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How to Engrave Metal - Types of Engraving

Written by:
Aleks Nemtcev
Updated:
February 2, 2024
hand engraving technique

How to Engrave Metal: At the beginning of the 21st century, hand engraving is on the verge of extinction. To acquire a knife with hand engraving, seeking a master’s at a thematic exhibition is advisable. However, be prepared to pay a premium, significantly higher than for a standard custom knife. Hand engraving notably elevates the product’s value.

The primary objectives of engraving include weapon identification (e.g., adding the manufacturer’s emblem or the master’s name to the blade) and personalization (inscriptions, symbols), as well as decoration through patterns and drawings.

Basic Engraving Techniques of Metal

Basic engraving techniques for metals involve several fundamental methods that artists and craftsmen use to inscribe designs onto metal surfaces. These techniques include hand engraving, where tools such as gravers or burins are manually controlled to cut or incise designs into the metal. Another common method is etching, which uses acidic solutions to bite into the metal, creating intricate patterns or text. Stippling, which involves creating a series of dots for a textured effect, and engraving with a pneumatic tool that drives the engraving tool with air pressure for more consistent depth and precision, are also widely used. Each technique requires specific skills and tools, offering a range of possibilities for personalization and decoration.

Hand engraving

Hand engraving is an art form that dates back centuries, requiring significant skill, patience, and precision. This traditional method involves the manual manipulation of tools such as gravers, chisels, and burins to incise designs directly onto metal surfaces without the aid of machinery. Artisans employ a variety of strokes, pressures, and angles to achieve intricate patterns, lettering, and imagery, making each piece uniquely their own. In the realm of real hunting knives, especially older models, the use of floral ornamentation in engraving is prominent, with each plant symbolizing deep meanings—lotus for immortality, laurel for glory, oak for strength, palm for peace and victory, and grapevine for the mystery of the sacrament. These motifs are often executed using the plane engraving technique, which involves creating multiple planes on the metal surface to achieve a relief effect, making inscriptions or designs appear either raised or recessed. This technique, while less common on blade surfaces, is frequently used to embellish knife parts and scabbards, adding a layer of symbolic significance and aesthetic value to the craftsmanship. The tactile connection between the engraver and the material allows for a level of detail and personalization unmatched by mechanical processes, infusing each item with timeless elegance and reflecting the meticulous craftsmanship of its creator.

ho to engrave on knifeengraved knife

Bulino

Bulino engraving, a meticulous and time-honored technique, stands out for its ability to capture the nuanced textures and chiaroscuro of its subjects through the precise application of dots and lines onto metal surfaces. Originating from the Italian school of engravers and named after the principal tool used, the bulino technique involves using various pointed tools, including a “V” graver, a carbide needlepoint, and specialized handpieces like the AirGaver, to create intricate designs. This method is akin to the art of scrimshaw, utilizing dots much like an ink pen on paper, allowing for the depiction of fine details such as the texture of animal skins, commonly seen in hunting motifs. Historically employed in gun decoration, bulino engraving has since been embraced by knife artisans, often adorning the metal components of knives such as bolsters, crossguards, and occasionally blades. Masters of the craft may employ dotted, linear, or a combination of techniques, tailoring their approach to each unique piece, thereby infusing bladed weapons with unparalleled depth and character.

Bulino engraving on metal

engraving on metal

 

How to Engrave Metal

Technique of execution of engraving

Design Planning: Begin by selecting the design to be engraved. Sketch the design on paper and refine it until satisfied. Consider the symbolism and placement of the design on the metal surface.

Surface Preparation: Clean the metal surface to remove oils, dirt, and any coatings that may interfere with the engraving process. Ensure the surface is smooth and ready for marking.

Transferring the Design: Use transfer paper or a graphite pencil to transfer your finalized design onto the metal surface. Ensure the design is accurately positioned and visible.

Tool Selection: Choose the appropriate engraving tools for the job. This may include a variety of gravers, burins, or pneumatic tools depending on the detail and depth required in the design.

Initial Engraving: Begin engraving along the outline of the design. Use a light, steady hand to guide the tool, creating clean and precise lines. For plane engraving, select the appropriate graver to achieve the desired relief effect.

Adding Depth and Texture: Deepen the engraving where necessary to enhance the design’s dimensionality. Use different gravers to create textures or to vary the line width within the design, adding depth and interest.

Detailing: Add any fine details last to avoid distorting them during the engraving of larger areas. This may include the meticulous application of dots in bulino engraving or the careful inscription of symbolic flora.

Cleaning and Polishing: Cleaning and Polishing: Once the engraving is complete, clean the metal surface to remove any burrs or debris that resulted from the engraving process. Use a soft brush and a mild cleaning solution to gently cleanse the area, ensuring not to damage the delicate engraved lines. After cleaning, polish the engraved area lightly with a polishing cloth or a specialized metal polish to enhance the design’s visibility and contrast.

expensive knives

– Most engraved items are quenched to make the steel more resistant to corrosion.

