My name is William L. Howard, Bill for short, and I have made my
living as a metalsmith for the last 40 years. I am considered a
master goldsmith by those who care about such things, and I also
engrave, sculpt, mint, cast, forge, make prototypes, teach, consult,
appraise, drink single malt scotch occasionally, weld, do seminars
and most anything else which is legal, fun, informative and earns
fair wages. I live in Stoughton, Wisconsin, where we operate our
school and do all the usual stuff. I’ve had to do some pretty weird
things with metal in the course of making custom orders, and one of
the most useful skills I ever learned was how to make those special
tools you couldn’t buy if you wanted to but really make the job
Not everyone has vast resources of cash or tools so I have presented
this based on a low tech, low cost approach. You will
need some concrete nails, a belt sander or grinder, a heat source,
hammer, striking surface, a can of water, a vise and about 20
Making an engraving chisel:
Heat the heads of several concrete nails (bigger is better) and
let them air cool to anneal (or soften) the striking surface to
avoid chips, etc. Heat only about 1/4" to red/orange or until it’s
nonmagnetic. If you overheat, the steel will emit sparks which means
you are losing carbon content which you don’t want to do.
Heat the pointed end to red/orange and forge flat
If you’re quick you can hold this with your fingers. During the same
heat, hammer a slight bend near the tip. This will save you some
- There are three basic parts to an engraving tool - FACE, HEEL &
a. You sharpen the face
b. You shape the heel for the cut shape you want
c. You hold or mount the shaft The cutting edge is where the face and
the bottom of the heel meet. The profile of the face is a cross
section which has been ground off the tip, above the heel, at an
angle. This will cut different shaped grooves into your work. The
best one to start with is the 1/2 round.
Grind the heel slowly with the point up to make the bottom edge
1/2 round. If you rotate it back and forth too fast, you will get a
pointed shape instead of rounded. When you’re happy, smooth it off
with a little wet or dry sandpaper as this will make a smoother cut.
Next grind the angle you want for your face. Eyeballing is good
enough. Grind with the heel up if you can as this will reduce burrs
and try to get the plane of the face ground perpendicular to the
shaft. If it’s off to the right or left it won’t cut straight. See
So far you have been working with annealed or softened tool steel
which you will now harden by heating the business end to red/orange
or nonmagnetic and quenching vertically in water. Don’t stir, swirl
or move it.
Your tool is now hardened and ready to sharpen. Use a light touch
and avoid overheating by quenching frequently in a can of water. If
you can, keep the face flat and true to the original angle. If it
cuts your fingernail, it will cut mild steel or annealed tool steel.
To cut steel, hold at a steep angle and enter the metal with one
tap. Continue tapping with a light hammer while lowering the other
end until the face starts to cut through the metal.
To cut continuous lines hold your tool at a constant angle. Too
high and it dives into the metal; too low causes it to surface. With
a little practice you can cut a straight line at even depth.
To cut curved lines you must either rotate your vise or move
around the work piece as you tap the tool through the metal.
IS IT RIGHT? If your tool has developed a mushroomed tip and won’t
cut, it is too soft. If the tip has chipped or fractured, it is too
hard. Anneal & re-harden. The nail will stand this a good number of
times as long as you don’t overheat and burn out the carbon
(emitting sparks during a heat).
SPARK TESTING TOOL STEEL
Take the suspect stock and grind it hard enough to create a shower
of sparks. If the sparks are straight and not too bright, you have
nontool steel or iron. If the sparks fork and fan out in a bright
pattern, you have tool steel. Use a wood nail and an old drill bit
for comparison. Compare a wood nail (bends) and a concrete nail
(breaks) for spark patterns. This is a scroungers’ test and will not
provide an alloy number or hardening but can lead to
results with a little trial and error experimentation. Junk is
cheap, high tech tool steel ain’t! IF YOU CAN DRAW IT, YOU CAN
ENGRAVE IT. Can’t draw? Use this trick!
Draw or trace your pattern on paper.
Using the copier, enlarge or reduce as you wish.
Clean your metal with Acetone or Lacquer thinner.
Tape your copy face down on the work surface.
Rub the back of the copy with a rag which is damp with Acetone so
the paper looks translucent and you can see the pattern through it.
Before it dries or gets moved, press down with the dry end of
your rag on the design until it is dry (60 seconds max).
Peel the paper, which will stick a little where the toner
transferred, away from your work piece and see if the design is all
This produces a durable pattern which you can spray clear lacquer
over for longevity of complicated designs. It will not rub off
easily and can be transferred to anything the solvent won’t eat!
NOTE: Your pattern is a mirror image of the original! You may want
to trace the back of your design and copy that to allow the
lettering to transfer as readable, etc. It works great for making
stamp or die patterns which must be reversed anyway.
- If you want to do it over, just clean the metal with acetone and
For those of you who have lawyers please observe the following
advice. You are responsible for your own safety and work habits. Use
safety glasses when using grinders, torches, hammers and all
potentially dangerous (especially rotary) power equipment and tools.
Avoid burns, if it gets hot let go! Remember that black heat (not
glowing red) can burn you. You can hold work with your hands while
forging but if you’re not a quick worker be prepared to let go
quick. Enough said about the obvious.
