Engraving Skills

First the engraver will make a sketch of the object on the spoon bowl either by drawing or

by a transfer process. Then after positioning himself next to a north facing window

(natural light is better than artificial light) he will very carefully use his graver tools to

carve thin lines in the metal. As the graver cuts into the metal, a thin sliver of silver is

removed. First the major lines of the picture are engraved and as it begins to take shape,

smaller and smaller lines are cut into the metal to fill in the detail. All of the little cuttings

are saved as they can be melted and reused in the future. The engraver must constantly

sharpen his tools to ensure that the lines are smooth. Considerable hand pressure must be

placed on the graver tool, but the engraver must ensure that the cut is not too deep which

would cause gouges or too shallow which would allow the tool to slip and scratch the

metal in unwanted ways. This is a much tougher task than it sounds and the concave shape

of a spoon bowl increases the problems. Sometimes the tool itself will break and this will

cause unsightly problems. If you examine some of the pictures, you can determine where

the engraver had "problems" and how he made other shapes and lines to disguise the

problem since it is almost impossible to "erase" a bad line. Normally an observer would be

unaware of these slight mishaps, but these pictures have been enlarged so they are

somewhat more obvious.

After the picture is completed, any lettering must be done. Many of the names and dates

which are engraved were done separately at the time of purchase. There were numerous

styles of lettering that were popular at this time in history, and the engraver had to be

familiar with all of them. Figures B1 through B5 show some of the more popular styles of

lettering. These range from basic block lettering through fancy script.

If you run your finger across an engraved bowl, you can feel the cuts in the metal, if the

bowl has not been polished many times, you can still feel the "jaggedness" of the cuts.

When reading books about silver, the author will sometimes say that the engraving is later

or of another time period. Some dealers believe that if they can feel the "jaggedness" then

the engraving is not as old. This is only partially true as the number of polishings or use is

what reduces this feel. If a three hundred year old piece were only polished once it would

still feel jagged whereas if a modern piece were polished many times it would feel

smoother. There were styles of engraving in various time periods and sometimes a dealer

will say that the style is from another time period. This is sometimes true as it was not

unusual for a piece of silver to be modified or engraved at a later date. Generally we do

not have this problem with souvenir spoons and the dates and initials are from the time of

purchase..

Some of the pictures were engraved at the factory and sometimes a local jeweler would

hire a local engraver to do the work. The factory usually tried to get the jeweler to order a

dozen images at the same time.

How long did it take to engrave a picture in the bowl of a spoon. The answer is

not simple. Obviously a more complex picture would take longer and the more skilled an

individual engraver is the faster he would be able to complete the work. If the engraver

were doing multiple copies of the same design, later versions would be completed faster

than the first versions. A consensus of opinion among the dealers who have discussed this

matter with me is that on average a simple picture would take between 3 and 4 hours to

engrave. More complex pictures might take 6 or more hours.

There are two pictures of engravings of the Minneapolis milling district. Fig C. (Note

both pieces have identical handles and were probably engraved by the same person. Close

observation will reveal a number of small differences including quality differences which

are probably related to fatigue or time pressures. It is unusual to find pieces that can be

identified as being from the same batch and engraver; (Paye & Baker). They are included

here so that you can see that as the engraver became familiar with a particular picture,

changes were made. Most of these changes are subtle, but careful examination of the two

pictures will reveal many minor differences.

Engraving is a highly skilled artistic activity. It takes about ten years of practice to reach

the "master" status. Most individual silversmiths did not do their own engraving, but

contracted it out to specialists. Paul Revere was one of the few silversmiths who also did

engraving on a professional basis. He is known to have engraved both silver items which

he created and he engraved copper plates for printing. The major silver manufacturers

often had a few skilled engravers in their service, but these “artistic type” people did not

fit well in an assembly line production. Management would often try various incentives to

make them work faster and thus be more profitable, but records from Gorham and Tiffany

indicate that such incentives usually did not work well. Most engraving is traditionally

anonymous since it was usually subcontracted, but as an incentive both Tiffany and

Gorham, for a time, allowed the engravers to mark their work . Some of the Gorham

spoons pictured here which were engraved at the factory are marked with an engraver

mark on the back of the bowl fig D (see square with line through it to left of flowers).

