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Getting started in engraving: engraving is an art form that can add value to your custom guns and spruce up the appearance of less valuable firearms. Here's what you need to know to get started.

Engraving looks like magic to most folks. It is, quite literally, carving in steel. And steel doesn't seem like the easiest of materials in which to carve. Yet engraving flourishes, as it has for hundreds of years. I wanted to try engraving since I was about eight years old, but didn't give it a serious try until I was about 50. When I finally began, to my utter amazement, I found I had an affinity for it which I really couldn't explain.

So, can anyone become an engraver? I suspect that anyone who tinkers with guns can learn to engrave at least well enough to be able to cut the caliber into the barrel of a custom rifle. And that looks infinitely better than stamping it in with a set of punches. I also believe a lot of folks who try engraving will find they're pretty good at it, and will actively pursue it. All you need is the desire, a little knowledge, and a bit of instruction. I'm not going to try to instruct to any serious degree here, but I will explain what engraving is all about, so you get an idea how it's done.

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My First Engraving

My very first "engraving" was done when I was perhaps 10 years old, using a Dremel tool to scratch up the surface of brass firecracker cannons I had made. (I was an early "gunsmith," as well as an engraver.) Years later, I attempted to cut my initials into the rock-hard frame of a Ruger .44 revolver. The result was legible, but because I didn't know how to go about it, the result was also crude. In desperation, I bought James Meek's excellent book titled The Art of Engraving, and then things picked up.

I studied Meek's book when I lived in the wilds of Alaska with a lot of time on my hands. The first thing Meek suggested was to start your en graving lessons by drawing scrolls on paper with a pencil, and I admit that's a great idea. He recommended the beginning engraver devote a full year to pencil and paper before attempting any engraving. Balderdash! After a few weeks, I got sick and tired of drawing endless scrolls and started cutting metal. I found it went quite well. However, the use of pencil and paper is a great way to learn, to keep in practice, and to plan a design.

I wanted desperately to engrave something. At hand was my fine Churchill double 470, a costly rifle which had a gold oval in its buttstock that carried someone else's initials. It was time to change the initials to my own. I carefully filed off the existing initials, smoothed and polished the gold, laid out my monogram, and then went to work with the crudest tools imaginable. I used a piece of one-quarter-inch-square high-speed steel, about six inches long. I narrowed one end of it and put an engraving point on it according to Meek's instructions. Even though that tool was more of a bludgeon than an engraving chisel, by driving it with a small ball-peen hammer, I succeeded in achieving exactly what I had intended to accomplish. This was my first successful engraving, and it still looks good today.

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So if I can use a thoroughly unsuitable chisel and a thoroughly unsuitable hammer to cut into the gold of a $40,000 rifle, I suggest it may be time for you to get some gravers and start cutting. It ain't that hard!

Engraving Instruction

I've used only two sources for all my engraving instruction. The first one--and the only one I used for many years--is Meek's book. The Art of Engraving takes you through just about everything you need to know, and includes descriptions of the tools you might want, with good photos and drawings. The second source, which I acquired some years after beginning with Meek's book, are a pair of DVDs titled Engraving with Lynton McKenzie. (McKenzie's DVDs are available from Brownells, as is Meek's book.) McKenzie's instruction is broken down into "beginning," "intermediate," and "advanced." McKenzie reduces the number of tools that Meek suggests you need, and I'm in agreement with him. I use only half a dozen tools for all my engraving.

The Tools

In my experience, the easiest-to-use and most versatile chisel or graver is about 3/32-inch square and about 3 or 4 inches long, made of high-speed steel (HSS). Brownells used to sell these, but doesn't at present, so I recommend looking online. One source is Contenti Jewelry Making Supplies in Rhode Island (401/305-3000; www.contenti.com). You can also try the E.C. Muller Company in New York (718/881-7270; www.ecmuller.com). A third source that lists only carbon steel (not HSS) tools, but will get you started, is Track of the Wolf in Minnesota (763/633-2500; www.trackofthe wolf.com). Another excellent source is eBay. What you want is a #2 to #4 square graver. A suitable square graver will cost five to ten dollars and will last you nearly forever.

