The simplest form of engraving is hand engraving (sometimes called push
engraving), which has been in use almost since civilization began.
It sounds like what it is: take a sharp tool and gouge (or push it into)
a piece of material to make a mark. One can imagine stone-age humans using
this primitive form of engraving to make marks and drawings on cave walls.
But the human hand is only strong enough to engrave some materials, and
if the material is hard, a person trying to engrave using this method
will tire before long.
This problem led to the invention of what was probably the second form
of engraving to be created, known as chasing. Chasing may
have been in use as long as 47,000 years ago. Whether on metal, wood,
stone or another material, chasing is simply the use of a hammer (or some
other tool) to strike the carving tool, such as a chisel. This form of
engraving has the benefit of allowing the engraver to carve much harder
materials, such as stone, and work for longer period of time without becoming
tired. Chasing was used in many civilizations, from Greece to China, often
to carve beautiful statues and figurines.
As cultures advanced, people began to create and use other methods of
engraving. For example, the Egyptians fashioned and used hand-powered
rotating drills during the height of the Old Kingdom, from 27002100
BC. The drill basically consisted of a long stick with a handle on top.
The stick had a drill bit (a sharpened, triangular piece of
flint, diorite, quartzite or sometimes copper) attached to the end. The
drill was weighed down with two stones attached by ropes.
The drill was then turned back and forth, either between two hands, or
with one hand on the handle and the other steadying either the shank or
the vessel. As the drilling evolved, Egyptians began turning the drills
by dragging a bow back and forth across the shaft, similar
to the technique used to start a fire by spinning a wooden stick against
Techniques Through Time
Hand engraving (or push engraving) and chasing have been used
in many civilizations, in many ways, throughout the years. For example,
statues and carvings have been made in many civilizations, but the Greeks
are well known for their statues honoring their gods and rulers. During
the Hellenistic period (roughly 30030 BC), many statues were commissioned
for private enjoyment as well as adornments for public spaces.
The Greeks used chasing to create their statues. Once the outline of the
figure was drawn on a block, the carver used a pick and hammer to create
a rough shape of the statue. Then, using a drill, punch, chisels and a
fine point, the sculptor would finely shape the statue. The surface was
then smoothed with abrasives and painted. The Greeks were scrupulous about
the condition of the final piece. Before the engraver could move from
one stage to the next, he was expected to remove all visible tool marks
from the piece.
The Egyptians also created statues, using techniques involving pounding,
rubbing, sawing, drilling and polishing. Egyptian statues were often made
of wood, ivory, limestone, quartzite, gneiss, crystalline sandstone, limestone
and granite. The choice of material may have had religious and symbolic
significance to the Egyptians.
Egyptian stone vessel making reached its peak during the 6th Dynasty,
or roughly 23002100 BC. The vessels were needed to hold cosmetic
oils and ointments, which were used in daily life and important rituals.
The vessels thick, stone walls kept the fatty substances in the
oils cool and in good condition. Bowls, vases and jars were all made with
drills and chasing. Once the vessel was hollowed out and shaped into its
final form, the outside was smoothed by an abrasive material such as sand.
The vessels were commonly engraved with copper chisels once they were
finished, and these engravings often took the form of ropes and nets,
common tools in Egyptian society. No matter how beautiful the final, engraved
piece turned out, the Egyptians invariably painted the outside with color.
Mezzotint & Paintings
The creation of statues and engraved seals, reliefs, jewelry and household
goods continued as civilizations continued to evolve. One of the largest
steps forward in the history of engraving took place in the 1600s, with
the invention of Mezzotint, also known as the half-tone process.
This process became useful for reproducing paintings, primarily because
of its ability to capture subtle gradiations of dark and light tones.
The technique was invented by Lugwig von Siegen, an amateur printmaker
in the 17th century, and it was perfected by Prince Rupert of the Palatinate,
nephew of Charles I of England. Prince Rupert had the means to travel
extensively through European courts, and his connections in high places
contributed greatly to the spread and acceptance of the Mezzotint process.
It is because of Prince Ruperts influence that the method was sometimes
known as The English Manner.
Mezzotints are generally made using a copper plate. The surface of the
plate is first roughed up with a large, curved blade that has a serrated
edge, also known as a rocker. This blade was rocked back and
forth over the entire surface of the plate, creating little burrs or dots
that could hold ink. A drawing was then transferred onto the plate, and
the areas of the picture that needed to be light were then scraped away
by hand. Without dots, those areas could not hold ink, and so the picture
Of course, the Mezzotint process was extremely labor-intensive. Preparing
the plate alone often took more than 15 hours, so young boys were often
employed to perform the tedious work. The poor pay, largely poor working
conditions and tedium of the work sometimes drove the boys mad, leading
to the expression still used today of being off your rocker.
engraved tankard commissioned in 1786 to commemorate the completion
of the Charles River Bridge. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine
Arts, Boston, MA.
chasing also called hammer and chisel engraving remains
popular today for gun and knife engraving.
By the time the first firearms were invented (probably early in the 14th
century), the tradition of engraving weapons had long been established.