Silver, copper and steel engraving are basically the same process. Until the 1880's

the printing industry employed most of the engravers to make the plates for all the

pictures that were to be printed. This was a highly paid skill which was transferred from

generation to generation for hundreds of years. But in the mid 19th century the printing

industry began experimenting with a new technique called lithography (literally stone

printing). Using this technique the artist would literally draw the picture on a stone plate

which would then be acid etched and used in the printing press. The very expensive and

time consuming step of engraving a steel (or copper) plate would eventually be eliminated.

The net effect of lithography was that picture printing became much easier and cheaper

and thousands of highly paid engraving jobs were eliminated. The famous firm of Courier

and Ives was one of the American companies that led this technological revolution.

The silver industry was one of the few places a master artist-engraver could still

find work after the printing industry’s technological revolution no longer needed his

services. Engraving had been used to enhance the look of silver for centuries. Most of the

time silver objects were only engraved with names and or initials and dates because of the

difficulty and expense. In England some coat-of-arms engraving was done on larger more

valuable pieces of silver. Picture engraving has been known since the 1500's but it was

relatively expensive and therefore somewhat rare. We do find a few examples of picture

engraving on various smaller pieces of silver including caddy spoons and small boxes from

the first part of the 19th century but they are not overly plentiful. The American

commemorative spoon revival, however, was a godsend to these engravers as it required

extensive detailed work at relatively good wages (The wages were not as good as those

paid by the printing industry because there were more people applying for work than there

were open positions). The ready availability of skilled personnel created the opportunity to

have limited interest commemorative spoon bowl pictures hand engraved without

investing in the very expensive die creation process. If a jeweler only needed one or five or

ten commemorative pieces it was simply not cost effective to have a die made, thus the

engraved bowl was a natural substitute. Eventually the commemorative spoon revival ran

its course and the public was no longer willing to pay the price for high quality hand

engraving. Since there was virtually no further demand for engravers in any other industry,

most of those highly trained people were forced to seek other lines of work. Needless to

say, they did not pass on their skills to their children, and today we find no commercial

engravers who are capable of doing the quality of work shown in this book.

A few people still retain the skill to do hand lettering, (without using a jig) but I have

been unsuccessful in finding anyone who is capable of doing the picture type work. As a

side note, If you would like to see an example of excellent modern day engraving, examine

any denomination paper dollar in your wallet. American paper dollars are one of the very

few items that are still made from engraved plates. Even the Bureau of Engraving which

produces these plates is having an extremely difficult time finding capable engravers. They

have had to start their own training process because they have been unable to hire

knowledgeable master engraving personnel.

Fig. E. shows three pictures of the Masonic Hall in Chicago. All three are the same

building and the same viewing angle but most likely by different engravers. But examine

them carefully. They are different and those differences show the artistry which is involved

in engraving.

A variation on the engraving process is "bright cut engraving". To create this effect, the

engraver uses a specially shaped scorper to remove a sliver of metal. This scorper creates

tiny facets in the metal that shine brightly. You can see this effect in many of the pictures.

Notice how the windows of the buildings are brighter as if the lights were on. Sometimes

the outlines of the buildings are also done with bright cuts. Bright cutting is a more

difficult technique but it was quite popular at this point in history. Sometimes an engraver

will overuse the technique and some of the pictures show "excessive" bright cutting. A

skilled engraver is a true artist and you will see much variation depending upon each

individual's skills.

Chasing and engraving are similar skills and we occasionally find some chased

pictures in spoon bowls. In chasing, the metal is indented to form a design, whereas in

engraving a sliver of metal is removed. The effect is different, but one has to examine the

item very carefully under a magnifying glass to determine which process was used. In

many cases the two skills are combined. For example, in many of the pictures, you have

seen trees and other foliage. Those features are sometimes done by chasing, whereas the

main building is done by engraving.

Return to Spoon Exhibits page