On Gravers

Q: I just bought some gravers. The fellow who sold them to me said I had to put into a vise, break them in half, completely re-shape them, heat treat and then sharpen them. What are they doing for me? Why not just make the things from scratch?

A: First of all, the length of the graver will depend on the style of handle you prefer, as well as your hand size. It’s not “one size fits all”. So gravers are sold long, to be shortened to the personal tastes of the user and the use to which it will be put. You do not need to reshape them unless you wish, for example, to curve them. Often they are used straight, just as sold. Most engravers will want to remove some of the back of the graver so there’s a smaller point to sharpen, but again, this depends on the actual use, (stone setting may need a differently shaped graver than formal engraving, for example) and the preference of the user. If you are not bending them (which you can do), then they do not need additional heat treatment, assuming you don’t “burn” them in sharpening. And sharpening too, is not done the same for every purpose. It depends on your tastes and skill, the type of metal, the type of engraving, etc.

There are some graver sets that are sold presumably ready to use, or almost so. The EFB gravers, for example, pretty much need only final sharpening. That works because the length of those gravers is adjustable by how they’re placed in their handles. Some users, though, may need to shorten the backs of those, to start out a bit shorter than as-sold. And there is a small set of gravers sold for stone setting that’s advertised as “ready to use”. I don’t happen to like how they’re prepared in that kit, though.

If you want to be sure not to need to heat-treat (though most carbon steel quality gravers are already pretty good as-sold), you can get the high speed steel ones. Those, you can’t heat-treat. They come ready to use, hardness-wise. They keep an edge a bit longer, but some users feel they don’t take quite as sharp an edge. Again: personal tastes…For beginners, most carbon steel gravers, if treated right, are usable with the existing heat treatment. With experience, you may wish to alter that condition, but again, this isn’t something the manufacturer would do, since generally it would mean leaving the cutting edge slightly harder than the body of the graver, and that depends on it being adjusted to the right length first. Another alternative is to buy carbide gravers. Usually only sold as square blanks, they need grinding and sharpening, but no heat treatment. They’re fairly specialized tools, though, and not suitable for all uses.

Properly preparing the gravers is the first step to any work with gravers, from stone setting to engraving, and it’s an important one. Improperly prepared and sharpened gravers will be almost impossible to get decent work from, and can actually be dangerous in use.

First, mount the graver securely on its handle. The style of graver handle is a matter of choice, based on the size of your hand, how you like it to feel, etc. One way to mount a graver is to hold it in a vise, the tang pointing up. Pre-drill an undersized hole in the graver handle if it doesn’t already have one. Heat the back end of the tang with a torch to bright red hot, then quickly drive the handle down onto the tang with a mallet. Allow it to cool, quench if you like. The graver will burn its way into the wood creating a perfectly fitted socket in the wood, which tightens down on the tang as the wood and the tang cool down again.

Then size the graver. Again, this is a bit of a matter of preference, but in general, hold the graver in your hand as though using it, the handle in its appropriate place in your palm, and with your thumb extended as far down the graver as you comfortably can. Mark that length, or maybe a slight bit more. That, for many people, is about the right length to start with. In use, the graver will get shorter over time, and that will be OK, but much longer than this is usually harder to control, so you start by shortening it to that point.

Shorten the graver by putting it, again, in a good sturdy vise or hand clamp, held by the vise jaws on the “good” part of the graver, the part you want to keep, with the excess waste section protruding up above the vise jaws. Wear safety glasses. Hit the extended end of the graver with a hammer. It will snap right off and go flying away. You can hold a cloth towel behind that waste part when you hit it to catch that section if you like.

Now comes the work—sharpening the thing. For most gravers, the first part is grinding off the back of the graver using a bench grinder or whatever you’ve got, so it tapers from the handle to the point. Depending on the shape and type of graver, the thickness can be tapered anywhere from about half the original thickness at the tip, to as little as a millimeter in thickness, leaving just a delicate small tip of the graver at its end. The main point is that the working end of the graver should be no larger than needed to produce the cuts you wish, in order both to better see what you’re doing in sometimes tight quarters, but also so that you don’t have to grind off so much while sharpening and resharpening. Try to keep it cool when you’re grinding on it, so you don’t lose the temper. After the back is cut down to your desired taper towards the point, you then sharpen the graver.

But that skill takes more than a quick message to describe. I’d suggest getting a good book on engraving that shows the proper angles and geometries for a proper point. There’s lots of good info on Steve Lindsay’s website on sharpening, as well as tons of other aspects of hand engraving. Plus lots of examples you’ll drool over…and engraving discussion forums there where you can ask a bunch of engraving experts and enthusiasts . Steve, of course, is the inventor and builder of the Lindsay air graver line of power engraving handpieces. These things make hand engraving a lot faster and easier both to learn, and to do. This type of tool will cut your learning time way way down. The same is true of the popular GRS brand of power engraving handpieces. Personally, I prefer Steve’s tools. Built by Steve, they work and look like a fine Swiss watch or piece of jewelry as much as a fine tool. I prefer the operation, look, and feel of the Lindsay handpieces to the GRS tools, but it should also be said that the GRS tools are fine quality as well, and cost a bit less, I think.

Usual disclaimers re: Steve Lindsay’s site and tools. I’ve no personal stake in either. I’m just a highly satisfied customer, and, as you’ll be when you see his site and work, totally blown away by what he does with these tools.

by Peter W. Rowe M.F.A., G.G.