Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Wednesday 23rd March 2011 - Engraving by Hand - An Introduction

Hand Engraving; A quick introduction.

Recently at university I’ve pretty much become obsessed with etching, engraving and printing; using as wide a variety of materials as possible. This has both expanded my portfolio and got me out of the studio and away from people. Luckily, my father was, for a good 15 – 20 years, an engraver of silver, copper and later, steel, fortunately I managed to borrow a few of his burins to have a go with. A few things have come up from this: Nobody, including technicians, knows what to do with them, as it’s now quite an esoteric art form, which was abolished with the introduction of mass printing and the digital age, so, I’ll attempt to share what I know. (Even google fails to yield any contemporary sources for this information, instead citing Durer, Dore and Rembrandt’s plates as sources of information).

Above are all the tools I use, I’ll look at each in terms of what they do, how best to achieve the desired results and any hindrances resulting from using them.

This is my own personal creation: A metal clay and plaster sculpting tool which I’ve sharpened on an oilstone to a fine point, and padded for comfort. Held like a pen, this tool’s great for scribing (a process where imperceptible etching marks are laid down to stop tools slipping) thin lines on to further enforce with a foursquare or for fine detail. This tool is technically an etching tool; however, I tend to use both sets of tools in tandem to yield the best results. 

The problems with using this specific tool is that there is no variation in line width, so one must rely solely on the burnishing and intaglio processes to add an organic feel to a piece. 

A foursquare: these burin’s are the staple tool of any engraver; used for lining, sweeping and adding detail. The different thicknesses of the shaft lead to different widths of cut lines; however the depth remains constant, meaning that nice variety and sense of depth can be substantiated relatively easily. These particular burin’s are of notable difficulty for newcomers to use, as the idea is that one’s palm is responsible for the power needed to engrave, and not the thumb or fingers. This leads to a line either being cut too deep due to the engraver pushing down with their fingers, or to the tool slipping, scratching the plate’s surface and more often than not cutting the engravers off hand open (a painful experience!) 


This is generally the best way to hold a foursquare; at a roughly 30 – 45 degree angle, with the cutting face parallel to the thumb. The index and middle fingers guide the burin from the other side of the shaft, with the handle cradled in the palm. And I can’t stress this enough: The fingers only GUIDE the blade; the PALM provides all the force needed. Applied correctly, one should cut a nice line, with a curly piece of swarf produced (which is promptly flicked off with the tool at the end of the cut). I’ll cover how to produce an engraving at some point in the future, so won’t go into correct engraving procedures, solely how to use the tools.

These are riddlers. They were often denounced as not a real burin by the engraving schools, and weren’t allowed to be used. However, when meeting a deadline, one isn’t concerned with the right or wrong procedures, solely about producing quality work within a given timeframe. So, these are held in the same way to a foursquare (and all other engraving burins), however, the key difference with this tool is how to use it. As well as guiding with your fingers and powering with the palm, to correctly produce the pattern riddlers are made for, one needs to rock their wrist also, allowing the burin to ‘walk’ along the plate. This creates a wonderful zig-zag pattern, which can be altered by the speed at which you rock your wrist, the amount of power you force onto the tool, and the angle.

For the best results, you need to use the tool quite quickly, the small testers below were done in about 4 or 5 seconds, hopefully giving a decent idea as to what speeds should be adequate. A fun thing about these tools is that they can be made from Hacksaw blades (the blue burin is such an example).  

Lastly, these are shaders, or tint burins to give them their official title. Very similar in appearance to riddlers, their blades have grooves of a predetermined width cut into them, meaning it’s a quick and effective way to add tone to a plate. 

More so than any other tool, the angle of this burin is key. The handles of these tools are often either angled or (as my father done) cut in half, to allow as low a cutting angle as possible. 5 – 15 degrees is what to aim for really, with, once again, ones fingers guiding and the palm powering the burin. 
Something which needs to be addressed for all the tools is this; they need to be sharp. I know it sounds stupid, but, unless you’re cutting Perspex which is isn’t too resistant, the burins should be sharpened on an oilstone after every usage. Also, you never ever need to place a finger, thumb, or any other part of your hand on top of the cutting shaft (the part of the shaft opposite the cutting tip). If you find any fingers on there, you won’t cut anything, as this appendage will only push the tool deeper into the plate, leading to an uneven cut, and, worse, a tool which will slip and ruin your work. 

Some engraver's whose work is well worth a look:
Gustave Dore
Albrecht Durer
William Hogarth

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