Old School: Master Hand Engraving with Classic Tools and 10 Tips

|Sponsored| I have a very dear, talented friend who is a third-generation jeweler. My heart was bursting when his mother told me a charming story about him engraving a silver platter in his grandfather’s shop at the age of 5. Years later, when he showed me his grandfather’s hand-engraving tools, my eyes welled up with tears. They had a magical quality about them that can only come with age and the labor of love.

I loved knowing that he and his grandfather used those tools for hundreds of hours. Imagine all the anniversary gifts, wedding bands, watches, and other jewelry that was personalized using those tools. The romantic in me loves to think about how many special sentiments, notable dates, monograms, and other one-of-a-kind designs those tools created.

So when Rio Grande invited me to try their hand engraving kit, I jumped at the chance.

hand engraving metal designs

Mastering the Art of Hand Engraving

Engraving has always been high on my list of jewelry techniques to learn. I love the old-school feel that hand-engraved details give metal objects and jewelry. Scrollwork and curlicues (I LOVE curlicues!), monograms, and other designs make even new and modern jewelry look old fashioned and give it a certain air that usually only comes with age.

hand engraving scrollwork shading Roman lettering wavy lines

Expert Video Instruction

Rio’s hand engraving kit includes a DVD to help you get started, even from the earliest beginner level like me. Before I opened this kit, the only engraving I’d ever done was an accidental swipe of a sharp tool across metal I was using to make jewelry! Total newbie.

Learn Old School Hammer and Chisel Engraving with Sam Alfano features 11 lessons, including vises, chisels, and other tools, proper grip, sharpening lessons, and basic engraving of straight and curved lines. Then the lessons continue with more advanced, fun techniques like engraving leaf designs, “running wheat” designs, scrollwork, English scroll, Roman lettering (oh, the personalization!), and wavy line borders.

The lessons are clear and thorough, but as with any good “class,” they’re also loaded with priceless tips for better mastery of hand engraving. Here are just a portion of the ones I noted.

Hand-engraving designs by masters. Top row, L to R: engraved coin by Steve Adams, engraved gun by Alain Lovenberg. Bottom row, L to R: two engraved gun designs by Weldon Lister. Vertical image on right: detail of photo-like engraving by Alain Lovenberg.

Hand-engraving designs by masters, as shown in the video. Top row, L to R: engraved coin by Steve Adams, engraved gun by Alain Lovenberg. Bottom row, L to R: two engraved gun designs by Weldon Lister. Vertical image on right: detail of photo-like engraving by Alain Lovenberg.

10 Tips for Mastering Hand Engraving

1. Sam recommends wooden-handled chisels. The rationale behind that is the wood absorbs some of the shock and results in fewer broken points. I prefer wooden-handled tools already—they just feel better in my hands, more craftsmanlike—so this is great news to me. The kit includes two wood-handled chisels (with bronze ferrules that accept all GRS chisels).

scribe practice lines to engrave next to

2. Using a pair of dividers with one leg off the edge of the metal, or a ruler and a scriber, you can scribe parallel lines on which to practice engraving.

engrave next to the line not on it

3. Alfano’s use of a microscope in filming his lessons pays off in hugely beneficial close-up views like the one above. You can see his engraved lines next to his previously scribed practice lines. Engrave next to the line, not on it, he says, for better assurance that the lines will be straight than you’d get if you cut on the line.

4. If you seem to be cutting too deeply, or to purposefully make shallow cuts and narrower lines, lower the angle of the chisel to direct the point upward. If cutting too shallow, or to make deep cuts and wider lines intentionally, raise the angle of the chisel by raising the handle, causing the point to cut deeper into the metal.

sharpen chisel points tools

5. “Your #1 responsibility is to keep very close tabs on the condition of your chisel point. I can’t emphasize this enough,” Alfano says. “Keep a jeweler’s loupe handy and examine it periodically, especially if the behavior of the tool or the quality of the cut changes. You will be resharpening a lot. Your chisel must be in perfect condition at all times,” and even more so when shading, he adds later. Fortunately, this DVD includes a section on sharpening!

oil graver tips

6. Alfano recommends periodically touching the tip of your graver to a small sponge laden with “household oil” to lubricate it, which will reduce friction, make the tool glide more easily across metal (much like lubing a saw blade), and extend tool life.

cut all one side

7. Cutting all of one side or one direction, especially for border engraving, will help create better consistency in your cuts.

8. “You can make small adjustments to your hammer grip to control the amount of impact on the chisel,” Alfano says. “For heavier cutting, grasp the handle a little bit lower, and for light cutting, like shading, you can raise it up a bit. It doesn’t take much to make a difference for lighter or heaver strokes.”

engrave shading lines

9. For creating shaded areas in engraving, Alfano shares that a “micro thin tapered start up is extremely important in finely shaded work and should be your goal.” Shaded lines are parallel and get deeper as they converge, which creates the shaded look above.

10. Draw to improve your engraving skills. “If you want to excel in this art, you must learn to draw,” Alfano says. There are nearly endless copyright-free patterns you can engrave, but “proficiency with a pencil is what can make you or break you as a hand engraver.”

Alfano even explains why and when you should cut clockwise or counterclockwise. I had no idea there were such specifics to be considered, but that’s another bonus of learning from a seasoned expert!

practice hand engraving

Bonus: The DVD includes a PDF of scroll designs you can print, cut out, and use to practice ‘til perfect. They also show which direction to cut each line.

The Whole Kit and Kaboodle

I’ve mentioned some of what’s provided in the kit and you can learn more on Rio Grande’s product page. But just to be thorough, here’s the whole tidy list:

  • Learn Old School Hammer & Chisel Engraving with Sam Alfano DVD
  • 2.4-oz. head weight chasing hammer
  • two Sam Alfano wooden chisel handles
  • five bronze QC tool holders
  • four tapered flat Glensteel gravers
  • 90° point square Glensteel graver
  • five 16-gauge mild carbon steel practice plates
  • six 16-gauge half-hard brass practice plates
  • fine diamond sharpener
  • double-sided super-fine diamond sharpener with pouch

scrollwork wavy line engraving

Try Hand Engraving Along With Me!

I’ve always been drawn to engraved metal accessories and jewelry because of the monograms, sentiments, and design elements I mentioned above. Engraving is such an elegant way to personalize jewelry. It allows us to share a message, date, or monogram worthy of being worn or displayed forever, or to add one-of-a-kind design details to metal surfaces. If you agree and are ready to learn something new this year, join me in mastering hand engraving!

You can get the Sam Alfano Hammer and Chisel Engraving Kit with Old School Engraving DVD—the same kit I’m using—from Rio Grande. Watch for more blogs about this technique that I’m thrilled to finally learn!

Tammy Jones
Web Producer and Social Media Manager
Interweave Jewelry, Beading & Crochet

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