Tools of the engraving trade

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Every trade, skill or art form has its own particular tools of the trade, and engraving is no exception. To achieve the sometimes intricate and delicate lines of a design, specialist tools are needed as well as experience and skill.

Handheld chisels called ‘burins’ have been used and developed for engraving techniques since the process became popular. A burin made from hardened steel was traditionally used to cut designs into a copper plate for reproducing images. This practice is still in use today by some craftsmen from various professional fields, such as goldsmiths, gunsmiths and glass engravers.

Different gravers for different jobs

Gravers come in all shapes and sizes, and enable engravers to produce a wide variety of lines or inscriptions that can be used in a multitude of intricate patterns. Designed to produce deliberate, straight lines with clear-cut edges and fine details, the burin is unique to engraving. Each type of burin used will result in a different effect. Round cuts come from round gravers, while V-point gravers will give an angled cut that, depending on the graver, can be anywhere between 60 to 130 degrees.

Then there is the gently curved tip of the angle tint tool, usually used in printmaking, or Florentine liners that have multiple lines cut into their flat bottom. These are generally used as a fill tool for large areas on engravings, and likewise flat gravers would be used to fill letters.

On silver, steel and nickel, round gravers bring out the shine and brightness of the metal in what is known as ‘bright-cut’ engraving. For producing textures and other effects, an engraver would look to use gravers with obscure sounding names, like mezzotint rockers, burnishers or roulets.

Before the machines

Prior to mechanisation, the technique used was to hold the burin with the palm of the hand on the handle. New tools would be the length of the engravers finger and the point would be reground. With pressure and manipulation, the engraver would be able to cut the pattern onto the surface. This process takes a great deal of effort and is highly skilled, but some craftsmen still favour it today.

With the advent of mechanisation and technological advances, engraving has evolved and there are now a variety of systems in use. For example, the use of pneumatic pistons to drive the point of the burin, but at vastly increased speeds – sometimes up to 15,000 strokes a minute. This has practically eliminated much of the physical effort required in hand engraving with a traditional burin.

Engraving machines are commonly used in lettering, with the use of pantographic systems – a system of pivoted levers usually used for copying drawings, maps and diagrams to any scale. Oddly shaped presentation awards, the inside of rings, and the surface of large objects can all easily be engraved by mechanised engravers.

Engraved crystal trophies are far easier to create today than when engravers had only their hands and skill to rely on. It may be said, however, that most of the tools and techniques remain the same, and that the only thing that has changed is the method of implementation.

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