Nail Tools: Engraving Chisels

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
happen faster.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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
grinding later.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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
    large figure.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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).


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!

  1. Draw or trace your pattern on paper.

  2. Using the copier, enlarge or reduce as you wish.

  3. Clean your metal with Acetone or Lacquer thinner.

  4. Tape your copy face down on the work surface.

  5. 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.

  6. 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).

  7. Peel the paper, which will stick a little where the toner
    transferred, away from your work piece and see if the design is all

  8. 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.

  1. 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
line work.

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


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.


  1. 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.

  2. Heat and air cool to anneal and normalize (even out hardness of
    forged portion) the working end of your stamp.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. Grind or file an even bevel all around the edge. This will make a
    nice “frame” around your maker’s mark.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Clean up with a fine steel brush and test strike in lead or soft

  9. 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
    it hot.

  10. 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

Here is what was missing from Bill’s excellent report – where to get
the best nails:


Ask for W1 or W2 water-hardening tool steel. 

An amazingly good writeup and to add in another resouce for tool
steel is page 1718 in the big book. Comes in 36"
lengths and VERY reasonable.


Don’t forget a source of tool steel, available to most all of us at
almost no cost–ordinary files! Almost all files are made of high
carbon tool steel, even those made in strange places that don’t even
work very well as files. A very good source is your local junk shop
or garage sale, often yielding a bunch of old rusty files that really
aren’t any good any more. Anneal them (you’ve just been taught how),
cut them up into your new tool, properly heat treat them for your
use (you’ve also just been taught how to do that) and finish
sharpening them.

If you like making your own it’s easy, fun and very inexpensive
(even no shipping charges).

Dr. Mac

Hi Pat, folks…

Ask for W1 or W2 water-hardening tool steel.

An amazingly good writeup and to add in another resouce for tool
steel is page 1718 in the big book. Comes in 36"
lengths and VERY reasonable. 

If you want a rod shape, the round stuff is commonly known as “drill
rod”… O-1 (ya quench in oil, or if you’re me, tranny fluid–use
ventilation, saftey glasses, etc) is the most common…but W-1 is
available, too…Standard length is 18 or 36"…

Rectangular or square stuff is known as “flat stock”…and comes
in standard 18 and 36" lengths…O-1 and A-2 most commonly…

This stuff is usually precision ground, and since flats take more
work than rounds, the flat stock is more expensive…

Both are sold already annealed…

Many sizes available in both…many Industrial Distributors stock

My outfit, the day job that keeps getting in the way…does…

Just a sidebar here…the industrial recommended quenching liquid
for W-1 is a brine solution…

And heat treating high carbon steel, hardnening, quenching, and the
tempering or draw, is a bit different in most cases than when you’re
doing the same to the jewelry metals…

If you know someone who’s a gun nut, they probably have a Brownell’s
catalog… There’s a short section on the ABC’s of heat treating
high carbon steel…conveniently next to their drill rod
selection… One of the cool things about the process is when you
do the final tempering, ya can tell what you have by the color,
pretty much…and, you can do some of it in a toaster oven or
kitchen oven… There’s an absolutely vibrant purple you can
get…it’s only a surface thing, that almost wipes off with fine
sandpaper…but think like amethyst…

If you know a real gun nut…a tinkerer or smith, say, they might
have one or all of the Brownell’s “Gunsmithing Kinks” books…much
more info in there…

Gary W. Bourbonais
A.J.P. (GIA)