In classic engraving terminology, a "graver" is driven by hand pressure only. But if you use the same tool with a hammer, it's referred to as a "chisel." I use the terms interchangeably. Most engraving of firearms, in my experience, is done with a "chisel" and a chasing hammer. The best handle to use with a hammer-driven chisel is a round hardwood rod, which you can easily make. The hand-pushed "graver" handles have a larger-diameter head with a flattened side, so you can get the tool lower to the work and apply the needed hand pressure more easily. Brownells still lists flat-head handles. As noted, you'll need a small hammer. You can make or buy one. If you make one, be sure it has a large head, is not too heavy, and has a slightly flexible wooden handle.

The only other necessary item is a vise. I've used a simple bench vise with a rotary base for all my engraving. You can spend lots of money for a dedicated rotating vise, but it's not necessary. One guy made one out of a bowling ball, attaching a vise to the ball and resting the bowling ball in a collar of wood so it could be easily rotated and would not roll away. Many engravers simply mount a vise on a pedestal at suitable height, and do their engraving standing up, rotating themselves instead of the vise. I recommend using your bench vise to get started. If you like engraving, the sky's the limit on accessories. These can include a dedicated microscope (like McKenzie uses), or even the costly Gravermeister, which provides endless pneumatic tapping, so you won't even need a hammer.

Sharpening

The point on a chisel or graver is achieved by first beveling the tip of the square graver about 45 degrees rearward along the corner-to-corner axis, leaving a single sharp protruding point. You then knock the bottom edge off this point just a little by lightly stoning the sides, leaving a cutting edge that's sort of flat-bottomed but still sharp-pointed. The small flattened bottom of the tool prevents it's digging too deeply into the steel. If you make the bottom flat too long, you'll have trouble getting the chisel to cut tight curves. Depth is controlled by angling the tool, just like cutting into wood with a chisel. You get it around corners by slightly rotating the chisel about its long axis, away from the direction of the desired cut. In use, the chisel pares off a tiny but continuous strip of steel along your drawn lines, as you tap the chisel repeatedly with your hammer.

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Of course, you've got to be able to see what you're doing. Good light, and a 5x OptiVisor are indispensable items for me. Oh, and you'll need some good flat stones to keep the graver sharp. Ideally, as McKenzie's DVD finally told me, you keep the tool so sharp that it cuts cleanly, removing a thin sliver of metal without throwing up much of a burr on the surrounding background. His DVD shows an easy way to keep the graver sharp. When you're done with all your cutting, you leave the engraved surface completely alone. You don't need to stone it down to remove the burrs you've thrown up--because you didn't throw up any in the first place.

Oops! I didn't do that. I have stoned down all the work I've ever done (until recently). This was partly because I threw up lots of burrs, using tools that got dull quickly, and also because I didn't have the cutting edge quite right. Stoning leaves a clean surface and generally made my engraving look better, so I did it. But McKenzie says it's wrong, and I consider McKenzie's work to be the best, and so now I'm using better gravers and keeping them razor sharp, so I don't have to stone the finished surface. Live and learn.

Be sure to figure out what it is you want to engrave, and think about how to achieve it. If you want, say, a circle, you can cut one. That leaves a circular groove in the metal. But if you want the circle to stand out, you cut away the background outside the circle, leaving the circle as the highest part of the metal. Most beginning engraving will be done the first way.

Moving Onward

Following my success with the 470, I looked for a bigger "canvas." I had on hand a custom .458 Mag on a 1903 Springfield action that had been barreled by one of Alaska's better gunsmiths. I had reshaped the stock and checkered it, but the metal was crying for decoration. By this time, I had acquired some good gravers from Brownells, and some chunks of flat, soft steel for practice, although I still needed a proper hammer. I had seen a photograph of Lynton McKenzie's engraving hammer and that's what I wanted. I used a friend's metal lathe to make a copy of McKenzie's hammer, and then engraved the hammer head as a practice piece. It came out well, and has done all my engraving work for me ever since.

