The Costs of Learning Hand Engraving
When you’ve made the decision to learn hand engraving, you have basically 3 options:
- Spend little or no money but lots and lots of time. You can get by spending very little on one book (Meeks) and the most basic hand tools. Hammer & chisel or hand pushed burins were all that was available for the past couple of hundred years, and some astonishing work was done with them and is still being done by that method.
You can join one of the Internet forums and find mentors who will take the time to help you. You can study the work of dozens if not hundreds of professional engravers online. You can take all of this information and try to put it together into a workable plan for self-instruction.
You can also find plans and directions for making your own engraving ball, gravers, and other bench tools in these forums. At last estimate, I saw a price estimate of less than $200 for a pretty complete homemade setup. This included an engraving ball – made out of a recycled bowling ball and lathe chuck, half a dozen hand push gravers – made from 1/8″ lathe tools, a diamond disc power sharpening system – using a mixer, blender, or can-opener motor, and a bench – made out of a government surplus desk. It can be done! When I began, 30 some years ago, we did not have this resource. It was much harder to find information and techniques were not shared. There were far fewer engravers in those days, and they were very protective of what they regarded as the “trade secrets” that made it possible for them to make a living.
- You can spend a little money and save an enormous amount of time. There are intensive private and public workshops or classes that you can attend. These do cost, but are designed to save you more than they cost – both in time AND money. You will usually SAVE more than you would spend without the benefit of the education.
You will learn to use ALL of the tools and techniques properly – under supervision. You are far less likely to develop bad habits from the start. If you are lucky, you can find an instructor who will let you try every available tool and method – and show you all of the possibilities in every branch of engraving. At that point you can begin to consider what you will need to purchase in the way of tools and equipment to get the results that you are seeking. I see too many students who have invested huge amounts of money in brand new tools without having tried them first. You may well discover that engraving is not for you.
- You can try to find an engraver who will agree to help train you in his or her workshop. Usually you will have agreed to repay the professional in the form of time and labor. This can be an ideal situation if both parties get what they expect. It can also be disastrous for either party. This is often the main reason why so many engravers politely refuse to become involved in training anyone. It takes months to acquire enough skills to make yourself useful to the engraver who is teaching you. At that point he or she is just breaking even with what it costs in time (and perhaps materials 🙂 to train someone. Also if both parties know or feel that the relationship is to be a short one, it might not be worthwhile to either party. What is more valuable to you? If you are young, time is not as important. Money is probably in short supply.
If you are in your 40’s or older and seriously want to produce a good body of work before it is too late time is extremely important. Money may be a bit easier to come by. Short, intensive, private skills workshops can be focused on exactly what you need. The cost of these workshops is not expensive. (I see people spend 3 or 4 times as much for a set of rims for their vehicle!) You have an opportunity to find out whether hand engraving is something you’d like to continue as either a hobby or on a professional basis without investing thus ands of dollars in advance.
Learning precision skills like hand engraving without formal instruction is not impossible. I have done it myself. It was a pretty long and miserable experience. Had I had the opportunities available today, I know I would have found a way to take advantage of the intensive training, and saved myself many years of eating beans and rice! Think about your future customer. Would you like to be the first patient of a surgeon who learned everything he knew from books and tapes? Or take the first flight with a pilot who learned exclusively from his online buddies?
The right instructor can stand over your shoulder and gently tell you that what you are trying to do is upside down or backwards. Or maybe even physically impossible! That you are holding your tool improperly, or have chosen the wrong tool for the job. That there is an easier, faster, or shorter ways to get the result you want.
My last advice is that if you do choose to learn from an instructor in an intensive workshop or class, find someone who has done or is doing specifically what you want to do. I also advise you to find an instructor who is flexible and will teach you what YOU want to know – not what has been printed in some curriculum. Someone who is current in the field, as much has changed in 30 years. There are plenty of incredibly gifted working instructors out there. It may not always be easy to find someone in your particular area, you may have to travel, but if you persevere – you will find what you are looking for.