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Thread: Die sinker's and hammered engraving chisels,and what they can do. G.Wilson.

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jan 2009

    Die sinker's and hammered engraving chisels,and what they can do. G.Wilson.

    These are an assortment of hammer driven engraving chisels I made. David Weaver was inquiring about how I chiseled out letter stamps' interior spaces.

    I developed a way of (incorrectly on purpose) hardening HSS steel,which I had bought a few annealed bars 1/4" square from Latrobe steel Co. years ago.

    I had somehow reasoned out that I could make them tougher by heating and forging them at only a blood red heat. Can't recall my reasoning,but it worked. At white heat,like European blacksmiths had done always,the carbides liquify. The steel is soft,and easily hammered. But,when the steel cools down,the carbides cool off and make large crystals. These make the metal pretty brittle,though hard.

    By forging at low heat,I crushed the non melted carbides into tiny crystals,resulting in much tougher HSS. No need to temper it,it wasn't heated to its full hardness. These chisels are still as hard as fully hardened and drawn HSS,because they weren't drawn.

    At the gunsmith shop I gave them a few. One of the guys was cutting up the tang of a file while I watched. He approached the fully hardened area,and started to stop. I told him to go ahead. He got over 1/8" into the hardened area before the point broke off the chisel!!!
    They were duly impressed.

    I got into making chiseled,low relief carving on 17th. C. style flintlock pistols years ago. These type arms were only for the most wealthy patrons. The finest of these type gunmakers were housed in the Louvre in Paris by the King. The zenith of this kind of work was about 1680.

    Specialists who did nothing else in the gun houses did this chisel work. Actually,about 20 specialists made one gun,the labor was so divided into specialties. Quality was maintained at a very high level because if you do only one thing,you get better and more efficient at it.

    Carving metal can seem impossible when you start,because each chisel cut makes a tiny,polished reflecting mirror. You are very soon dazzled by all these little mirrors. I found the way to do it was to keep smearing gun blue on the figures as I went. Otherwise you cannot tell what you are doing.

    I'll probably never finish this horse pistol barrel. A horse pistol was a long barreled pistol carried in pairs in fancy,frequently velvet holsters at the front of the saddle. With their 16" barrels,about 65 caliber,they packed a deadly punch,and could be used as clubs in a pinch,I suppose.

    I wanted to finish this barrel up and fire gild it. They dissolved pure gold in mercury. Next,they cleaned the part with nitric acid,then spread the liquid amalgam onto the surface of the part. the dangerous part was that they heated the part up in a fire until the mercury evaporated,leaving an incredibly rich,much thicker than electro plated surface. The rich,deep color of the gold was incomparable with any modern way of doing it,plus considerably thicker.

    I was going to get an interested chemistry professor at William and Mary College to assist this process,using a well suctioned chemical hood. I knew perfectly well that this was a VERY dangerous process,causing early deaths,nerve damage,and other problems to the artisans who did it. They did it because they got more money than usual for doing it,and life was very hard. they didn't mind dieing young. Several trades were like that.

    The professor was enthusiastic at first,but began to worry where the mercury would be exhausted to,and backed out. I decided it was to dangerous to try without the right equipment,and dropped the project.

    The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland was mad because they used mercury in processing felt for hats. Most old fairy tales are rooted around contemporary facts.

    This barrel was made from an incredibly tough piece of propeller shafting. I mean,it was tougher to cut than stainless steel. At that time I was using chisels made from old triangular files,and had to sharpen them after just a few cuts.

    I made a "D" bit,and bored the barrel in the lathe. The hole came out only .002" off center at the far end. Then,I took it to the gunsmith shop,and reamed it with their wooden reaming machine with hand made square reamers packed with paper shims for each pass. I must say,the bore was VERY nice,like a mirror.

    It was a smooth bore type gun,and left that way. Military guns were usually smooth bores because they could be loaded more quickly in battle,and the range was short.

    After shaping the barrel to the proper tapered shape,I began the carving. Each figure took about a month to cut.

    Work like this all the time is why my neck had to be fused later on. I can look down,but a lot of looking down is very hard on your spine. I was always doing something small,looking down. Still am,but I'm always in pain,every single day.

    THE FIGURES HAVE TO MEAN SOMETHING. This was one of the hardest parts of making a proper reproduction. I would spend 6 months researching whatever I was wanting to do,to make sure the styles and ornamentations were proper. You just cannot pile on a bunch of meaningless glop. That would make the piece contrived,inauthentic to the mindset of the time and GAUDY. There is a member here who does not seem to be able to grasp that thought. I haven't seen him here for weeks because he is laying low after his last outburst. Classical themes were most common in the 17th.C.. The center figure is a brutal Roman guard. He looks at a defiant man in chains(you can see the links). This man represents the Roman conquest of Europe. Always defiant,ready to find a way to strike back. Especially the Germans.(They are quite a hard headed bunch,aren't they?) Do you know that the Huns really means the Hungarians?

    The figure on his right represents the Roman conquest of (part of) Africa. The man accepts his fate. I hope this is not offensive to anyone. It is historical fact,and the work had to be accurate to the mindset of the times,not to our modern times.

    The guard himself represents Rome. Above him,I would have carved trophies of clusters of captured arms behind a shield. In the grooves on either side would have been tracery of delicate vines,acanthus leaves,and flowers.

    What you must realize is that without being able to carry the job to its proper conclusion,the fire gilding,the work would not have been authentic. And if it's not authentic,it's bovine excrement. Therefore,I probably won't finish this without the gilding.

