I had my first taste of engraving during a jewellery diploma I was studying for in Hatton Garden, and it is safe to say I fell hook, line and sinker for the craft. I hunted out engraving placements, and after work experience in the Holland & Holland engraving shop, I was offered the opportunity to do an apprenticeship. I jumped at the chance, but then fell flat on my face: engraving on steel was no simple feat. Copper and silver are soft to engrave on; steel is hard. Instead of using my graver to engrave the guidelines I had marked out, it slipped over them like Bambi on ice skates.
To start with, I was issued with a few blocks of steel, nearly an inch thick. Each day, I drew elements from gun patterns onto the blocks to engrave. I began small: the designs we engrave on pins, on diamonds, and safety buttons. Many of our standard patterns involve scrollwork, and as the patterns are drawn on freehand, I had to learn how to draw scrolls. This involved spending a of time with a pencil and paper, trying to gets my scrolls smooth and even instead of littered with lumps and bumps. Luckily for me, there were some books I could read to help me do this, and myriad examples of excellent engravings to try and copy.
Eventually, I was able to practice the patterns we engrave on lock plates and action bottoms. These were quite big projects for me, and could take well over a week each. I’d start by drawing the scroll outlines with pencil, and when I was happy with them I traced over with a metal point (a scriber). I used my graver to cut the outlines of the scrolls, and then to cut away the background using hundreds of tiny lines; this gives the appearance of a darker colour behind the scrolls. Finally I would engrave the shade lines to make the scrolls and leaves look more three dimensional.
Once I had finished my engraving, the foreman of the engraving shop would look over it and give me tips and pointers on how to improve. I would take my block of steel to our machine shop, and they would use the surface grinder to take off the top layer of steel and so erase the engraving. My inch thick blocks of steel were whittled away week after week until they were too slim to engrave on. Many people asked if this upset me, but to be honest, I always looked forward to having a blank slate to start again on.
When my work was of a certain standard, my manager gave me smaller pieces from the guns to engrave. The very first pin head I had to engrave took me three times as long as it would have for my colleagues, and I remember well how my heart was pounding as I did it. There was no reason to be quite so scared, as the work went well, but that fear only went away after I had done a particular gun part a few times over. No matter what the part, I was always incredibly nervous to do it for the first time; it was rather different engraving a curved object instead of a flat block of steel.
About a year into my apprenticeship, I was finally given a full gun to engrave. Each piece had been beautifully polished by our finishing team, and it was my job to embellish it with the ‘Royal’ scroll pattern. I laboured over each gun part, and was so relieved when I took each piece to my manager and he approved it. I was very proud when he looked at all of the finished gun parts together and said they were good enough to be assembled by the finishing department, and even more proud when I saw the gun for the first time completely finished. It is amazing to think how far my work progressed from those first few steel blocks to beautiful side plates on a finished gun.