In Victorian times engravings were in abundance, the mid to late 1800's produced some of the most spectacular work on everyday items. Beautiful Timepieces and cigarette cases elaborately engraved or silver and gold flasks decorated inside and out, and ladies hair brushes hand held vanity mirrors all exquisitely carved or engraved.
Copper plate and wood engravings were commonplace for the purpose of reproducing art prints with some of the finest adorning old bibles. In later years due to modern machinery and commercial marketing the popularity of hand engraving largely diminished.
Roll stamping and commercial casting became the most common methods of decoration and these for the most part replaced hand engraving on less prominent items. Hand engraving never really vanished it simply went underground embellishing the more prestigious items such as fine wristwatches and custom signet rings, firearms or collection art knives.
Although it survived the changing times it became progressively more difficult to locate an engraver let alone one locally. Information on the subject was not readily available and few people knew an engraver personally.
Present day master engravers have transformed the craft into a true respected art form. Due to the advent of modernized optics and superb engraving tools, and a less stringent traditional environment, today's artists have reached new heights in both quality standards and artistry. Gold inlays so richly detailed, and even near photographic realism is being achieved by engravers. Engraving has experienced a modern resurgence and is currently being appreciated and sought after as never before.
Engravers today are mostly freelance artists and their work unlike a factory engraver of old does not work under a production mentality and for the most part today's engravers are creating custom one of kind art. Based on this, a typical side lock, double rifle, or shotgun engraving in near full coverage well executed and finely detailed can be accomplished in approximately one hundred and fifty hours of labor. Three to four hundred hours will produce beautifully detailed engravings. Engravings that are between 600-1,000 hours will produce exquisite work including high definition scenes and engravings that are over one thousand hours are the absolute finest engraved works typically found on the finest firearms.
Selecting an engraver: Depending on the job, engraving can be very time consuming and therefore expensive and if finance is limited than always select quality over quantity. It is very easy to dramatically enhance the look of any item with just a little engraving so long as it is well designed and well balanced. The engraver should always guide the customer towards what is best for the customer. The engraver should understand the personal attachment the customer may have to their item and furthermore comport themselves with respect.
What to look for in a quality engraving: Overall design balance, continuity, elegance, clean execution, even and level relief, smooth fluent cuts, straight and accurate borders, accurate representations of anatomical figures, scenes, fine detailed shading, properly fitted and executed gold inlays, accurate traditional lettering, originality, a confidence engraver.
The customer should always feel free to ask questions regarding the proposed engraving and even the techniques used. The customer should always voice their concerns if any and ask for opinions or thoughts from the engraver. Discussion is the key, if the customer is unclear due to some terminology used by the engraver then always ask. This works both ways, an engraver should never assume to know best or to think they know what's on the mind of the customer, ask! In addition it is easy for the new engraver to use important sounding engraving terms, it will only serve to sound cryptic to some customers and be counter productive. When possible clarify any engraving words used and if possible simply using relative examples that everyone is familiar with.
New engravers starting their careers are all too often very eager to suggest things they feel would be best for their customer's item often neglecting the customer's personal character and interest. It is very easy for artistic ambition to inject itself into the discussion and innocently hijack the direction intended by the customer. Remember, it is not your vision and ambitions you are serving, it is theirs. Should the day arrive that such a luxury be bestowed onto the experienced engraver it will mean that they have reached a level respect and customers for the most part will have decided they want your engraving style and creativity and are willing to let the artist create freely. Otherwise it is best to listen first and make suggestion if needed. The engraver needs to remember not all customers want their opinion some simply would like their personal vision brought to life therefore not all commissions will be emotionally driven by the artist.
Frequently asked Questions
How much will it cost
What will it look like
How long will it take
Item condition before engraving
Engraving quantity and style?
What will it cost: Regardless of one's financial situation spending wisely and making appropriate choices should remain a principal consideration. First address the object's value and try not exceed its value with too much engraving. This rule is generally followed unless the customer truly treasures the object and decides to spend far more on engraving than the item is worth. This is most often seen with personal objects.
For general collecting it would be wise to avoid this practice particularly if it will ever have a chance of resale or private trade by a collector. There are exceptions such as an engraver's name status, if well known then it supersedes the base item value and is collectible regardless. Another example is when an item exceeds mediocrity and is considered prestigious in its medium. In this instance cost of the item no longer matters and quality of the items does. In short the simple rule is don't put a tuxedo on a Billy goat and expect it to be more than it is.
For the most part cost is based on which style of engraving is chosen, design complexity, and coverage. Background textures are also a time factor. Punched and beaded backgrounds are reasonably quick to achieve and look great. And very fine line or bulino dotted backgrounds much longer. The bulino dot background is excessively time consuming and should be applied to the finest grade of objects unless the area is reasonably small.
