Thoughts from a Hand Engraver

By Barry Turner, Master Engraver and part of Downey for over 50 years

I consider myself very fortunate to have spent my entire life working at something that I really enjoy doing, it is also my passion and hobby. Hand engraving is a gift of skill which was passed to me from my father William 'Bill' Turner, one of the finest craftsman of his time, who also taught my younger brother Grahame (pictured).

I would like to, if I may, share a few of my experiences with you.

Large hand engraving copper

Copperplate and Steel Engraving

In this world of high speed printing where we can drop an item into a printer on the way to work and collect it on the way home, the art of printing from engraved copper and steel plates has to a large extent been forgotten.

This is a sad loss, as many traditional and very beautiful stationery and prints were achieved this way. You might be surprised to know that before the current trend of some bank notes being moved over to plastic, they previously had the finest and most delicately engraved detailing used not only for it’s beautiful printed affect but also as a security device to help foil fraudsters.


The Graphic Hand Engraver

The Graphic Hand Engraver learned their trade by being able to draw a number of type-faces, particularly copperplate script, and achieve the hand skills required to engrave into a thin sheet of copper or steel, engraved as a mirror image. Some hand engravers were also able to engrave images or designs that could be used for beautiful book plates or on stationery items.

The engraving tool has to be mastered by holding the tool between finger and thumb with pressure applied from the palm of the hand. The pressure applied from the palm is directly related to the amount of metal removed.

If you look back at some of the pictorial engravings from the last century, some engravers even managed to cunningly conceal their signature into the image in such a subtle way that you would need a magnifying glass and a lot of patience to find it.

Hand engraved copperplate script was and is distinctive. It is almost like an engravers hand writing. Although all copperplate script is broadly similar, in the days when there were many hand engravers in London, it was possible to tell which engraver had engraved a plate as their own distinctive style was recognisable to the discerning eye.

In the earlier part of the 20th century it was common for professional companies to have the most detailed and often pictorial engraved stationery and even the most beautifully engraved personalised cheques. It was a sign of quality and still is, not only in the stationery itself, but directly reflecting the quality of the company. A company with standards, ethics, a company that can be trusted.


The Decorative Engraver

The Decorative Engraver decorates items like high-end shotguns, swords, jewellery and seals. Many of these engravers will use a tool similar to the Graphic Hand Engraver but the push comes from air pressure created by a tiny compressor, very much like a mini pneumatic drill, and this to a degree, removes some of the effort in the engraving process.


Large hand engraving tools

Steel Plates or Dies

Steel was often used for engraving. Traditionally, a plate is approx .2 mm thick whilst a die is approx .12mm thick. Both made from mild steel. Each one was used to print on a different printing press. One press required a thin plate whilst the other, a thicker die.

Steel is more difficult to engrave as it is much harder than copper. The engraver would need to temper their tool to ensure the tip did not break and would remain sharp for a reasonable time. The engraved plates or dies would last much longer than copper on the printing machine. It is also better for deeply engraved work and could be case hardened if required.


Copper Plates

Copper is used only for plates and not for dies, due to the significant cost of the raw metal. Copper is very much more expensive than steel.

Copper is easier to engrave than steel as it is a softer metal and therefore easier for the engraver to work on. It is better for invitations and business cards and gives a softer look and feel to the engraving.

Large hand engraver 1


In the 1950’s right up to the 70’s and 80’s, a Gentlemen would always have their engraved visiting card to hand, whilst no self- respecting Lady or her Daughter would be without their engraved informal card with its own matching handmade bespoke envelope. This would be, well, unthinkable.

Wedding Invitations, At Home Invitations and many items of personal and corporate stationery would  be engraved by hand onto copperplates. Bookplates and family crests many in full colour were and still are, popular with discerning clients.

Large hand engraving detail

In General

Any legal or accountancy company of note, would not have anything other than an engraved letterhead and still shouldn’t in my opinion.

The part that is sadly missing is the option to have a hand engraved element, specifically script lettering and the very fine detailed work which could only be achieved by hand. The reason for this is simple. There are so few hand engravers still working and not enough discerning people asking for it.

Members of the Royal Family would traditionally choose the finest hand engraved copperplate printed invitations for their formal events. Alas, they may well now not be given a choice, but have to settle with something that looks similar in a hand engraved style where the only hand part might be to correct a part of the plate that has not etched correctly.

I am not saying a hand engraved style is bad. It is not, it simply does not have that special something achieved with hand engraving.

A hand engraved style would use a font that would be typeset on a computer and etched with acid into the copperplate, a quick and easy way of production, but missing the engravers personal touch. One well-known Bond Street stationer that at one time would have offered only the finest hand engraving may now only offer the similar etched alternative. The thought of this 20 years ago would have had the socialites in uproar. 

My own daughter Gemma is to be married next year and she would really like a traditional English hand engraved copperplate printed wedding invitations, but where to get them?  As you might expect, I am dusting off my tools and sharpening up my gravers once again. She shall have her Invitations.


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