How to Etch Eggs

Egg Art

Do you love the different layers of color in an Emu egg (dark green, aqua then white), but don't have the tools or want to deal with the dust of engraving? Vinegar etching is an alternative process that allows you to uncover the various natural shades of green in the egg in a quiet, inexpensive manner. As with most art forms, there is no end to the subject matter you can depict on the egg --- from geometric abstracts to portraits! While I'd love to have been creative enough to have 'discovered' this process, I have to give credit to Doris Lockerbie, who shared this theory with me (Patti) --- A wonderful egger who is ALWAYS willing to share new ideas and procedures with others. Doris, I hope I did you proud with this iteration . . .

Emu Egg, emptied and disinfected
Silver Quilters' Pencil (commonly found at fabric stores)
Kistka Stylus (and candle, if manual), large or medium tip
Small funnel
Bowl or container large enough to submerge egg
White vinegar
Soft-bristle toothbrush
Paper towels and/or rags
Cleaning fluid
Matte finishing spray

The theory of vinegar etching is very similar to that of pysanky/batiking methods only in reverse. A kistka, which is a tool typically used in pysanky, is used for this process. It is available in 'manual' versions, which require the additional use of a candle to heat and melt the wax, or in electric form which are more expensive but are more evenly heated via electrical current. Both forms have a 'bowl' on the end of the tool in which you place a piece of beeswax. The heat, either from the candle or electricity, causes the wax to melt and run through a small hole in the drawing tip on the bottom allowing you to write or draw with the now-melted wax. The shell where you have placed melted wax will be protected from the vinegar bath and will retain the shell quality and color, while the uncovered portions of the shell will be etched or eaten away by the acidic qualities of the vinegar.


Step 1

Using the silver quilter's pencil, section off the egg horizontally and vertically if desired so that you can keep your pattern centered evenly on the egg (Step1). This can be done either freehand, or alternately with the use of an Egg Marker. Using the silver pencil rather than a regular pencil will make these lines MUCH easier to see, easy to remove, and will leave no waxy residue that would resist the vinegar etching. I typically use the basic egg division lines as just a guideline for my actual drawing, but you might feel more comfortable initially drawing out whole portions of your pattern with the pencil and then retracing them with the wax. If you choose this direction, I would recommend that you do only sections at a time as just the handling of the egg during the waxing process will cause your lines to fade and become difficult to see.


When all portions of the egg that you want to stay the darkest possible shade are covered, we need to prepare for the first vinegar bath. Since we are using acidic substance (in our case, vinegar) to etch the shell, we want to only etch the outside of the shell -- not the inside! Now, keeping out the vinegar is relatively easy but we have to keep in mind that we are working with an empty eggshell. If we merely seal the hole in the egg to keep out the liquid, we still have to keep the egg submerged evenly in the vinegar bath and with an egg full of air this could be tricky. I'm sure all of us have something better to do than stand around the kitchen physically holding an egg down in vinegar for an hour or so. The answer?? SAND! Using a small funnel and regular sand that you can find at almost any hardware store, fill the egg full (Step 3). Take a piece of beeswax, kneading it to make it pliable, and cover the hole of the now-filled egg; use the heated kistka to seal the wax plug securely to the egg (Step 4). MAKE SURE YOU SEAL THE WAX PLUG THOROUGHLY! Take it from me, trying to get wet sand out of an eggshell is not a pretty site, and this is exactly what you'll find yourself trying to do if your seal is bad!


Now that the egg is full and sealed, place the egg in a bowl or container that will allow the egg to be totally submerged. I personally find that the 2-quart deli containers (either recycled from your last potato salad purchase, or newly-acquired from the paper-products aisle in your supermarket) work really well. Cover the egg within the container with regular white vinegar from your grocery so that the entire egg is submerged. If you wait and watch for just a minute, you should see small bubbles begin to form and stay on the portions of the egg shell that are exposed to the vinegar -- this shows that the vinegar is beginning to erode the shell, which is exactly what we want (photo, Step 5). How long to let the egg soak in the vinegar bath is dependent upon several things; (1) How many different levels of color you are trying to achieve in your pattern will drive how 'light' you want this first layer to be, (2) differences in egg shell age and bird diet may result in each shell reacting a bit differently to the vinegar, and (3) the freshness of the vinegar you are using will cause a faster/slower reaction. While I would recommend always using fresh vinegar for each egg (which will take care of #3), issues #1 and #2 will require some intervention and decision-making from you. I would suggest that you 'test' the egg every 15 minutes or so until you get the hang of how to judge how the egg shells from your source will react. For the purposes of this instruction, I am going to go under the basis that we are looking for 4 levels of color --- using fresh vinegar, let's let the egg soak for about 45 minutes.

