Making my own dies

Hello. What do you guys think about a CNC Router for making my own foil stamping dies?
It’s getting pretty old dealing with the local die company, and they still use acid etching.
I’ve seen some CNC Router Engravers on eBay that are not too expensive. What are the possibilities of making my own dies with something like that?
Is it feasible at all?


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It won’t cut metal…so probably unsuited to foil stamp die making?

How do you know, Arie?
I thought that the bit was what determined what material it could cut.

This one here says it can cut soft metals like aluminum, copper (I thought copper was pretty hard), and silver.

I was basing this on the ebay posting itself (the first one you mentioned):
“The Computerized CNC Engraving and Cutting Machine is suitable for various materials, such as :Acrylic,PVC,wood,PCB,plastic,ect.” (sic)

When I took a high school class (decades ago, I admit) in machine shop, cutting metals involved cooling fluids. Not a possibility with this machine. Even if I’m all wet on this, you’ll still need to deal with the heat generated and it’s effects on the metal you are cutting. I’d be skeptical if the stated tolerances of ~.002 inches would remain achievable.

If you do try this, let us know how it goes.

It might be fun to play with something like this for making printing cuts from plastics or wood.

At least I would like to electroetch it but I don’t know what I could use for the photoresist and how to develop it.

With an (alleged) head full of Monotype C*** and possibly not much else, (also allegedly) but,! ACTUALLY now quoting from several Dies/Matrices in my custodianship, and with example(s) posted on B. P. some time ago, I offer the following, just as a potential alternative for the above:-
I.E. When Hired In Supercaster Mats/Matrices/Dies were inadvertantly BURNT OUT/DAMAGED etc, rather than striking individual letters/mats, they were reproduced by/with the *Spark erosion* process, there was no more demanding operation, than matching Monotype Mat accurracy,?? probably >(better than) .0001 of an inch, including depth of drive to the typeface,**
Is it worth checking out YOUR local (potential) facilities.!!!
Or apologies for *Red Herrings* & Good Luck Mick.

If you were to purchase a brass single level foil stamping die, of small type, from Universal Engraving Inc., it would arrive to you most obviously cut with a CNC router. You can see the tool marks of the router bit. I have no idea what type of router they use or if they would be willing to share that information with you or even sell you a machine, but it is being done, that much I can assure you.

Spark erosion or electrical discharge machining (EDM) works extremely well for very fine work but you have to have an initial metal tool in the proper shape. Basically, you have a conductive positive die of what you’re machining as your negative electrode and your workpiece as your positive electrode. With a tiny gap between the two and a large current run through the die, sparks jump the air gap, eroding the workpiece to very accurately match the die. You can see a photo of a modern EDM setup with die and machined workpiece at the link below.

Unfortunately, I don’t see this being very useful for small-run mat making. It’s really not much less labor intensive than the original method of engraving and hardening a tool to drive into a planchet since you have to get the initial tools made from durable metal and then still have to replace them regularly. Direct milling of the mat is probably going to be the easiest method if you don’t already have an original to reproduce. This could be via pantomill à la the Bentons, or via modern CNC mill.

One problem with small modern mills like the ones found on eBay above is going to be stiffness of the millhead. Most tabletop mills are probably going to be too flexible to maintain the fine tolerances needed to mill accurate detail on any but the largest of mats. If the head flexes while cutting, you’ll never be able to get really fine detail.

A second problem will be accuracy of control. At first glance I didn’t see how many steps per rotation the steppers used in these mills have, nor how many motor turns per inch (or mm) of travel in any of the axes. If the smallest movement the machine is capable of producing is too large, then you won’t be able to reproduce fine enough detail no matter how small your bit is.

As a “for instance,” the mill Arie posted lists a repeat positioning tolerance of 0.05 mm. It also lists a “radial beat acuities” (which I think means vibration in the head) of 0.03 mm. Together, those equate to 0.228 pt. That doesn’t sound like much until you’re milling the serifs on a 10 pt lowercase roman. Remember that it’ll take multiple passes to cut to final depth. If each pass is as much as nearly a quarter point off from the others, you can wind up with a pretty high error in the end. Add in flex and you’re pretty much done.

