History of Engraving Pt1

Copyright © 2003 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in November 2003, Volume 29, No. 5 of The Engravers Journal.
     What got you into engraving? Was it your family’s business? Did a friend convince you to try it? Did you see a laser or rotary engraving machine somewhere and think, “I’ve got to try that!”?
     No matter how or why you got into the business, when you started you probably weren’t thinking about continuing a tradition that was established half a million years ago. Almost since civilization began, people have been engraving. And you may be surprised to find that you have more in common with our engraving ancestors than you thought. The early people who scraped primitive drawings onto cave walls (as well as those who came later) used some of the same tools and techniques that we still use today.
     Because the entire history of engraving up to modern times is too extensive and broad in scope to cover in this article, we will only touch on highlights throughout the ages. We could never hope to bring you complete information about all the things that have been engraved, by all civilizations, through all the different centuries. Instead, this article will focus on three questions: Why did people engrave? What techniques have been used for engraving? And what have people been engraving throughout the years?
Why Did People Engrave?
     In ancient times, as in modern times, people used engraving to honor their gods and rulers. Evidence of stone carvings found in the Serengeti Plains of Africa has proven that ancient man worked with stone as long as 500,000 years ago. Statuettes of fertility goddesses, such as the famous Venus of Willendorf (discovered in Willendorf, Austria), have an estimated creation date of between 40,000–15,000 BC.
     Beautifully carved gemstones, known as cameos, have been found in Egypt and Rome. The art of cameo cutting peaked in Rome in the first centuries before and after Christ. Untold thousands of cameos were carved, many bearing the likenesses of ancient leaders, such as Alexander the Great and the Roman historian and scholar Pliny the Elder.
     People also used engraving in ancient times to signify wealth. Beginning in about 3000 BC, Sumerian and Hittite carvers began engraving “seals.” These cylindrical ornaments were often made of gemstones such as soapstone and lapis lazuli, and were carved with intricate designs and cuneiform writings. It’s likely that most wealthy individuals in those times owned at least one of these seals.

 


Hand engraver Derek E. Keen at work. Photo courtesy Derry Keen & Co., London, England. The late James B. Meek engraved this Ruger “Old Army” model cap and ball revolver, a .44 caliber replica of the renowned civil war officers’ pistol.

     Many engravers in ancient times used engraving for the same reason we do today — to make or decorate things that were needed in everyday life. The same Mesopotamian carvers who made seals also carved and polished thousands upon thousands of beads for use in daily activities. Cloisonné work of gemstones set into gold was also quite popular among these people. Engravers in Central and South America worked primarily with jade to create earplugs, masks and plaques, among other household items.
     One of the most significant purposes of engraving through the ages has been to record history. While the Mesopotamians were carving seals, gemstone carving was reaching a peak in Egypt. One of the most commonly engraved products found in Egyptian civilization was the scarab, an oval-shaped carving that looks something like a beetle, which was often worn as an amulet to remind Egyptians of the afterlife. The important connection with history, however, is the engraving on the scarabs. The rounded back of the beetle was usually carved with a design, and the flat side included hieroglyphics that ranged from prayers for the dead to records of memorable events in Egyptian society.
     Engraving has also played a very important role in mankind’s ability to understand Egyptian history. Before the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799, Egyptian hieroglyphics were a mystery. All meaning of the Egyptian writing had been lost to the ages since the 4th century AD, and for 1400 years, scholars had puzzled over the pictograph-writing. The discovery of the engraved Rosetta Stone changed all that in the early 1800s, when the code was finally broken by French scholar Jean Francois Champollion. The Rosetta Stone was engraved with an edict, issued in 196 BC, which recorded the benefits conferred on Egypt by the 13-year-old Ptolemy V Epiphanes at the time of his coronation. The edict was engraved in three scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic script (a cursive form of hieroglyphics) and Greek. Using the Greek engraving, Champollion was able to decipher the mysterious hieroglyphics, opening up a world of information and unlocking the key to Egyptian civilization.


Paul Revere is one of the most famous engravers and silversmiths in American history – although for reasons besides his beautiful work! Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. These exceptionally wide and deep cut letters are possible through hand engraving.

Engraving Techniques
     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 2700–2100 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 another material.
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 300–30 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 2300–2100 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.


An engraver’s block and push gravers from hand engraving’s heyday. The "Liberty Bowl" was created and hand engraved by Paul Revere. This style of bowl is widely used for present day awards and is now know as the "Revere Bowl." Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.

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 Rupert’s 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 was formed.
     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.”


 

 

A hand engraved tankard commissioned in 1786 to commemorate the completion of the Charles River Bridge. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Hand “chasing” also called hammer and chisel engraving remains popular today for gun and knife engraving.

Firearms 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.

 


Hand engraving adds grace and elegance to jewelry, especially in the case of elaborate interlocking monograms like this one. The intricate scrollwork was engraved using the “chasing” method. The micarta handles are engraved using scrimshaw. Engraving by George Sherwood.

Horn Carving
     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 man’s 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
     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 sea.
     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 American tradition.
     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.


Commodore 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. The 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. You’re probably aware of this; although some hand engravers still make a living from this art, there aren’t many. And when was the last time you decided to engrave a customer’s plaque or trophy plate with nothing but a handheld cutter? Indeed, a lot of today’s 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 owner’s wealth. Common engravings of this time included family crests, coats of arms, monogrammed silverware, teapots and other household items.
     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 piece.
     For holding most small jewelry items, hand engravers used a specialized vise known as an engraver’s block. Engraver’s 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.


 
 
A 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 it’s 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 England’s “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 customer’s “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 who’ve gone before you in time. You’re continuing a tradition that’s 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.

 

 

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