General Letter Engraving for Watchmakers, Jewelers and Kindred Trades, by G. F. Whelpley, 1892

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A Complete Exposition of the Art of Engraving on Metals.

If you want to learn how to engrave letters, monograms and writing this great book is an excellent guide. This 1892 book addresses what was then a decline in the education of apprentices, and was intended to give aspiring engravers a way to successfully self educate as a letter engraver. Interestingly for its time it was intended for females as well as males:

“thus place within the grasp of boys and girls what will prove at once an amusing and a lucrative employment. The market is not overstocked with good engravers, especially letter engravers.” And “The work is adapted to ladies as well as to gentlemen, and is no more laborious than telegraphy, stenography, or many of the other avocations that females follow. How much better would it be for a girl to be able to engrave well and earn a comfortable living, than to be employed in a store where she is compelled to stand ten or twelve hours a day, and scarcely realize enough to support her?”

He suggests that round hand (developed in the 1660’s – lots of flourishes) is the best skill for an engraver. Roman, Script and Old English are the core alphabets suggested. It is good to study some calligraphy. And you have to have good posture to engrave letters. Design, layout skills and letter spacing are very important.

There are sample illustrations given with all the core marks for letter engraving on them, and the student is repeatedly encouraged to pay attention to detail, to practice, and practice again until these basic marks are mastered. Copper, Britannia metal (a pewter-like alloy) and zinc are suggested for initial practice.

Door plates, and coffin plates are recommended as common engraved objects for the learner. An engravers pad (a hard cushion of leather) is used at the beginning. (interestingly identical to the way shown me by a Haida West Coast First Nations engraver). There is another version shown set on a rotating support. Good drawings on how to hold the graver help understand what is meant in the text.

The graver angles to use and sharpening are well addressed. There is lots of unique detail on graver types and preparation. While most engravers at that time apparently used sperm whale oil as a sharpening lubricant the author happily preferred olive oil. Another trick: dulling a polished surface to engrave on it is accomplished by rubbing fingers in the hair to get your hair oil on them and dabbing the surface (eww), but this can also be accomplished by using soap.

There are numerous design tips such as the importance of creating a central axis to the letter. The tips for how to engrave, the mechanics of holding, and controlling are very good and detailed. If you are using this book to learn engraving, as it was meant for, read this type of information three times to fully understand it.

This book was definitely written in a time when writers loved the marks of lettering, and reveled in the control, and beauty of the curves and sensitive subtleties of the mark.

There is an extensive chapter on engraving coffin plates in different metals. Patience, repetition and the mastery of small components to build to excellent work is emphasized. The need for persistence, practice and more practice is tellingly repeated. Ring engraving is addressed in detail. Methods of recording engravings on paper are explained (no photocopiers back then). There are many very good illustrations, mostly engraved. Some are white lines on black ground, clearly printed from engraved plates.

Advanced engraving and complex styles are thoroughly described. Monograms and highly decorative work are extensively described, as is engraving on pearl, ivory etc…

File Size: 5.18MB, 115 pages, dozens of illustrations.

Files Included:
  • LetterEngraving_wmk.pdf