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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

William Morris Ideals in Twenty First Century America as Applied to Gun Engraving.

This is an opinion about hand air impact tools for gun engraving coupled with a 20 power microscope. I believe that this is a relevant method. I do not believe that these alternative methods of true hand engraving with a hammer and chisel should be used for restoring the engraving on high quality firearms. I do not believe that these mechanical methods should try to emulate authentic hand engraving. The designers (engravers) for mechanical assist engraving should develop alternative styles suitable to the tools and magnification used.
About 15 years ago when taking an art course I was thumbing through a large hard bound book about a contemporary painter. I marveled at the incredible detail of this artist's scene of a beach with sunbathers. Later I found a photo of this same artist painting from a photograph of the beach scene. It stunned me to see that his canvas for the beach scene was about 20 feet long! The large book that I initially viewed the painting on was no more than eighteen inches long.
Anyone can achieve incredible detail when a 20 foot painting is reduced down to 18 inches.
The same concept holds true for the engraver using a microscope. A 20x power microscope will give detail beyond belief. Unfortunately these types of tools cannot produce or replicate hand work. This is why the best air impact tool engravers really use designs quite different than the old hand engravers.
My teacher Bob Maki told me of an engraver some years ago in Britain who used this new method of a power tool and a microscope. When his customers found him out his business was almost completely wiped out.. The power assist tools and microscope are not respected everywhere.
My European customers would never send me work if I used the air impact tool and a microscope. They view this American technique as amateurish.. but they are wrong. The air powered tools and the microscope make great engravings. But it is unfortunate that it is sometimes called hand engraving with out differentiating between true hand engraving and power assist engraving.
At a week long gun engraving seminar at Montgomery Community College the late Lynton McKenzie stated in class that "If I could only engrave by a power assist tool (brand name of power tool omitted by author) I will just give up engraving completely."

Over 100 years ago William Morris in his writing, The Aims of Art addressed the issue of hand held power tools:
"...the improved tool, which is auxiliary to the man, and only works as long as his hand is thinking; though I will remark, that even this elementary form of machine has to be dropped when we come to the higher and more intricate forms of art. Well, as to the machine proper used for art, when it gets to the stage above dealing with a necessary production that has accidentally some beauty about it, a reasonable man with a feeling for art will only use it when he is forced to. If he thinks he would like ornament, for instance, and knows that the machine cannot do it properly, and does not care to spend the time to do it properly, why should he do it at all? He will not diminish his leisure for the sake of making something he does not want unless some man or band of men force him to it; so he will either go without the ornament, or sacrifice some of his leisure to have it genuine. That will be a sign that he wants it very much, and that it will be worth his trouble: in which case, again, his labor on it will not be mere trouble, but will interest and please him... "
In my opinion, Morris's words should forever put to rest the notion that a machine held in the hand is a "hand engraver".
Morris's concerns, of which he vehemently complained, still live!
An unfortunate frustration to engravers is the British or European factory or dealer who attempts to debase a gun engravers' work in order to convince them that it is of less value than what others believe and that the engraver should charge less due to the sophistication of the "Continental"culture. Profit and retailing is more important to these "sophisticates" than respect and consideration.
Listening to customer feedback is incredibly important but sometimes comments are intentional to get a good price from the engraver. I have received comments from foreign customers such as "If it is not fast and low in cost, it is not good engraving.", Your work is better than we can get from Italy, too bad you are not Italian."
It's not only engravers who receive undesirable treatment. Europeans treat others the same way. The Germans, Brits, Italians, and Eastern Europeans all think that only they are the true masters of their art. All seem to ignore the French. Even French wine is being bested by others and French wine sales are reportedly falling in 2007.
What I mean to express, is that the problems of which William Morris wrote in the 1890's is still relevant in the 21st century. In modern terms I would state that that retail profit cannot be the only consideration when commissioning an engraving. Artistic and personal value of the owner of the art is also important. Does the the art improve your life by giving you happiness in some degree? How much is that worth?
It gladdens my heart that American individuals and firms although intimidated at times by the Europeans, respect the skilled laborer. William Morris would admire American attitudes in that we as a people believe in the Art of our work. In America, a hairdresser is an artist as well as the bricklayer. Americans also freely give their opinions whether they are educated or not in the subject at hand. In one's local library one might find titles such as the Art of Electronics, The Art of the Deal, Art of Happiness, The Art of Metal Clay Techniques for Creating Jewelry, The Art of Enameling, and on and on.
Americans are innovators. As a people we are proud of our work and do not hesitate to regard it as Art. I like to believe that William Morris would be satisfied these attitudes.
The finished work of America's plumbers, electricians, gunsmiths and all manner of tradesmen are epitomies of Morris' ideal of the craftsman as Artist, joyful in his work and proud of the end result. These tradesmen are often independent small businesses that are the very backbone of the American economy. We seem to lose freedoms each year in the United States but we, as tradesmen, artists and businessmen still have the right to work our arses off. In my simplistic analogy, this is why America is the dominant culture in the world. When the independent artists, businessman and tradesman no longer exists in America, it will be the end of our way of life.
Air tool engraving allows the mind to guide the chisel. In this sense the power assist engraver is creating art. Most designs cut with air impact tools are indicative to the air impact tool. This is a good thing, and Morris would approve. Air impact tool engraving coupled with a 20x microscope, far surpasses most other hand engravings in detail. It is wonderful, but it is a far a distance from true hand engraving and it is a misrepresentation to call it true hand engraving in my opinion.
If one is a remarkably talented artist, well schooled or self-taught in portraiture, landscapes, perspective, and of course graphic design excellent power assist engraving can be the result. If one is only fair or just very good,the air impact tool engraving is to authentic true hand engraving as a spray paint can is to a fine brush for oil painting.
For my own trade, I ask, as Morris did, that those who use machines to engrave do not use the same designs as the authentic hand engraver. My viewing of the best air impact tool engravers's work demonstrate that the detail achieved with a 20 power microscope commonly used by air impact tool engravers is truely wonderful. The men and women that use power tools to engrave do beautiful work, but it should be called mechanically assisted engraving, air tool engraving or electric engraving and not hand engraving.
In a final arguement for my opinion, I would state: "Hand work means no machine, period".


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