I have to admit, I think a good quality, manual pantomill is probably going to be the more accurate solution, unless you have access to industrial grade CNC mills. Pantomills worked for ATF and the Ludlow company, as well as Fred Goudy and Jim Rimmer.

Michael Hurley
Titivilus Press
Memphis, TN

Thank you Mick. Thank you Bruce.
And thank you Michael.
Very interesting points.

I guess then for my actual needs electroetching would be the most likely way to go. It’s also non-toxic, and the metal is not wasted, per se, like in acid.

If I need a sculptured 3d embossing, I’ll order it.

But I’m generally interested in making my foil stamping dies.

Any leads on how I can learn to do that with electroetching? I mean, the process is quite simple it seems. But what could I use to resist the etch, and to develop said resist. I have my photopolymer exposure unit, that I guess I could use to expose the metal plate. But what do I develop it with?


Enrique, to photo-expose the metal would probably require buying pre-sensitized plates but I’m not sure where you would source solid plate like that. The only use I know of for that kind of photo-etching today is in the manufacture of circuit boards so what you’d get is phenolic board with a thin foil of copper on each side. I expect it would be far easier to try the techniques used in the home-brew PCB (printed circuit board) community. They use laser-printed artwork and transfer the toner to the metal as a mask. You can get pretty precise with it.

Michael Hurley
Titivilus Press
Memphis, TN

You know…. we as a culture can over-complicate just about anything. Making copper plates and dies is not terribly difficult IF one takes the time to learn the processes involved….. and it doesn’t require the use of very expensive CNC machinery. It’s the same methodology used by artists and jewelry-makers to produce decorative items, and the electronics industry to make circuit boards.

There are numerous videos on U-tube about how to etch things.

Here is how we make copper plates at WCP:

for the copper, we go to our local Art Supply Shop and buy 10ga copper…. the same sort used by artists to make engravings and etchings. Many shops carry it in an assortment of sizes. For printing uses, 3x5’s work well.

for the photoresist we also go to the Art store. They sell several different kinds for graphic processes…. ranging from etching to silk screen. Essentially you mix it, flow it onto the plate in subdued light, and let it dry. At that point it works just like any pre-sensitized plate. It’s not rocket science, voodoo, or even very difficult.

OR you can use a laser transfer method where you print your image onto mylar with a laser and then transfer it to the plate using an iron. It works very well, too.

for negatives, any of the newer methods (lasers, or sending out to Boxcar) works just fine. OR you can do like me, and make your own using ortho film. (but that’s another discussion)

for etching, you don’t need to electro-etch. I’ve tried it both electrically and just plain old etching…. and plain old etching is far easier, and produces better results.

we use ferric chloride….. available at Radio Shack for $11. The good thing about ferric chloride is that it is NOT an acid. While it does stain everything it touches, it doesn’t burn or soak into your skin. Nor does it produce fumes that one could breathe in. It’s FAR safer than anything else we’ve tried.

For those who want to “save the planet” by not using evil, nasty chemicals, I commend you on your efforts and beliefs. I like the Earth, too. Unfortunately, you may be misguided. Used in the very small quantities we are discussing (typically under 200ml) the resist and etchant are considered “insignificant” by the EPA. More importantly, the chemicals themselves (even the spent etchant) are actually LESS hazardous to the environment than the by products of electro-etching. Apparently, there is something in the electro process that produces some odd and not-so-environmentally-friendly copper compounds… but I’m not a chemist.

So there you have it: the WCP ideas on making dies and plates. It’s not terribly high-tech or glamorous, but it does work. Once you get set up, it’s very cheap. BUT like all things, it does require some study and effort to learn how to do it right.

@ winking cat press: adding citric acid improves hugely the ferric chloride etch.
Here are many tips and tutorials for artists which can easily be modified for making dies:

Gummistiefel- I’d heard that about citric acid, but I’ve never tried it. I might give it a shot.

Also thanks for the link. Tips and tutorials are always helpful