The art of engraving has a history that dates back to prehistoric times. Records show that the art of engraving metal is nearly three thousand years old. In its most basic form, engraving is the technique of cutting grooves into the surface of any suitable material so they appear like lines seen face-up. This implies the use of an appropriate cutting tool. As the human understanding of metallurgy evolved, so did their cutting tools. Over time, this basic premise would be taken further, both in terms of tooling and the various techniques that have evolved from this basic concept.
Steel is any alloy of iron containing small amounts of carbon. The ability to engrave it enabled trade to move from barter to monetary exchange: the Greek historian Herodotus reported that in the 7th century BC, engraved steel punches were employed to mint the first coins in the kingdom of Lydia, which occupied the eastern half of Anatolia. Soon the same technique was applied in Greece, India and China for the creation of legal tender and the creation of efficient monetary systems.
Steel engraving was the precondition for various other processes, which have substantially influenced the course of history, such as printing. As steels became more sophisticated, so did the cutting tools, and the standard graver has been the engraver’s best friend for centuries in the form we know today. It is an archaic tool consisting of little else than a bulb-shaped wooden handle in which a hardened steel blade is anchored. When the engraver pushes the blade through the metal, he cuts the groove. The two variables are the width and shape of the blade. A professional engraver typically will use upward of two dozen different gravers, each one suited to the particular form of the incision he wants to cut. “I was learning how to checker gun stocks when I had the opportunity to watch an engraver. Right then I decided that I would rather engrave,” recalls Jim Blair, who has earned himself a
reputation as one of the foremost gun engravers in the US. But as primitive as the graver appears at first sight, it takes years to become proficient, and top-of-the-line engravers spend a lifetime of working on their cut, much like painters incessantly work on their brush stroke, or musicians obsess about improving and cultivating “their” sound. “We employ only the finest engravers in Austria,” specifies Daniela Fanzoj, the daughter and Director of Johann Fanzoj in picturesque Ferlach, the country’s hunting rifle capital. “When it comes to quality, there’s no tolerance for compromise in our specialty production and our interpretation of perfection.”
Conceptually, the process of engraving steel is straightforward: to cut soft steel with a steel blade that is harder than the gun’s and then harden the engraved metal so it will stand up to its destined use. In reality, however, a number of processes are necessary to manipulate the metal being engraved to make it suitable for its ultimate purpose of use: the requirements for the steel of a hunting knife are vastly different from those of a hunting rifle. With copper, titanium, precious metals and organics such as mammoth ivory, horn or bone, these processes aren’t necessary. However, organic materials will require some kind of sealing or another to avoid staining, oxidization or both. One centuries-old method is sealing with bees wax, but today, nanocoatings are beginning to replace it.
Present-day steel engravers employ additional tools. Steel chisels are a kind of mallet-driven graver, providing more punch where it’s needed. Lately, pneumatic hammers that allow for precise, smooth engraving in such difficult metals as titanium have substantially extended the range of the human hand. Rotary tools such as flex-shaft motors now have a digital cousin, the micro-motor, which improves precision to burring by providing speeds of up to 50,000 rpm.
As to the creative process, there are no fixed rules and customization is everything, whether it’s guns, knives or watches. “When working on a project we ask our clients to give us photographs of their trophies so we can create a portfolio with images of how the timepiece will look once it is engraved,” says Jeffrey Nashan, founder of the Montana Watch Company in Livingston, MT. But then, “the design ideas and their details consistently originate within our company and the engraver executes them, which requires close cooperation,” explains Daniela Fanzoj. “Identifying the themes and processing them by means of concept sketches is where I come in and look at any variety of aspects that regard humanity, animals, hunting, art, life and death.”
As you might expect, the work of a highly skilled and knowledgeable craftsperson of this caliber carries a price, and the arrival of the engraving machine has left its mark. Commercial engraving on the flat and uniformly curved surfaces found in standard gift shop items and inside wedding bands and engagement rings is typically a case where fine hand engraving has become too expensive. Digital engraving machines are able to cut to even finer detail, their limitation being that they can only do so on surfaces they “understand.” And when 3D scanners lift that limitation and make it possible to communicate the subtleties of even the most complex curvatures of the handle of a hunting knife, or the stock of a custom-made firearm, where will that leave our highly specialized craftspersons, you might ask? One can only hope that connoisseurs will continue to patronize this ancient and exquisite art and those who practice it. The human element that is inherent in a man-made cut is as unique a feature as the faint lines left from the bristles of Picasso’s brush in his originals. The appreciation of such manner of sophistication, uniqueness and refinement will be essential in keeping this art form alive.Robert Ackermann, G.G.