Addendum to Sumner Stone Article Blog; from an Engraver’s Point of View

June 12, 2008

It was with great interest that I read most of the comments to the blog about Sumner Stone’s article in “letterspace. The newsletter of the Type Directors Club”. Mr. Stone had just been to south Louisiana giving a workshop, lecture, and participating in our local AIGA Student Portfolio Day so much of what was covered in the article our local students benefited by in person.

I was out of town so missed the opportunity to talk with Mr. Stone directly. I have an ongoing curiosity why, in conversations about the origins of letterforms, we discuss the quality of stone cutting and calligraphic brushes or pens but never engraving.

In 2005 I put together a private curatorial tutorial at the Fogg Art Museum positing the influence of engraving on the origins of typography. Alan Haley and Alston Purvis missed the occassion due to a conflicting press run and a head cold, respectively, but Jessica Helfand, William Drenttel, Kent Hunter, principles of Lehman Brothers Engraving joined Marjorie B. Cohn, Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints, Emerita and Dr. Susan Dackerman Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums and myself in focused examination and discussion of engraving specimens from the museum’s collections.

Ms. Cohn is herself a master wood engraver, her first hand understanding about the “cut” of a graver made for some lively discourse on the nature of incised lines. I had prepared a list of historic typographers with documented engraving experience, a cursory inventory lead me to believe that at least twenty five percent of our famous type heroes have had something to do with the engraved line.

During that same 2005 trip I gave an engraving workshop with Ms. Cohn at the AIGA Boston Conference. She showed designers how to engrave on wood and I talked about and demonstrated the basics of copper plate engraving. I brought several copper plates and some gravers, also known as a burin; this is the tool that cuts into the surface of the metal cleaving it much like the wake of a boat or the line left by the blade of an ice skate. I also explained the difference between engraving and etching–much of what is called “engraving” commercially is actually etched. The difference being that acid makes the “cut” in etching while the graver or burin actually cuts in engraving.

At left is an extreme close-up of real engraving, notice the graver (burin) in the bottom right corner of this photograph.

Last week I had the unique experience of working in a metal smith shop trying assorted engraving methods on steel and brass. I have worked with engraving and engravers since 1977 but commission the dies, so, have spent limited time cutting on metal myself. (I do demonstrations on copper but am by no means a master engraver, and copper is relatively soft compared to steel or brass.) I worked with a microscope and three different gravers. Short straight lines are relatively easy if you cut with the grain, curves are made by turning the piece of metal. The width of the cut, or line, is achieved by angling the graver into the surface just as the wake is affected by turning into a curve while steering a boat.

Another effect of real engraving is the nature of the line. A properly sharpened graver polishes the cut absolutely smooth reflecting light to a brilliant shine. (Etched lines are dull because the acid corrodes in an uneven texture which does not reflect light very well.)

To practice engraving I followed lessons in “The Jewelry Engravers Manual” by R. Allen Hardy and John J. Bowman (a Dover publication). Most of the exercises remind me of calligraphy and sign painting instruction. If the exercises are followed verbatim, letterforms are built rather than created in a single stroke. Too much repetition makes my mind wander. Rather than following the lesson plan making endless rows of parallel, even width lines, I found myself extending the limits of what the tool FELT like it could do–zipping around the plate or die–creating gestural lines with funny curves and various widths.* Sometimes I would dig thick troughs making large shapes in a reductive manner. This creativity was fun but not immediately productive.

What I discovered is this: engraving lends itself to extreme structure as well as intuitive, free-form play. Engraving can be as fluid as calligraphy and as resistant as a curve in stone. Traditionally engraving was used to reproduce images and text from other mediums (such as reproducing famous paintings in books or artwork designed for security purposes, such as the currency that we use). So, I wonder, were typographers drawn to engraving for its creative potential? My guess is no. However, the visceral lessons learned while cutting letters in copper, brass or steel may have laid seeds of inspiration that resulted in certain forms that became new ways of creating type.

I have worked with lettering styles proprietary to the engraving industry for over thirty years and have satisfied some of my own curiosity about their appearance. There is a structural “look” to lettering drawn for metal, examples of this are the AT Sackers family from Monotype. According to Alan Haley, this set of engravers’ lettering styles were converted for use by the Compugraphics Corporation for the purpose of imitating engraving through thermography. More recently, Monotype digitized these types which are currently available as OpenType fonts. More recently still the font “Burin” has arrived, which was definitely inspired by engraving.

In my social stationery engraving business about eighty percent of my work is with AT Sackers Gothic. Many people (laymen not typographers) have commented on how extremely readable this font is even at small sizes. Another other ubiquitous engravers’ style I see is AT Sackers Roman, both the Gothic and Roman are all caps however, I would love to know if these were the inspiration for Burin and Burin Sans. I hope that someone reading this blog would tell me.

* A plate is a thin sheet, a die is a thick chunk of metal.


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