– If during the engraving, gold and silver notches were made, then after quenched, they would look even more beautiful.

– After engraving and quenching, the product is often blackened with a special paint – it enhances the contrast of the image.

how to engrave - hand engraving

 

hand engraving

hand engraved knife

Chasing: The Oldest Method of Engraving

Chasing, an ancient technique blending sculptural form shaping with detailed finishing, utilizes hammers and chisels (such as bolsters, flat chisels, and pointed chisels) to create intricate designs on metal surfaces. For detailed engraving, artisans commonly employ a rhomboid chisel, known as a graver, and a spitzstichel, which has a triangular, rounded-edge section. Additional tools include steel needles, dyes, and auxiliary aids like pencils, chalk for marking, a sharpening stone, a steel ruler, and magnification tools such as magnifiers and microscopes.

The technique is versatile and applicable to a wide range of materials including various steels and alloys—where the metal’s hardness level is a critical consideration—copper, aluminum, and both non-ferrous and precious metals. This adaptability makes chasing a preferred method for adding decorative elements to metal objects, showcasing the engraver’s skill in bringing metal to life with depth and detail.

Laser Engraving Overview

Laser engraving stands out for its ubiquity and efficiency, often completed within 15–20 minutes. Many towns, even small ones, host workshops capable of returning a knife with the requested inscription, emblem, or design in as little as half an hour. This engraving method employs a laser beam to vaporize a portion of the metal, leaving a visually distinct mark. The most advanced lasers can even cut through metal entirely, demonstrating the technique’s capability for ultra-precise and fine laser cutting.

CO2 laser engravers represent a more affordable segment within the engraving market. These machines, characterized by their relatively weaker beam, are predominantly utilized on non-metal materials such as wood, plastic, and leather, making them suitable for engraving knife handles and sheaths. The name “CO2” comes from the use of carbon dioxide to generate the long-wave infrared radiation these engravers operate with.

In contrast, engravers using “yttrium aluminum garnet” (YAG), vanadate lasers, and fiber lasers emit a different type of radiation, optimized for engraving metals of high strength and hardness. Among these, fiber lasers are the most powerful, and capable of handling the most demanding engraving tasks with precision and efficiency. These technologies cater to a wide range of engraving needs, from decorative designs to functional markings on various materials.

laser engraving vs hand engraving

Mechanical Engraving Explained

Mechanical metal engraving today draws on traditional methods but is executed with machines rather than by hand. A programmed cutter moves along a predefined path to inscribe the chosen design. For tasks such as polishing or engraving on stainless steel, specific cutter attachments are employed to create raised, embossed effects. For the hardest materials, a diamond-tipped cutter is used, ensuring precision and durability in the engraving process. This mechanized approach combines the precision of modern technology with the artistry of traditional engraving techniques.

custom hunting knives

Etching (electro-etching)

Electrochemical etching is a sophisticated method for creating patterns on metal surfaces, utilizing electrolyte solutions and electrodes. This technique allows for the intricate replication of patterns, such as those found in Damascus steel. It’s important to exercise caution when purchasing knives with Damascus patterns at low prices, as these may be the result of electrochemical etching rather than genuine Damascus steel. The process involves coating areas of the blade not intended for etching with a protective varnish, while the exposed parts are treated with acids. Historically, etching on stainless steel was achieved using substances like caustic silver.

The procedure necessitates an electrolyte, typically a mixture of orthophosphoric acid, hydrochloric acid, and sulfuric acid, along with direct and alternating current sources. Electrochemical etching is particularly effective for replicating patterns or markings on metal, allowing for varying depths of etching by controlling the electric current. This method, often referred to as electroplating, meticulously extracts metal particles from the surface to form the desired pattern, offering precision and versatility in metal decoration and marking.

etching on knife

Conclusion

In exploring the multifaceted world of metal engraving, we have journeyed through various methods, from traditional hand engraving and the meticulous bulino technique to the precision of laser engraving and the innovative processes of mechanical and electrochemical etching. Each method offers unique benefits and challenges, catering to different artistic visions and material requirements. Whether seeking the personalized touch of hand engraving, the efficiency of mechanical methods, the precision of laser work, or the detailed patterns achievable through electrochemical etching, artisans have a wealth of techniques at their disposal.

As technology advances and new tools become available, the boundaries of metal engraving continue to expand, enabling more intricate designs and broader material applications. However, the core essence of engraving—as a means of expression, customization, and craftsmanship—remains unchanged. Whether you are an experienced engraver or a curious novice, the world of metal engraving offers endless possibilities for creativity and innovation. Armed with knowledge and the right tools, anyone can embark on the rewarding journey of transforming ordinary metal into a work of art, imbued with personal significance and aesthetic value.

Author: Aleks Nemtcev | Connect with me on LinkedIn

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  • Kadri Karabulut

    I have been dealing with engraving for forty years. Unfortunately, my eyes have lost their former sensitivity. It’s a very enjoyable craft. I was glad to read your articles. We couldn’t find such information in the past. We were reinventing everything through countless experiments.

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