    You will see that Africa is unfinished. Also,near him,you can make out the tracery I drew in the groove,which would have been engraved in,but not raised.

    The small rifflers I made later were to assist in smoothing out these types of chiseling work. At the time I had some commercial ones,but not what I really needed. Later,when I got the rifflers done,my mind and other obligations had moved on. I have another genuine wrought iron barrel in the works,too. It isn't done enough to show,though.

    The Roman guard is a little over an inch tall.

    I had a picture of a drawer full of the die sinker's chisels,but somehow I can't get it into my folder to post it from. The representative few tell the story,though.The chisel on the far right has a diamond shaped point,and is the most common. Just a small square chisel with the end ground across diagonals to make a playing card type diamond.
    Attached Images Attached Images
    Last edited by george wilson; 10-08-2010 at 12:36 AM.

  2. #2
    George, I love all the historical context you provide with these, the details of the making and their motivation. It adds tremendously to each piece, it makes them come alive. They did what? Because why? Fascinating!

    What is so inspiring about your work is the breadth of your mastery of tools and materials. I'm envious of the thousands of hours you were able to spend to learn them! I also admire your drive for authenticity. The results are well worth the effort you put into it.
    Steve, mostly hand tools. Click on my name above and click on "Visit Homepage" to see my woodworking blog.

  3. #3
    George - thanks for taking the time to put all of that down. The barrel is like something I haven't before seen on a gun in person.

    The chisel picture is especially helpful, I kind of envisioned trying to make stubs to strike, but without the pictures, you don't know what you don't know if you're the rest of us.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Steve,and David,I appreciate your comments. I WAS able to spend thousands of hours learning other trades being in Williamsburg,and improving my own. I had access to study at other museums,like the back rooms and work areas of the Smithsonian. They have so many things that the public will never see due to limited exhibition spaces. It was very educational being able to hang out in the different shops in my own museum and find out their little methods of doing work with simple means. Our collections are extensive,and the public will never see most of the objects there,either. Objects exhibited can be rotated,but unless you visit constantly,you won't see everything.

    Of course,this barrel,and the pistol,and my other gun work,and toolmaking involving metal,like my dovetailed planes,were done into the night at home,and not on duty where I had to be making instruments.

    They weren't doing this kind of work at the gunsmith's shop because their shop was rooted in a rather frontier setting in the 18th.C.. Work like this was done only in the long established cities like Paris. Culture there had been developed since the 1400's.

    The master of the gunsmith shop,Wallace Gussler,had gotten interested in great period chiseling of the 17th.C.,and had been working at home. I got interested from seeing what he was doing.

    Really.some of the work I had done with the inlaid guitar and lute were way beyond what was done in Wmsbg. in the 18th.C.. I was too interested in doing fine work to not do some such pieces. The visitors like seeing them,too. The town was only alive when government was in session. Otherwise it was a quiet little fishing village. The wealthy of Va. had houses there. They tried so hard to look like a city that no trees were allowed to grow in town in the 18th.C.! It would have looked a lot more desolate back then. Our tree lined streets are a modern innovation. It makes the place more charming to the tourists. Somehow the trees have survived in spite of their lack of authenticity.

    We had a HUGE Elm tree outside our shop. It must have been more than 4' in diameter,but would have been a sapling in the 18th.C.. It kept pushing little artifacts up out of the ground. I was always finding bits of ceramics,pigs teeth,and other things. I found a never used French toffee colored musket flint. Even found a few dress maker's straight pins with their heads wire wrapped and welded on. The only thing left of them was their tin plating. The iron interiors had perished. Yet,they were still pretty bright.

    The entire large field outside our shop had been a huge gulley. It was filled in by slaves in the 18th.C.,and made into a useful piece of land. The Master Cabinetmaker's house had been there in the 18th.C.,but had long vanished. They need to reconstruct it on its buried original foundations.
    Last edited by george wilson; 10-08-2010 at 12:04 PM.

  5. #5
    It's funny that they allow the trees there. Probably because they know visitors who spend all their time indoors will be running to the trees to get out of the sun and heat.

    The trees haven't fared so well in gettysburg - they've been clearcutting lately.

    Relatives of mine used to spend their time as kids going through freshly plowed fields where they had permission to, pulling bullets, and sometimes shell fragments and sometimes entire unexploded shells from the dirt. Far and away, the best collections of stuff, though, came from shortly after the battle.

    It probably wasn't legal to take any of that stuff at any point, unless it was on private land, but until a few decades ago, people would go out at night and look for it.

    What the kids found in the process of looking for artifacts, though, especially if they were near creeks, was that they could find arrowheads and other stuff from long before the civil war once they knew what to look for.

    A guy that my grandmother went to school with, and who was a bachelor all his life, amassed a collection of stuff that was worth millions, and a large part of his stuff was goods he collected as a kid in the 20s and 30s. He eventually branched out into collecting indian pottery and inventories and storefront goods from closing general stores, too, before that stuff was terribly expensive, but I'd imagine his civil war collections, the stuff that's saleable and not donated to museums, was worth more than most people will save for retirement.

    I'm sure there's still tons of that stuff out there to pick up as it surfaces, but the NPS is too sensitive about it to find out. We were strictly forbidden to go through adjacent cornfields that were close to NPS land as kids, even though our older relatives would constantly tell us that we'd find all kinds of stuff if we were willing to make the effort to sneak it.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    You can walk around Wmsbg. and find plowed fields where they are growing some crop as a demonstration of farming. There are a multitude of small artifacts to be found. One visitor eve found an unbroken wine bottle that a creek finally dislodged and washed out where it could be seen.

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