If your Xerox transfer smears, you either got it too wet or your
copy moved during the rubbing procedure. This transfer will not
resist heat like soapstone lines will for cutting purposes.
Once you have a good pattern, you only have to follow the lines
until you have cut them all to your satisfaction. Beware brushing
off your work surface with your hand as the burrs you have raised at
the end of your cuts will cut lines in your hand until they are
removed with an exit cut. (SEE ILLUS.) This is designed to get rid
of them and save your hide from damage.
While cutting, your graver acts like a plow or a wing according to
the angle of attack. Steep angles cut deep and vice versa. The more
taps per inch of line cut the smoother your cut will appear.
Numerous light taps will work better than heavy blows for delicate
If you find that the shank of your graver is bending, it is because
it got too hot during forging or some other part of the process and
didn’t get hardened later. Heat the center and quench to try and
remedy this. Take care to keep the ends cold or you will have to fix
them next. Engraving and penmanship have much in common. Everyone has
a different style, so experiment with face shapes and angles as well
as heel angles. Use the bottom and sides to create compound or
beveled cuts and tapered lines, etc.
These tools can be hammered, which is the usual method for cutting
steel or they can be mounted in handles for cutting softer metals
and fine work in steel by hand. The plates for printing our money
are hand cut in steel for example. This is highly advanced work not
recommended for beginners or amateur counterfeiters. A clever
combination can be had by mounting your shaft in a handle you can
use and including a short steel striker of smaller diameter which
contacts the shaft through the other end of the handle. This allows
you to cut by hand or hammer cut with the same tool. Handle shapes
are usually shaped like a mushroom cut in half from cap to stem. The
shaft is mounted in the stem end with the heel and the flat part of
the handle on the down side.
Stamps, dies and trademarks can be made with your new skills.
Coining dies, embossing dies for shaping thin metal and a multitude
of other techniques are now available to you. You can also do
decorative gun engraving, inlay work and a variety of other things
which I highly recommend you practice first before you cobble up a
valuable shotgun, etc.!
Steel is hard, and mistakes you make are hard to erase! Try planning
your cuts, working some from two directions. This works well with
curves. Most cuts work well if you cut from right to left (southpaws
may ignore) and you don’t have to make a cut all at once. It can be
segmented and cut from different angles and directions as with
Last but not least, use finesse. Most novice engravers try to make a
deep cut all at once when a better and more controllable approach is
to shave it down in stages. A power slip can spoil hours of work or
require the removal of a sharp tool from some part of your body. I
know. I’ve done both. Try and plan your mistakes with the “what if
STOCK FOR MAKING A STAMP OR TOUCHMARK
If you want to avoid the trial and error method of finding junk to
make a stamp with and you can spare a few bucks, call your local
tool and die or machine shop. Ask for W1 or W2 water-hardening tool
steel. It is adequate for our needs here and comes in a variety of
shapes. I recommend round or square about 3/8" to 3/4" for stamps.
It depends on what size your finished mark is to be. Water hardening
is simple and easy. For those of you with the right stuff there are
other steels with oil and air-hardening properties which are useful
but more high tech. Size and cut your stock to a length which is
appropriate to the use. Don’t hit a stamp 3" x 3/16" with a sledge,
use a tap hammer. Old chisels and punches are a good source for
heavier duty stamps. Drill bits will work fine for light work but
tend to be brittle unless tempered for heavy use.
MAKING A STAMP OR PATTERNED PUNCH
Heat red/orange and forge work end to shape desired. Soften
striking end. I recommend forging a short taper towards the work
end-- approximately 1/3 the total length or as required to shape and
size the tip.
Heat and air cool to anneal and normalize (even out hardness of
forged portion) the working end of your stamp.
Trim off the end of your stock so that the face of your stamp is
perpendicular to the shaft and as flat as possible (90 degrees). If
it will stand on the face on a flat, level surface you got it right.
Engrave or punch designs into the end of the stamp. Letters and
numbers must appear backward like a mirror image if the mark from
the stamp is to come out right. Don’t cut or punch too deep as 1/32"
is usually adequate to produce a legible mark. Keep your cuts neat
and to an even depth so the resulting mark will have an even height.
Use modeling clay, wax or lead for test strikes and to check your
Grind or file an even bevel all around the edge. This will make a
nice “frame” around your maker’s mark.
Clean up the face and make sure all burrs are neatly removed.
Double check your work. A good stamp will make thousands of
impressions for you, and if there is a flaw it will multiply.
Cover fine engraving with flux to protect the detail and harden
by heating to red/orange or (nonmagnetic) heat and quenching
vertically in water. Just hold it still until it quits steaming and
is cool to the touch.
Clean up with a fine steel brush and test strike in lead or soft
If you are going to mark iron work, stamp the work while at least
cherry red or hotter. Nonferrous metals such as copper, brass,
bronze gold, etc., can be stamped cold. If you worked it hot, stamp
QUENCH your stamp after using it on hot iron or you will
eventually ruin it through gradually softening the face. Air
hardening steel eliminates this problem but water hardening steel is
just fine and a bit easier to work for your first stamp.
Howard Academy for the Metal Arts
William L. Howard, PO Box 472, 188 W. Main St., Stoughton, WI 53589
Studio phone: 608/873-5199