A Timeless Art
by Amanda Henson

With the evolution and invention of so many machines and techniques over the centuries, one interesting area of history has changed little since its inception.

The primary tool for hand engraving has remained nearly unchanged since the earliest known applications: a small, sharpened, hard object. Archaeologists have found evidence of carvings and engravings adorning both natural and manmade objects dating back thousands of years. What is interesting is the similarity of the ancient tools to what engraving artists use in our fast-paced, technology-driven, modern world.

Historians believe hand engraving on metal surfaces began around the 5th century BC as a decorative technique. The engraver would hammer or push a short, sharpened rod along a metal surface to create an indentation or cut.

In the ancient world, engraved items announced to all who held power and wealth. Engraving achieved widespread popularity in Greece during the next two centuries. Engravers captured contemporary life and illustrated mythology on manmade objects such as bronze mirrors and urns. As the alphabet developed, hand-engraved letters on items commemorated celebrations and occasions.

Engraving saw a crescendo around the 15th century. Ancient leaders, royalty, and nobility through the 15th century typically commissioned and owned engravings such as signet rings and shields with the family crest.

During the European Middle ages, goldsmiths are thought to have printed impressions of decorative designs as a record of completed work. Historians believe this gave way to printmaking on copper plates prior to the invention of the printing press.

Early printmaking was not considered an art but a form of communication. Impressions from these plates date back as early as the 1430s. At this point, engraving was still used for decorative or communicative purposes only. The engraved work of German-born Albrecht Dürer became the impetus for engraving as a truly artistic method.

Unfortunately, hand engraving began to lose popularity to the easier method of etching around the mid-16th century. Engravings were generally still used for commercial illustration by the 19th century, but the field of engraving had not regained its previous popularity.

As with many skilled fields, those who knew how to engrave held their knowledge close at hand. Masters were extremely secretive, carefully and rarely choosing apprentices to whom they would pass on the trade. Techniques were not openly shared, even with an apprentice, so achieving master status could take decades. The number of master engravers throughout the world was stagnant, with hand engraving in danger of becoming an art of the past.

During the mid-20th century, a renaissance in hand engraving began to take place. Tool systems using pneumatics reduced the physical labor involved with hand engraving, adding a new appeal to the art form. In spite of these new methods, many engravers were still reluctant to share knowledge even into the 1970s. Over the years, however, a more open and passionate generation of hand engravers decided to keep their wonderful art of engraving from dying with them.

Modern media formats, such as VHS tapes and DVDs, along with the wide availability of Internet access, now provide a quick and easy form of communication for engraving artists. Online forums and websites host dozens of ideas, articles, tutorials, videos, and more from the growing community of engravers. Today, both large and small training facilities and studios exist in the Unites States and in many other countries such as Belgium and Italy. Even though the tools have endured relatively unchanged through the ages, this period in the timeless art of engraving is unlike any other. As long as engravers continue to share knowledge, engraving is sure to flourish for future generations.