Because the state of metallurgy and machining was an inexact science in
those days, the production of firearms and, consequently, the engraving
of firearms evolved slowly throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
In those days, literate people (mainly priests) did not associate with
gunners, who were thought to be in league with the devil.
As civilizations evolved, however, firearms became increasingly accepted.
Before the mass production of firearms became commonplace, each gun was
handmade and engraved with decorations or images on the metal of the lock,
barrel and hardware (and sometimes the wood of the stock) of the gun.
Military weapons were usually the only firearms to lack this type of adornment,
but even these were often carved or scratched by soldiers with initials
or other identifying characteristics.
When Eli Whitney and Samuel Colt first began mass producing firearms,
they continued the tradition by engraving the weapons with scenes such
as stagecoach holdups and naval battles. Colt also offered customers the
option of purchasing weapons bearing custom-engraved designs.
The Golden Age of gun engraving is usually considered to be
the second half of the 1800s. During this period, nearly all gun manufacturers
created elegantly engraved firearms for their wealthier customers. American
firearms engraving came into its own during this era, as it evolved into
a large, flowing scrollwork. Firearms engraving continued into the 20th
century, when it began to decline. The years after WWII saw a renewal
of the art of firearms engraving, and certain gunmakers, including Smith
& Wesson and Colt, still custom-produce firearms for those wanting
an individually engraved piece.
Perhaps more important, today you can find a group of eager gun collectors
throughout the world who purchase many unbelievably ornate weapons featuring
scrollwork, gold inlay and bas relief engraving. There is also a thriving
community of gun engravers doing the work, in some cases using tools and
chasing techniques not too different from those used centuries ago.
engraving adds grace and elegance to jewelry, especially in the case
of elaborate interlocking monograms like this one.
intricate scrollwork was engraved using the chasing method.
The micarta handles are engraved using scrimshaw. Engraving by George
Horn has always been a useful material for man, because of its plasticity.
Animal horn can be heated and, once warm, is malleable and can be molded
into useful items such as combs, spoons and knife handles. People have
probably been engraving horn for thousands of years, but the heyday of
horn engraving came more recently when it was commonly known as a waste
material. Because it was considered scrap, horn became a poor mans
material when he was looking for something to engrave in his spare time.
Horn was especially good for folk artists with little money but lots of
talent and a desire to engrave.
Horn is carved using a fairly simple technique. The horn is first coated
with a wax or varnish. The desired pattern is then scratched onto the
surface, and then the pattern is chiseled out with a sharp pick or another
sharp tool. Once the design is engraved, the lines have traditionally
been colored in with a fine, camel-haired brush.
The form of a horn has dictated its uses throughout the years, and objects
such as knife handles and powder horns have traditionally been created
from the material. Horn engraving has largely disappeared for several
reasons: the material is no longer as abundant as it had been, people
began engraving other materials, and animals that had traditionally been
killed became scarce or even endangered. No longer was horn the abundant
waste material it had been in years past.
Scrimshaw is similar to horn engraving in that the engraving takes place
on animal parts. But scrimshaw is engraving on bone or ivory (often whale
bone or teeth, but also elephant ivory), rather than horn. Scrimshaw is
a distinctly American tradition, and it is closely associated with the
It originated with American whalers, who often set to sea for three or
four years at a time. In between the exciting days spent capturing and
processing whales, the sailors had plenty of idle time on their hands.
These long, boring stretches were often spent creating scrimshaw, and
the sailors were each allotted a share of whale teeth and bone to use
as he pleased.
In carving scrimshaw, the surface of the whale bone or tooth was first
polished, and the sailor drew his design on it. Once the design was finished,
the sailor would scribe the lines with whatever sharp tools were at hand.
Commonly, the men used jackknives or sail needles to engrave the piece.
The final step was to color the engraving, and sailors again used whatever
was handy: tobacco juice, berry juice or juice from another plant from
the South Seas islands where they were travelling. The sailors commonly
created useful objects for the ship or for their wives at home, including
toys, sewing boxes, writing desks, clothes pins, rolling pins, jewelry,
combs and stamps for log books. Although the art largely died out when
long sea voyages were no longer necessary and whaling became outlawed
in the United States, scrimshaw is still practiced to some extent today,
especially along the East Coast, where the tradition was strongest. Folk
artists now usually create scrimshaw for its beauty and to carry on this
Scrimshaw is also being done today using man-made substrates such as Micarta.
There is also an active community of scrimshanders doing work in conjunction
with the weapon collecting field with this new material. For example,
ornate scrimshaw-laden parts are used on high-end custom firearms, as
well as knife handles and other applications where ivory was once used.
Tyng received this, now famous hand engraved two-handled cup to commemorate
pirate ship capture. Photo courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery,
New Haven, CT.
engraved signatures on this wedding frame elevate it into a keepsake,
which is a key reason engraving flourishes today.
The Decline Of Hand Engraving
Although hand engraving has been in use for thousands of years, it has
declined significantly in the postwar years, especially in the U.S. and
Canada. Youre probably aware of this; although some hand engravers
still make a living from this art, there arent many. And when was
the last time you decided to engrave a customers plaque or trophy
plate with nothing but a handheld cutter? Indeed, a lot of todays
young engravers think of hand engraving in terms of using a manual (pantograph)
engraving machine, versus what they produce using their now-computerized
mechanical and laser engraving machines!
