Abstract Earlier theoretical studies on the development of topography on solids sputtered by spatially uniform and spatially non-uniform ion fluxes are extended to a general treatment including spatially non-uniform (e.g. stratified) solids and time varying ion fluxes. It is shown that the former case is relevant to the sputter erosion of, for example, polycrystalline media, dislocated solids and surface contaminant protection situations. Predictions of feature development in these three cases is shown to correspond very well with experimental studies, and offers convincing explanation of the different etch pit elaboration processes, associated with dislocations, depending upon incident ion beam and rotated target situations and the relevance of the theory to practical situations of (1) substrate thinning and polishing and (2) controlled surface contour evolution are outlined. Some simulation studies with sand blasting, which is, in many ways, a macroscopic analogue of ion bombardment sputter erosion are presented also.