Vital Signs

Etched metal fabric offers architects a range of options for signage, daylighting, and solar shading.

This month’s column isn’t about a material per se but about a process (with very crafty overtones) applied to a rugged, basic material: metal etching. How, exactly, is a huge metal facade etched? Is a design somehow sprayed on like paint, or chiseled like an engraving? “If you look it up in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, etching is the modification of the surface of a material,” says Tom Powley, the president of GKD-USA, which offers the service in addi-tion to its full line of metal fabrics. “We’re removing or slightly modifying the stainless-steel surface.”

GKD does etching in its mammoth warehouse in Maryland. Typically, the process begins when an architect gives the company a computer file for the design of the sign. “There are many ways of etching—laser or chemical, for example—and we do it over a vast area,” Powley says. “Our fabrics are available in widths up to 26 feet and lengths of 150 feet. We mask the areas that we don’t want to change, and use a blasting media to modify the surface where we want to create the graphic.”

The process has several architectural advantages. It is a seamless integration of signage into buildings (take that, Bob Venturi!) and aesthetically flexible as well. The metal fabric is light permeable—good for daylighting—and capable of adapting to the latest technology. “When we started, our metal fabrics had very functional uses,” Powley says. “But the product line has evolved into daylighting and solar-shading applications, and this etching process is part of that evolution.”


High-grade stainless steel is extremely weather resistant and durable. From the inside, visibility remains intact; from the outside, natural light and artificial lighting can make the surface appear opaque.

Stainless-steel fabric with an etched message or design, mounted to the building structure with tension attachments and brackets

The metal etching can be used on almost any scale in a building facade; as a custom veil, sunshade, or light filter; or as a stand-alone image or messaging element.

825 Chesapeake Dr.
Cambridge, MD 21613
(800) 453-8616

Recent Programs