The push graver method of hand engraving had a heyday that
lasted roughly from the 1700s to the 1950s. It had evolved from cave writing
into an art form in the 18th and 19th centuries, many engravers
focused on the rich, who could afford to have decorative silver pieces
created for their enjoyment. Many of these engravers referred to their
profession as precious metal engraving because much of the
work was an adjunct to silversmithing and the engraving of precious metal
jewelry. Paul Revere was a famous silversmith, and he and others of his
time engraved beautiful silver and pewter pieces whose function was largely
to show off the owners wealth. Common engravings of this time included
family crests, coats of arms, monogrammed silverware, teapots and other
During the 20th century, push engraving was most commonly used on precious
metals and jewelry. Beautiful ornamental decorations were highly prized
by their owners, and the creators of these pieces were esteemed in their
communities for their talent and art. Engravers in this period commonly
used a variety of wood-handled gravers to make the bulk of the cuts; burnishers,
to eliminate burrs; and scribers, to mark the proposed engraving on a
For holding most small jewelry items, hand engravers used a specialized
vise known as an engravers block. Engravers blocks were available
in various sizes and designs, but a typical one consisted of a set of
vise-like jaws with interchangeable holding pins built onto a swivel-top
base. Most had a large, round bottom base which rested in a donut-shaped
leather or rubber stand, allowing the upper vise section to be tilted
to a convenient working angle. The hand engraver would then typically
hold and swivel the block with his left hand while pushing the graver
with his right hand.
Several factors contributed to the decline of the precious metal hand
engraving era. At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the population
of the United States was in rural areas. At that time, even smaller communities
had a local hand engraver, who often was the local jeweler. Some of the
larger jewelry stores also employed engravers. Larger cities all contained
at least one, if not many, accomplished engravers who would decorate fine
jewelry or precious metal pieces, functioning as a job shop
for urban jewelers.
beautifully engraved powder horn by Ron Smith.
After WWII, suburbs began springing up all over the country. As people
began moving away from the urban centers and small towns of the past,
they found it harder to reach engravers. In order to have something engraved,
people now had to travel longer distances, which they proved, in large
numbers, not willing to do.
Another factor contributing to the end of the push engraving era was the
apprenticeship system, which was how the profession perpetuated itself.
When a young man decided he wanted to be an engraver, he found an older
engraver who was established and willing to train him. The conditions
of the apprenticeship often involved years of a meager existence. The
apprentices made very little money, and it was not uncommon for them to
spend years with an engraver before being allowed to do any engraving
of their own. To protect his trade, the engraver would keep the boy occupied
with menial tasks, such as sweeping the floor, cooking and cleaning for
a year or more, before the boy was ever let into the shop.
Once the boy began his training, he would be allowed to advance in such
slow, incremental steps that its no wonder many grew impatient with
the process and looked for other work. The apprenticeship system may have
worked a century ago, but after WWII, when the country was booming and
other options were available to those seeking a trade, it was no longer
a desirable option for many.
Many engravers in this period had a very strong protectionist mentality
that no doubt sprang from Englands guild system. Not
only did they hold on to the ancient apprenticeship system for recruiting
new engravers into the trade, but they were often guarded with their methods
and vindictive towards the change they saw occurring in the country. Pantographs
for precious metal engraving began appearing on a small scale in the late
1800s. However, pantograph engraving really started catching on during
the postwar years as New Hermes began promoting its burgeoning line of
tracer-guided engraving machines.
Many engravers understandably felt threatened by machine engraving, as
jewelers (who were a large portion of engravers clientele) and others
bought their own machines to carry out the work traditionally performed
by independent engravers. Many hand engravers, upon finding out one of
their customers had bought a pantograph, would retaliate against that
customer by completely cutting off their engraving services and refusing
to perform any work at all for that person. In turn, this attitude encouraged
people to buy more pantographs, rather than put up with surly engravers
who held grudges and were hastening their own demise.
Another reason for the decline of hand engraving was a change in the goods
available. As mass production became commonplace in the United States,
objects that had traditionally been engraved began to be made out of non-precious
metal alloys and plated materials. Engravers, who had long performed their
trade on easy-to-engrave precious metals such as gold and silver, now
had to contend with harder and chewier metals that were not conducive
to hand engraving. Hand engravers found they were not always able to engrave
a customers costume jewelry, further encouraging the
sales of pantographs, which could often engrave what a hand engraver could
not. This trend picked up after 1947, the year New Hermes introduced its
diamond drag engraving tool.
Although these factors all contributed largely to a decline of hand engraving
in North America, there are still people who know and practice the art.
Hand engravers are more rare these days, but they still exist and can
engrave beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces for those who want them.
So the next time you pick up a cutter, change a dull bit, or sit down
to your laser engraving machine, think about those whove gone before
you in time. Youre continuing a tradition thats been used
all over the world since the dawn of civilization a tradition that
not only brings beauty into the world, but one that leaves behind a legacy
of history for the future.