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Zippo Lighters - Etching the World

Zippo Lighters - Etching the World

Zippo lighters are not just some reliable windproof fire starters. They are also famous worldwide as a canvas for some of the most sophisticated art which is constantly evolving since the early ZMC days. Probably the most popular among Zippo collectors, and certainly a classic is the so called “Etch & Paint” art technique.

Also known as “etch & fill” it was developed during 1957 and was intensively used all the way until early 2000’s. The process is done in two basic steps:

  1. Etching the design in chemical bath;
  2. Hand painting etched areas.

Before finally standardizing the technology, designs used to be mechanically engraved, and laypersons often do not differentiate between engraving and etching. Although the goal is the same and results look remarkably similar, the process itself is very different. Engraving is done with high-speed rotating tools (pantographs) and prepared design stencils, while etching consists of masking certain areas to protect them from acid bath.

The second half of the process is filling the etched areas with paint by hand. It is a very time-consuming part. Usually no more than five colors are used, but designs with as many as a dozen colors are known to exist.

The challenge to paint each etched area in a single color can be daunting, but nevertheless some of the greatest Zippo designs are done in “etch & paint”. The unique look of this technique skyrocketed the popularity of advertising on a Zippo lighter. Nowadays, collectors all over the globe are searching for Zippo advertisers from the second half of 20th century. Huge variety of companies – from multinational to small business – found their place in history thanks to advertising on a Zippo lighter.

Although today vintage “etch & paint” Zippo lighters are highly desirable by collectors, they were made to be carried in a pocket and to be used. Therefore, lot of “etch & paint” masterpieces ended with significant paint loss over the years. Another advantage of “E&P” is that they can get close to the old glory by getting them repainted. Some collectors like a vintage lighter “as is” but others prefer to have it as close as possible to the day it left ZMC. For the best restoration results removing the old paint remnants is imperative so a complete fresh repaint can be done - by hand, of course.

My view on restoring a vintage Zippo lighter is not much different than on restoring an old car or piece of furniture. If it looks good enough, then no action is needed, but if some or all of original paint is gone no harm can be done with a professional repaint. After all, we have a right to enjoy these colorful masterpieces in their full shine and to preserve them for future generations.

“Etch & paint” was not the first way to decorate Zippo lighters and it certainly is not the last, but we could say it is most recognizable ever used by ZMC. Modern technology opens new doors to contemporary designs and decorations, but no modern technology can diminish the amazing masterpieces and importance of the old school “etch & paint”. With both its simplicity and its complexity “etch & paint” left its mark on the vintage Zippo lighter collecting world.

Vlad Artsmith, Lighter Restoration

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