Chemicals That Etch Glass

I am often asked what chemicals are used to etch glass. One of my favourites that often comes up is “can I etch glass with vinegar?” NO, you cannot etch glass with vinegar!  I mean, just look at the bottle it comes in!

There are a number of acids, caustic and abrasive substances that are used to etch glass. However, many of them are extremely hazardous and would not typically be used in a home or hobbyist setting. The primary chemicals that etch glass and are commonly used in industrial or professional settings are hydrofluroric and hexaflurosilicic acids. But there are safer options for at-home use.

Hydrofluoric and Hexafluorosilicic Acid

Generally, hydrofluoric acid is used to etch glass. But, hydrofluoric acid is extremely reactive so is typically only seen in industrial factories or professional businesses where the proper precautions can be taken and specialist preparation environments constructed.

Hydrofluoric acid is a highly corrosive liquid as well as a strong contact poison. It can even penetrate tissue and poisoning can occur rapidly through exposure to skin or eyes or even when inhaled or swallowed. Personally, I wouldn’t even want to be near an open container of hydrofluoric acid. The scary thing about coming into contact with hydrofluoric acid is the reaction is often delayed. The burn may not even be painful initially! Therefore the hydrofluoric acid glass etching process is far more onerous given the amount of precautions that need to be taken.

A slightly less dangerous, inorganic compound, called hexafluorosilicic acid (H2SiF6) is often used. Whilst hexafluorosilicic is interestingly produced naturally in large quantities inside volcanoes, it is manufactured as a coproduct in the production of phosphate fertilizers.

Even hexafluorosilicic can be dangerous though, so often abrasive methods (sand blasting, engraving, scribing) are used instead of etching with chemicals.

Glass Etching at Home

For hobbyists looking to achieve a professional-looking result at home without needing to set up a laboratory or fume extraction station, there are two primary methods for achieving a great etched glass result.

Small glass etching jobs

There’s probably only one product I would recommend for etching or frosting glass at home and that is Armour Etch Cream by Armour Products.

Armour Etch glass etching cream
Armour Products Glass Etching Cream

This glass etching cream contains barium sulfate, sulphuric acid, sodium bifluoride and ammonium bifluoride. It’s fast acting and specially formulated for hobbyists to obtain a permanent glass etching on all sorts of glass objects including drinking glasses, windows and mirrors. Keep in mind though, that it will not etch Pyrex glass, acrylic or plastics. You also wouldn’t use it on large areas of glass (see below for that). It’s definitely more of a hobbyist product.

Whilst Armour Etch is great for home glass etching projects, because of the chemicals it contains you still want to exercise plenty of caution when using it. You should ensure you;

  • Keep away from eyes and skin
  • Wear new butyl rubber, Teflon, Viton, Saranex or Responder gloves
  • Wear fully enclosed safety glasses
  • Where possible use the product outdoors or in well-ventilated areas
  • Know your local health advisory service phone numbers if contact does occur

You should keep in mind that etching creams like Armour Etch and not intended for anything larger than a 1″ x 1″ surface area. Whilst I’ve successfully used the cream on larger areas, you would never try to use it on whole panes of glass. For that, you would typically use an etching bath solution.

Medium glass etching jobs

If you’re wanting to etch patterns onto slightly larger areas such as a pane of glass you could consider using an etch bath solution such as Armour Products Etch Bath Dipping Solution.

Armour Etch bath dipping solution
Armour Products Etch Bath Dipping Solution

Etching bath solutions require you to dip the entire project or piece of glass into the bath, so again you’ll want to ensure you use all the above personal safety protective equipment as listed above.

The thing I enjoy about etching bath solutions is the ability to use acrylic or oil paints to place a design onto the glass that then creates a negative version once you peel the paint off after being in the etching solution. You can even use sticker decals or vinyl patterns cut with your vinyl cutting machine to do more detailed designs or repeat the same design multiple times with accuracy. Armour Products sell a great “Over’N’Over” stencil material that is great for creating motifs.

etched glass motif
A whole pane of glass etched with a motif

Final Words on Chemicals That Etch Glass

I wouldn’t bother trying to get creative when it comes to glass etching solutions. Your best option is to use the easily purchased glass etching creams on the market and using the proper safety precautions. You’ll get a better, long-lasting, easier-to-apply result that doesn’t have you creating some sort of chemistry lab in your home.  


Generally speaking, no. If the vinegar was strong, and the glass old enough, it may indeed cause a slight etching effect. However, for relatively young glass, less than 20 years old, the acetic acid in vinegar is not powerful enough to etch glass. In fact, most of the time people use vinegar as a homemade glass cleaner.

Even if you could source all the required components to develop your own hydrofluoric acid at home, it is not something you want to be mucking around with. As discussed in this post, it’s extremely dangerous and hazardous to your health. I would stick with the retail etching creams or bath dips.

No. Nor do they work on plexiglass, acrylic or plastics. You would be better of using an engraving method on these materials if you’re going for a design on such substrates.

No. Whilst acetone may dissolve, or damage, any coating on glass objects like the anti-glare coating on glasses it will not etch the glass itself.

Whilst adding colour to an etched glass design is an awesome idea, it’s not specifically done during the etching process itself. Rather, the colour is applied to the etched part of the glass after the etching is done. This article by So Fontsy shows some examples on how to do exactly that.

The final etched result on your project will really come down to the etching product used, the application of that product and the glass itself. Some glass may show up etched designs better because of their makeup. I’ve found clearer glass tends to show up etched designs better than green, cloud or slightly older glass. The application of the etching product used is really about using the right technique to get the best result though. Check out this great video by Laser, Crafts and More on achieving improved results with Armour Etch cream.

Etched glass is safe to put in your regular dishwasher cycle with everything else. Because the etching process has only affected the very top layer of the glass, its structural integrity has not been compromised. Engraved glass however can be a different story, as the engraving process can weaken the structure of the glass object which means it will be more susceptible to the extreme heating and cooling taking place in a dishwasher. Engraved glass items should therefore be hand washed.

You can etch tempered glass with most etching products just the same as you would normal glass. I’ve seen many people etch car windows with brand logos or business names.

Yes, glass etching is permanent. Whilst it is possible to sand back the top layer of glass and then polish it back to its original translucent state, you’ve essentially removed a layer of glass.

According to Kate Kolstad who has a BA in Chemistry from SJSU “What happens when the etching cream is applied to the glass is that the fluorine atoms in the acid react with the silicon atoms in the glass, breaking their bonds to the oxygen atoms in the glass and causing the molecular structure of the glass to fall apart.”

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