took some practice. I cut out an image and placed it over the badge (toner side towards the badge) and then taped it (using painters tape) on the back.
I put down a hard, flat, surface on my workbench (brass plate in my case) and the put a folded piece of cotton cloth on top of the surface. The aluminum badge was placed on top of the folded cloth (with the image side down – tape side up) and the hot iron (no steam settings) on top of the badge.
The idea is to heat up the aluminum so the toner will dislodge from the paper and adhere to the aluminum. After letting it heat up for awhile (60-90 seconds), I would give the iron a gentle push down onto the plate and the remove the iron. Then flip the badge over onto the bench to cool down (use gloves, it’ll be darn hot).
While one was cooling I’d prep and work the next plate. As it starts to cool you might notice the image will become very “light”. This is good as it indicates the toner has adhered to the aluminum and isn’t on the paper any longer. Here’s an example of one that has cooled (left) and one that just came off the hot plate (right).
Using this method I was able to successfully produce the transfers I wanted. There was a lot of do-over, though.
If the image didn’t transfer properly, just grab that piece of steel wool and erase it right off. Tape a new image on and go at it again. Be patient and take your time. You’ll eventually get what you’re after.
Chemically Etching the Aluminum Badges
Google Search: “hydrochloric acid etching aluminum”
Google Search: “neutralize and dispose of muriatic acid”
WARNING: This can be a very dangerous process if you’re not careful. My description herein is not to be taken as a complete step-by-step process.
The basic ingredients you’ll need are 31% muriatic acid (hydrochloric acid), 3% hydrogen peroxide and baking soda (to neutralize the acid when done). Protective gear such as nitrile chemical resistant gloves, face shield, and an apron are highly recommended. You’ll also need a measuring cup and bowl for the etchant.
The above photo was taken before I started the first batch. I ended up repeating the process two additional times and I learned a few things. Buy a larger box of baking soda than I have in the photo and have a 5-gallon bucket standing by for neutralizing the acid later.
Most of what I found for PC board etching (etching copper) recommended using 2 parts of hydrogen peroxide and 1 part of muriatic acid. What worked best for me was using 3 parts hydrogen peroxide and 1 part muriatic acid. The 2/1 solution was just too strong and would react violently enough to generate heat, lift the toner right off of the badges and ruin them. None of the badges in the first batch survived.
The 3/1 solution produced a much slower reaction and gave me the results I was after. It did take longer (about 30 minutes) to etch each badge down to the level I wanted. You don’t have to use a lot. I measured out 6 ounces of peroxide and 2 ounces of muriatic acid and it was plenty enough to etch a badge.
It was interesting to watch the reaction. The initial acid solution is primarily clear (first photo). Once the badge is put in it turns to a dark grey (second photo) and eventually changes to a champagne color (third photo).
On the floor beside the workbench I had a five gallon bucket with about 1-1/2 gallons of water and I dissolved a large amount of baking soda into the water. When the badge was done etching, I would remove it from the acid (using a plastic fork) and submerse it into the baking soda water. I then used an old tooth brush to scrub the submerged badge to neutralize any acid remaining on it.
When finished, I slowly poured the acid mixture into the baking soda water (mind the reaction). Once it settled down, I continued to add baking soda (slowly) until there was no further reaction. When neutralized, the mixture can be poured down the kitchen sink.
What I learned in the first batch was my mixture contained too much muriatic acid. I mixed the second batch at a lesser strength and successfully etched one plate. I then became all excited and put in the remaining three plates. The mixture heated up (due to the volume of the reaction) and it lifted the toner right off of the aluminum and ruined the remaining three plates. The final third time worked because I (A) used the weaker acid mixture and (B) only etched one badge at a time. I also disposed of the etchant and mixed new etchant for each subsequent badge.
Here are a couple of the better results.
Be sure to save any of the ruined badges. You can use them for practice when trying to bend them to the shape of the head tube….
Bending and Painting
I now need to bend one of them to fit the head tube. I cut a piece of 2x3 at a 45* angle and attached the two pieces together like this.
I taped the badge into the V and also taped up the head tube to prevent it from being scratched.
I placed the block against the head tube and gently (but firmly) tapped the block with a mallet until the aluminum started to bend. I had to reposition the badge and the block a few times to get the desired result. Again, be patient and work with the badges you ruined during the etching process. I also used a different bike to test just so I could be sure I wouldn’t be denting the frame.
After the badge is in the proper shape, I washed it down using TSP and a brush, thoroughly rinsed, and let it dry completely. I taped off the back and gave it a single good coat of black appliance epoxy.
Brushing and Application
After letting the painted badge dry for 24 hours, it was now time to remove the paint from the raised areas. I used a brass wire wheel attached to a dremel on the lowest speed setting. I very gently touched the spinning wheel to the raised ridges and the paint came right off.
To apply the badge I used some E-6000 adhesive (the same adhesive I used to hold in some cable guides here). Clamp the badge to the head tube for 10-15 minutes and we’re all done…
Here are some images of a completed badge on my 1994 GT Karakoram.
Here's the second badge installed on my 2005 GT Aggressor.
Let me know if you have any questions, I’ll do my best to answer them.