I practiced a lot on those soft steel plates from Brownells. Soon it was relatively easy to follow the scroll lines I had drawn on the plates, and it wasn't too hard to control the cutting depth and direction. Thus encouraged, I began to draw and carefully cut on my .458. Engraving that rifle took a long time, because I was being extremely careful. I'd cut a little, take a break, and come back to it. For many weeks, I did little else but cut on that rifle. The odd thing about it was that, along the way, I felt like I had done it all before. It was as if someone was looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do. I found my tools doing things I didn't understand, but the results on the steel were exactly what I had wanted to achieve. Much of what I was doing was not in Meek's book, and I have no idea where it all came from.

Getting Started

Before you spend a penny on engraving tools, I recommend looking closely at all the engraved guns, or pictures of them, you can find. Take a magnifying glass along with you to gun shows or gun shops and look at all the engraved guns you find. Ask yourself if engraving is something you can understand and think you can accomplish. If you look with interest, you'll soon find that some engraving is a whole lot better than others. You'll learn to distinguish between machine-made and hand-cut engraving. Some of the most tasteful engraving doesn't cover the gun completely. The spaces left untouched can help to create a pattern, and set off the bursts of engraved steel better than if every square inch were cut. Purdey's rose-and-scroll decoration is a good example.

If you still think you want to try engraving, get an instruction book. I think beginners will learn easily from Meek's book. You can readily refer to what he tells you on the printed page. If you're serious, I recommend studying all the engraved guns you can find, or good pictures of them. (The internet is a good source.) Examine them with a strong magnifying glass, and try to see how the cuts were made. You'll be surprised how crude some fine engraving looks when you magnify it. Yet the effect is artistic when viewed normally. You'll also find the cuts are all quite shallow. Early British double rifles and shotguns are some of the finest treasure troves for the engraving student. McKenzie got his background from the old English guns. By the way, those old guns were engraved in the white and then case hardened.

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You probably don't want to start by trying to engrave your customer's guns. I recommend the flat steel plates, still offered by Brownells as the best place to start. If you can draw scrolls on paper, transfer some onto the surface of the steel plate and try cutting them. Don't be discouraged if it doesn't seem to go as well as you'd like. Stick with it, come back to it as often as you can, and soon you'll see some significant progress. Generally speaking, you'll have to refinish any gun you engrave. I generally prepare the metal with 400-grit wet-or-dry sandpaper, keeping everything dead flat, with no rounded-over comers. I also use stones to get the flat surfaces of handguns true before beginning to cut. There are a few tricks of the trade, obviously, but you'll pick them up fast if you're interested. Naturally, you won't want to buff the dickens out of your freshly engraved gun and drop it into a bluing tank. Rust bluing is appropriate, and if you like engraved guns, you'll probably want to learn rust bluing along with other appropriate fine finishes.

Putting the caliber onto the breech area of a rebarreled rifle that needs bluing anyway, is a tasteful item, and almost any gunsmith can learn to do this, given the desire. It may be the best place to start, but be advised that lettering and/or numbering is not as easy as scrollwork, or so I have found. But the basics are the same: Lay it out with pencil, and follow the lines with the chisel. Some engravers prefer a flat-bottom chisel to cut the widest part of each letter, but that's a matter of personal preference.

Choose a Theme

A central theme makes the engraving more fun. It can commemorate a special time, place, or event. And it can help you to come up with new, related ideas rather than just sticking another scroll here and there. I wanted a theme for my engraving on that .458. In my relative solitude in bush Alaska, I had more wild-animal and bird friends than human ones. I decided to "freeze them in time" on the rifle, where they would never die and would always remind me of that magical time. So I used my many wild friends as models for the rifle's engraving. On the floorplate is a portrait of my fox friend, who used to come and eat out of my hand, and sit with me on quiet nights. I did his portrait entirely by hand, no hammer, in what is called the "bulino" technique. The rifle also has images of gray jays, pine grosbeaks, chickadees, a squirrel, a mouse, and a woodpecker, all of whom came to my call and either ate out of my hand or sat on it. Of course I got a lot of grief for putting chickadees on an elephant rifle, but that's what I wanted. I carried that rifle everywhere in Alaska, and my friends were always with me.

And that's the name of the game when you engrave your own guns. Do what you want, to the best of your ability, and if you like what you produce, that's all that matters.
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Title Annotation:Back to Basics
Author:Ordorica, Ray
Publication:American Gunsmith
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Words:2697
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