Engraving is the process of cutting or carving a permanent design into a hard surface–including metal, stone, glass and wood. Historically, hand engraving has been used in jewelry as well as in printmaking for creating currency notes and cartography. Modern technology has largely replaced engraving in those areas, but hand engraving is still widely used in jewelry. Jewelers use engraving to create texture, decorate surfaces, and inscribe letters and designs onto their pieces.
Hand engraving is done by means of very small, sharp and precise steel tools called gravers. Gravers can be pushed with the palm of the hand, hit with a chasing hammer or placed in a pneumatic device, which uses short bursts of air to push the tool along. Gravers are made from high-quality hardened steel and come in a variety of shapes, which are used to make different kinds of marks. Common graver shapes are onglette, knife, bevel, line, flat and round. There are also blank gravers that can be customized for the exact shape and cut you need. Many gravers need to be prepared prior to their first use in order to produce a desired cut. Long gravers must be shortened for better efficiency; other gravers need only sharpening before use. Once sharpened, the gravers can be fitted into a handle for comfort and better control during use.
To hand engrave jewelry, jewelers hold a sharpened graver against metal at a specific angle while applying both downward and forward pressure. The tool cuts into the metal, forming a small curl of metal as it cuts. This method requires experience and a practiced hand, as mistakes are hard to correct. That said, hand engraving allows for more nuance of design, including a variety of line widths and depths within the same engraving. Although not as accurate as computerized or laser engraving, it is impossible to replicate the look and feel of hand engraving with machine engraving methods.
Metals are an ideal material for traditional hand engraving, as the engravable surface is hard and stable enough to withstand the pressure applied by the graver. Wood and plastic can also be engraved by hand with gravers, but fragile materials that are sensitive to pressure are not a good choice for the hand engraving process.
The tooling that engravers use to hold their work is almost as important as the gravers themselves. Rio Grande offers many types of jewelry engraving accessories, but one of the most common work-holding tools is the ball vise–a steel sphere with an opening at its center. The ball vise turns on bearings and a base, allowing for easy rotation and access to the workpiece in all directions. By using pins inserted into a series of holes at the top of the ball, jewelers can securely hold almost any shape in place while they work.
Computerized engraving is done by means of an engraving machine equipped with a rotary tool. The rotary tool uses a small bit or bur to inscribe the surface of the material; bits need to be replaced regularly. Using a computer, jewelers program the rotary tool to engrave very specific and precise designs, which are executed much more quickly than by hand. The bit or bur determines the design's line widths. Because this rotating bit engraves the design, the engraving has a different look and feel than traditional hand engraving done with gravers. Designs can be cut perfectly and repeated identically, which is an advantage over hand engraving, but a variety of line widths and other subtle nuances is harder to achieve. Rio Grande carries a selection of computerized engraving machines to help make your jewelry engraving work more efficient and precise.
This type of engraving is ideal for metal. Stone and some forms of glass can also be easily engraved with a rotary engraver, but delicate materials that are sensitive to heat or pressure, semi-precious stones and gemstones are not recommended.
Laser engraving is done by means of an optically amplified beam of light that delivers energy to the surface of the material being cut. A high percentage of the light energy is converted into heat. The laser uses this high heat to efficiently vaporize portions of the material. Lasers are capable of cutting crisp, sharp lines at very specific depths, and they can even be used to cut intricate shapes in hard materials like sheet metal. Laser engraving is much faster than traditional engraving methods and has a much higher degree of accuracy and fine detail. Designs are delivered to the laser engraver via computer, so the possibilities are nearly endless. With laser engraving, finer line widths are possible because there are no burs or bits doing the engraving, eliminating the need to replace consumables like burs in rotary engraving. Rio Grande's Neutec® LIGHTScribe™ laser engraving machines are designed and manufactured specifically for the jewelry industry; they're a popular choice for a variety of jewelry-making and jewelry-selling applications, from large manufacturing production runs to add-on services offered in retail storefronts.
Laser engravers are probably the most versatile when it comes to the types of materials they can engrave. They can handle incredibly sensitive materials (such as paper, fabric or leather) as well as harder materials (such as plastic, wood and metal). Laser engraving can also be used with semi-precious stones and gemstones due to its precision and low risk of damage to the materials.
Equipped with an understanding of the various types of jewelry engraving and jewelry engraving tools, you can determine which style of engraving most closely fits your work and the needs of your customers. Do you have questions about engraving jewelry? Rio Grande's Jewelry Tech Team is happy to provide answers and advice on any equipment or engraving supplies you're considering. Rio Grande's wide selection of engraving tools for hand engraving, computerized engraving and laser engraving (plus fabrication metals and cut-to-order services with no- or low-minimum orders) helps you make the most of your time at the bench.