Step 6

OK --- 45 minutes have passed, your egg has been covered in bubbles and you've been watching it fervently waiting for a miracle to occur to no avail. Not to fret! Remove the egg from the vinegar and take it to a kitchen sink, utility sink, or bucket of water along with your soft-bristled toothbrush. With the water running, (cool or cold water!! --- warm or hot water will melt the wax!), gently brush the shell with the toothbrush to wash away the dissolved portion, rinsing as you go (see photo, Step 6). You should be able to distinguish quite a difference in shell color of the portions you gently scrub with the brush and those you haven't scrubbed yet. The key here is gently, as hard or vigorous scrubbing can loosen the wax making the protected layers of shell vulnerable to the next vinegar bath. Obviously, your egg is a little wet from it's bath and you'll want it to dry before you continue. You can either wait for it to air-dry (maybe 10 minutes or so), or if you are in a hurry a fan or hair dryer on a cool setting will speed up this process.

Step 6B

By now, you are probably thinking that egg looks pretty cool --- you can see the dark portions of the egg that were/are protected by the wax and the newly-etched portion which seems A LOT lighter in color (photo, Step 6 B). BUT since we had so much fun the first time, we are going to do it all again! Since we have the parts of the egg we wanted to stay REALLY dark already covered in wax, this time we want to cover more portions of the shell that we want to stay a medium-dark green color. For geometric patterns, I find this color is best for filling in areas that you have already outlined ( think of it as simply 'coloring within the lines' in most cases <G>), or drawing subtle additional detail. Once you have completed covering these portions with melted wax, since the egg is already full of sand and sealed, you can jump right back into the vinegar for another bath. Since in this example we wanted 4 levels of color, we already have 2 so this bath will etch for us the level 3 of green. I find that the deeper into the shell I etch, the longer each level of color takes to achieve. With this in mind, let's let the egg soak for an hour this time and then check it with the toothbrush to see if enough of a color change has taken place. When a distinctive color change has occurred, repeat the procedure above of gently brushing the egg with the toothbrush thoroughly, and allowing the egg to dry before proceeding. The result is shown in the Illustration below.

Step 7

Alright -- we're on the homestretch here! You now have an egg that is partially covered in wax, and you may be able to see the differentiation between the two layers of color you have protected. On to our final layer! Using the same procedure, now cover the portions of the egg with melted wax that you want to remain medium-light green -- keep in mind, this is not the 'lightest' color you want on the egg -- this will be the 2nd lightest color. The lightest color we will achieve with the final vinegar bath. SOOO cover the portions of the egg with the melted wax you desire at this level, then it's back to the vinegar baths! This time, let the egg soak in the vinegar for bout 2 hours and check the shell. This will be the final vinegar bath, so we want to etch away as much of the remaining shell as we can in this phase to achieve the lightest shell color desired to offset our pattern.

Step 8

One last time, brush the etched color from the shell with water and let eggshell dry. The result is shown in the photo above. Since that was our final vinegar bath, we can now remove the wax plug from the bottom of the egg and drain all of that sand out of our egg! There are several methods that you can use to remove the wax from the egg, but what I find the most efficient is using my oven. I preheat the oven to 150-200 degrees F. I use a drying rack simply because I have one (which is basically a wooden board with short nails driven through it which allows you to suspend your egg on the nail points such as shown in the second picture), but it would be equally effective to place the egg on a piece of aluminum foil or waxed paper in a pan and place into the oven. For an Emu egg, I generally leave it in the oven for about 10 minutes. Using very thick paper towels or rags, remove from the pan and quickly wipe off the melted wax. CAUTION!! A heated Emu eggshell feels like a heated piece of porcelain or pyrex ware coming out of the oven and could easily burn you if care is not taken! Let the egg cool after you have wiped it down.

At this stage, you might feel a little disappointed as the egg seems to be considerably darker than you intended, with less differentiation between the levels of color. This is normal, and brings us to our next stage; clean up. Grab a rag or heavy paper towel and your cleaning fluid, and working a section at a time rub the fluid-soaked rag over the egg. This will remove the remaining wax residue and you should immediately see the difference in colors of the egg --- showing all of the levels of color that you created in your pattern (photo, Step 9). When you have wiped down the entire egg, you should see your end results in all of their glory!

The only final steps you may want to do with your new creation is to sign it (this step can be done in the first waxing step if you prefer), and giving the egg a protective coating to preserve your efforts. Emu eggs will alter in color with handling (oils from your hands), sunlight, and time so preserving your art with a protective coating is a good idea. I find that rather than a spray polyurethane I like the results of a matte finishing spray that is typically used for fixing charcoal, pencil, painting artwork and the like. It is a lighter finish, but when dry does not darken the levels of color in your egg. Voila!! You now have an etched egg. Vinegar -- who'd have guessed what wonders lurk in your kitchen?!