1) Am I supposed to aim for removing all the metal for a given
character or curve in a single thrust, or may I use small
"shaving" movements which have cumulative effect?
Ideally, yes, you should make only one cut per line. The beauty of
hand engraving is in the sparkle that the polished graver leaves with
a single cut, much like a single stroke with a calligraphy pen.
Multiple cuts on a single line make multiple reflections, ruining the
effect. You can make multiple cuts and still get a nice letter, but
the objective is just one cut per line.
2) Do I need a special tool other than the lozenge or square for
making curves? Or can I hold these simple tools a certain way to
make the curve? Or do I simply just "shave" again?
That’s one of the beauties of learning to engrave, the initial
equipment layout can be extremely minimal. The only other "special"
tool that you will need is a pencil. If you can’t draw it, you can’t
cut it. I use a square graver for 99% of my engraving, the curves
come from turning the work (not the graver) as you push the graver
through the metal, the width of the line is varied by rolling the
graver to the side as the line is cut, creating a “flange”.
3) How deep should I be making my cuts? Do I need to go over each
cut in multiple passes to make it deep enough?
Probably the biggest single mistake new engravers make is cutting
way too deep. A “hairline” cut is accomplished by removing a curl
that is about the thickness of a hair, so your cuts don’t need to be
much more than a hair’s breadth deep. Again, one cut per line. If you
find the need to make several passes, you are probably cutting too
deeply. If you need more width than a flange cut will give you, you
can make several parallel lines next to each other, still only one
cut per line. But be advised, cutting parallel lines and lines that
converge adds a degree or two of difficulty. Any error here can be
seen across the room in dim light by someone having poor vision
without their glasses.
4) I have leather, I have sand, so how do I use these materials to
hold my piece?
I think what you are referring to is sort of a round, flat sandbag
made of leather. They are usually about six or seven inches in
diameter and an inch and a half or so thick, made of very hard
leather and filled with lead shot. Those used to be available for
purchase, but I haven’t seen one since Swest went out of business.
Holding the work on a leather bag is accomplished with the fingers.
It’s harder than it looks, but for some larger pieces especially,
it’s the only way that works. Two hockey pucks taped together can
also work quite well, even if the resulting “bag” is a little too
light in weight and small in diameter. That’s what I learned with.
Just for what it’s worth, there is no need for you to start cutting
on aluminum. Copper plate is perfect for learning. I still use it
just about every day for warming up and for test cutting elaborate
It may seem a bit counterintuitive, but lettering is just about the
hardest type of engraving there is. The human eye is very accustomed
to seeing printed lettering, so ANY deviation from absolute
perfection stands out like a sore thumb. Starting with Hebrew letters
is probably a good idea, at least most Westerners won’t be quite so
accustomed to it and you’ll be able to get away with a little
deviation from perfection. The things to watch for in any style or
language of lettering though include spacing (which isn’t the same
from letter to letter, draw an “A” next to a “W” and then an “A” next
to an “M”, or try an “L” on either side of an “I” for a visual
example of why this is the case), the height of the individual
letters should be identical, any slant should be identical from
letter to letter, the width of most letters (two exceptions are W and
M) and width of the thin and thick lines (flanges) that make up the
letters also should be identical. Most of these issues should be
resolved during the layout. If you can get these things pretty close
to right with your pencil, you’re three quarters of the way there
before you even touch your graver!
The reason layout is so important is that you tend to get tunnel
vision when cutting letters and focus intently on just the single
line you are cutting at any given moment. It’s not like writing. It
can take ten minutes or more to cut a single line of block or script
letters, so by the time you are finishing the last letter, the size,
shape and overall appearance of the first is far out of mind. If the
layout isn’t exactly right, when you finish you will see small errors
in height or slant magnified tenfold. I cut all straight and slanted
lines first and then do the curved lines. That way I can keep them
all parallel and even in height. Without a carefully planned, drawn
and transferred layout, that would be impossible.
Another major reason to be careful in the layout is that gravers
don’t come with spell check. Make sure the layout is exactly right
before you start cutting because you won’t notice any errors until
you finish cutting and then it’s too late. Gravers don’t come with
erasers or backspace keys either.
It’s also worth mentioning that engraving on a curved surface like a
band is a lot more difficult than on a flat surface. The angle that
the graver meets the metal determines the depth of the cut, and on a
curved surface just like on a flat surface, that angle must remain
constant or you get a weird looking thin-thick line. In cutting a
letter “C” on a band you start going uphill, get to level and then
cut downhill on the top part of the back of the C, gradually
returning to level and then uphill on the bottom of the C, back to
downhill on the front bottom. If you add in a flange at the back of
the C, you’re rolling in and out as you make the transition from
downhill to uphill, further complicating matters. Throw in a bit of a
dome on the band and things can get downright complex.
If you are interested in learning about engraving lettering, might I
suggest the book “The Jewelry Engravers Manual” by R. Allen Hardy and
John J. Bowman. It is much more detailed about the real nuts and
bolts of lettering than the Meeks book. Another goodie for lettering
is “Engraving on Precious Metals” by A. Brittain and P. Morton.
Remember, the letter that takes longest to engrave is the one that
is never started!
Good Luck Andrew!