Style of engraving may greatly increase labor time and gold inlay is expensive and time consuming. Inlaying a stag head with antlers takes far longer than inlaying a simple shape such as a lion head. After the initial inlay the amount of detail within the image will also be a major factor that determines time and cost.
The fine Bulino high definition dot technique is very expensive but produces beautiful realistic results and should be reserved for high quality items and preferably on items that will not be handled roughly as it is delicate. In addition there are many other factors that define cost such as metal hardness, contours and overall shape, coverage, and design time...
What will it look like: A final draft should be presented to the client. It should be clean and concise and accurately represent the final engraving so that the customer can be absolutely sure what they are approving. Always get approval do not assume it's perfect, it may appear so in your mind but perhaps not so in theirs, get approval! If alterations are needed then by this time they should be few and small since early discussions should have galvanized the engravers direction in line with the customer.
How long will it take: On the whole style and quantity of engraving determines how long a project will take, bearing in mind that no two engravers work the same way or at the same rate of speed. Engraver backlog will determine start times therefore booking a time slot is an important first step. It is not uncommon to have one or more years of backlog when the engraver is in demand and on large projects particularly with firearm and knife. Most small orders get done much sooner.
Item condition before engraving: The object should be in a annealed state (softened) and any blueing, plating or other surface finishes removed. And in the case of firearms disassembled and any pits, marks or surface abrasions removed and its surfaces refinished. Generally this is all done by a qualified gunsmith however certain smaller steps can be performed by the engraver, metal prepping and finishing...
Engraving quantity and style: The amount of coverage should be based on personal taste, finance and object's value. Personal opinions always vary from client to client. Engraving styles should always respect the design of the object and be executed in good taste in order to enhance its overall appearance.
Quality standards: Engraving an expensive firearm is a serious endeavour and should never be entered into lightly by a customer and certainly not by the engraver. Good planning, foresight and the assistance of qualified professionals, is critical to a successful end result.
There are several issues to be concerned about when dealing with firearm preparation for engraving. Almost all receivers on firearms are in a hardened state and any engraving on hardened steel will only result in poor quality and plenty of wasted time and effort. While it is true that a case hardened firearm can be engraved it is not recommended, the surface though thin is very hard and will cause tool damage and shatter tool tips resulting in poor control and rough execution.
If the metal is through hardened as with many modern alloyed steels are, then engraving will be extremely difficult and in some cases impossible. Attempting it will cause numerous tool breaks and cost considerable time re-shaping tools. The end result will be poor. If items are not annealed the engraver should not take the order unless the customer understands the conditions and the engraver is willing to take on an otherwise risky frustrating commission.
Proper Preparation: Annealing (softening) hardened metal parts should be carried out prior to engraving and afterwards hardened back to specifications, and this can be done through most local gunsmiths. It is best if the customer deal with the gunsmith direct and the gunsmith will send the parts to the engraver or the customer will send them to the engraver, and vice versa when complete. The proper sequence of events should be: (1) Disassembly of the firearm. (2) Strip all coloring and anneal hardened parts to be engraved. (3) Remove scratches and imperfections wherever possible and refinish surface desired grit. (3) Discuss your engraving needs thoroughly with a the engraver. 4) After completion of the engraving all parts that were annealed must be re-hardened. 5) All surface finishes to metal parts restored and final assembly.
Signed engravings: Without a signature an engraving will be assumed to be part of a production line process or be an oddity of some unknown work. It will have less value since it will be assumed to be less important. More often than not unsigned works will not be unique originals but will likely be repeated many times over appearing on a vast number of items. The decision to purchase stock engraving or commissioned original engravings is based on importance to a customer, many are fine with a factory duplication while others demand exclusivity.
Multiple engravers on one job: This is not as common today but in the past many times more than one engraver is used on a single project. Not all engravers are great at doing the all things and there are times when a customer would like scroll work from one engraver and scenes from another. This can also be done for cost reasons and also there are times when a customer wants a particular engraver to do a portion of the work that he or she specializes in. In this case the customer has no choice but to commission the services of both engravers.
Metals - standards and assistance: Generally any firearm built to the traditional English standards will likely be of a drop forged method and will lend itself easily to annealing and case hardening. Annealing and hardening for the most part is inexpensive. Case coloring (oil streak colors) will be somewhat more expensive but is well worth the cost on fine firearms.
Many modern firearm manufacturers are using an investment cast method versus the drop forged. With investment casting usually the heat treat method is 'through hardened' meaning the hardness is throughout the thickness of the alloyed steel as opposed to drop forging which is case hardened and usually has a hardness layer of 0.005-0.015 thousandths of an inch depth. Beyond that depth the metal is soft as its original state. However this is not always the case as some investment casting will still be case hardened as opposed to through hardened. Lastly there is CNC and other means of machine cutting of receivers in a variety of custom alloys so that in short the engraver will encounter many exotic materials during the course of their career.
In closing may this information serve both novice engraver and first time customers to engraving as a simple guide offering a basic understanding of the process.