Engraving is one of the most beautiful and ancient of all art forms. It was a method of written communication long before the printing press was invented.
Engraving and Etching
Engraving is an ancient art form, dating back to at least 500 years before Christ. This even predates acid etching, which has been around for a long time, too. The engraver would use a metal rod with a particular shape on the bit, and hammer it against the metal he was decorating. This would make an indentation, and the engraving was started. The engraver would also use a short tool to dig out a line in the metal, creating a sharp line in the metal.
Some of the first subject matter was mythology. The Greeks etched scenes from mythology on urns, and figures of deities on rings and jewellery. Once alphabets were invented, engravers would commemorate special events or memorable people through engravings.
The Golden Age
The Golden Age of engraving was during the 1400s. Engravers were hired during the age of heraldry to engrave everything from signet rings to shields and dagger handles. In face engraving at this time was crucial to communication, as a person clad completely in armour was unrecognisable aside from the crest he carried.
The family crest is actually part of a much larger Heraldic Emblem. Pictures were often used in the crest and more intricate emblems because few people could read. The coat of arms got its name from the sleeveless top that was worn over the armour, and contained information about the family’s possessions. It would also be engraved onto the shield.
Most of the time, we think of engraving as being place onto the item itself, such as the rings, armour, and other items mentioned above. However, intaglio engraving is the process of making a printing plate out of copper or some other metal. This engraving will be as intricate as any one-of-a-kind work, but used to apply images to paper. These printed images are also called engravings. In fact, this type of engraving often helps to determine the value of first edition books. The sharper the images are in the books, the fresher the plate was. That means that the book with sharper images was made much earlier in the printing process than the book with less sharply rendered images. Intaglio printing was used for hundreds of years before photographic records were available for printed work. Not only photography less expensive, it doesn’t require the mastery of the engraving techniques.
Who Uses Engraving?
Many modern artisans use engraving, to this day. Gunsmiths, for one, use engraving a great deal on their custom made weapons. Goldsmiths also engrave the items they produce, for both identification and for artistry. Glass engravers do the same, as do masters who engrave musical instruments.
Hand engraving is almost a lost art. The training process is lengthy, and the dedication to detail can discourage even the most determined person. Engravers use gravers called burins to carve the lines and patterns in the precious metals with which they work. While hand engraving us usually done on copper, engravers often work on gold, brass, steel, silver, nickel, and even titanium.
A professional engraver will be able to carve 40 lines in just one millimetre of space, producing incredibly intricate and detailed work. Each burin the engraver uses will produce a different type of line, and the variety of burins available may take years to learn. The art of engraving is a delicate balance of artistry, properly chosen tools, and physical strength for the pushing necessary.
The great trophies of the world are a wonderful example of the differences between hand engraving and machine engraving. Most trophies these days are machine engraved. The machines can make 15,000 strokes a minute, greatly reducing the amount of time and artistry necessary to engrave the plate. However, the difference is obvious. In the hand engraved names on trophies, such as the Open Claret Jug, you can see the humanity in the lettering – it’s almost a spiritual thing. In the last few entries, the mechanical engraving is depressingly uniform and impersonal.
There are still some areas in which hand engraving is treasured – and that is in sign and plaque engraving, the development of plates for currency, and in weapons embellishment. Hopefully, they will keep the craft alive.
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