'I engrave between heart beats, when I am perfectly still'

paulfrasercollectibles

2015-06-26 11:55:05

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'I engrave between heart beats, when I am perfectly still'

Graham Short, who inscribed The Lord's Prayer on a pinhead, tells Paul Fraser Collectibles of his amazing craft

Graham has worked for half a century as a copperplate hand-engraver, and has spent nearly 40 years perfecting his technique of engraving The Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin, just 2mm across.

He started a six-year apprenticeship in 1961 earning 2.17s 6d per week. In 1974, he started his own one-man engraving business supplying copper plates to the printing trade.

He now supplies the Royal Family, The House of Commons, and Foreign Embassies around the world and many celebrities with their stationery.

You describe your most recent piece, The Lord's Prayer on a pinhead, as the perfect "unique and flawless masterpiece". Is this your finest work to date?

I've been trying, all my working life, to engrave smaller and smaller. I've ruined over 200 pins in the run up to this final one. I'm currently working on engraving the American Bill of Rights, 2nd Amendment, which allows Americans to bear arms. This will be engraved on the end of a small silver bullet within the indentation made by the firing pin where it strikes the bullet.

What inspired you to do it? Why the Lord's Prayer?

It's a traditional thing, the Lord's Prayer. Engravers have always put this on jewellery and other items, usually aiming to get it as small as possible.

The Lords Prayer engraved on a pinhead by Graham ShortThe Lord's Prayer engraved on a pinhead by Graham Short (Click to enlarge)

Has anyone ever attempted an engraving like this before?

I've heard of an American who claims to have engraved The Lord's Prayer on a pin head one hundred years ago. I don't know how genuine it is. I only know how difficult it has been for me. If it's not a fake, then good luck to the man. I take my hat off to him.

Can you take us through the various stages of producing the finished item?

My technique is to engrave under a microscope with an engraving tool so thin that it can hardly be seen by the naked eye.

I wear a stethoscope to monitor my own heart beat, and with my arm strapped to the bench to avoid any movement, I engrave between heart beats when I am perfectly still. To avoid vibration from passing traffic I work after midnight when it is very quiet.

Before commencing the work, I realised that I needed to be in top physical shape to undergo the rigours of such a long, nerve-racking effort. I am a former European 200 metre butterfly champion and have a resting pulse rate of around 30 beats per minute - this helps tremendously.

I've experimented with all kinds of engraving tools for this miniature work, but the best by far are very fine needles made at the end of the 19th century. I paid fifty pounds to an antique dealer in Nottingham 20 years ago for 300 of them. I still have 30 of them left.

The eyes are actually made of pure gold. The level of craftsmanship in these hand-made needles is second to none and has to be seen to be believed.

To get the needles into the right shape for miniature engraving, first the points are flattened slightly, then re-sharpened using a 'True Hard Arkansas' whetstone.

These are the best sharpening stones available in the world and have been the preferred choice of US Federal Government bank-note engravers since the mid 1800s.

Once the needle had been sharpened it is then hardened and tempered to the correct working strength.

I've found that the best way to heat the thin needles is over a small candle. I use the very small birthday-cake candles. Once the needle is glowing it is then quenched in an egg cup filled with oil.

The tempering is always difficult. It involves reheating the needle halfway along its length until it shows a straw colour. The needle is so thin that the merest heat often shoots down to the point very quickly and then it is too soft to work with.

I've often spent all day just heating and reheating a single needle.

What were the biggest challenges in making this?

Without a doubt, vibration was the biggest problem. Even mice walking along my bench in the night would cause the graver to slip. I often had to stop work for a while to compose myself before starting again.

Some nights I would only engrave one letter. The problem is that there's nowhere for the grave to travel. It's simply a matter of positioning the engraving tool and waiting for the right moment when to exert a little pressure.

Also, many times I've got to the bottom of the pin only to realise that I've got another four or five lines left to engrave. Yet again, another pin is scrapped. Many times I often wondered if it was all worth it.

Given the fact that it took 300 hours to make, was there ever a time when you felt like giving up?

I felt like giving up many, many times. It wasn't continuous though. Some nights I could sit for 5 hours, others only 30 minutes.

I remember on many occasions, sitting for three hours or so and not having the right moment when to 'feel' the pressure in my finger tips. I was perspiring a lot! My nerves were shattered, not to mention the strain on my eyes.

Did you have a particular market in mind when making this?

No, I didn't even think about it. It was the achievement I was after. Some people saw this as an obsession, which I suppose it was. It certainly took over my life.

What will be your next project?

I've a big project coming up, but can't reveal what it's about. There's a big media company launch being planned for April. My engraving will be featured on a television programme to coincide with the event.

How did you become to be a hand engraver?

I started work at the age of 15, straight from school. I needed a job where I could work with my hands. I wasn't academically inclined having left school with just one O level, a spirit level and a girl's bike!

How has your business changed over the years?

During the late 1970s I was very busy. I remember my biggest order was from a well-known finance house in the City of London. They had almost 800 employees and every one of them had their own hand-engraved stationery - letterheads, business cards and compliment slips.

The order came to nearly 80,000. I used the money to buy a four-bedroomed detached house and a new Mercedes! Those days were never seen again.

Sadly, today I find I'm not as busy as I was twenty years ago. It seems that people are not willing to pay for hand-engraved stationery. They go for the cheaper option. Of course the quality is not there but that's the way of the world, I suppose.

You have an impressive client list. Can you tell us about the work you have done for the Royal Household?

In addition to normal engraving jobs such as stationery, wedding invitations and business cards, I engrave for the Royal palaces and Castles. This involves stationery for Windsor, Balmoral, Sandringham, Buckingham Palace etc., in fact every Royal Residence.

I consider it a privilege to engrave for the Royal Family. This work is so special that it merits its own kind of ambience. I like to get in the right mood for engraving the Royal copper plates.

Engraving by Graham ShortEngraving by Graham Short

In the past when I've engraved for the Palaces, I've started the job at 10.00 pm and worked through the night. I used to take a bottle of champagne, some crusty bread and a hefty chunk of Roquefort cheese to see me through to morning.

Paul Helleu, the famous French engraver in the late 1800s, was known for working to the same ritual. I've recently read about a young Brazilian engraver, in his twenties, who is a late-night champagne and cheese man too.

I look upon this extravagant indulgence as a romantic bond for those of us who earn our living by putting designs on steel and copper by using just our hands, a sharp graver and a keen eye

What is the engravings market like? Does it appeal to collectors?

I engrave a lot of first day covers. When the Royal Mail issues a new set of stamps, I engrave a design to go with them. I believe this market is flourishing and seems to be bucking the trend regarding the recession.

I engrave the designs for Cotswold Covers and Stuart. This is my most enjoyable work. The artist who provides the artwork for me to work to is very talented. Her designs are not only interesting but thought provoking too. It's a joy to follow her designs.

From your vast experience, what is it that makes a successful engraver?

Patience, I suppose, and a will to produce a job to be proud of. It's a skill but an enjoyable one. I'm probably the luckiest man in Britain. I love going to work every day. There are many people who can't say that.

What is the most demanding part of your job?

My eyesight is failing rapidly. I think the miniature engraving has affected my eyes such a lot. The strain is tremendous. Five years ago I had a serious eye problem caused by too many late nights of looking through the microscope for hours on end.

I was treated in Birmingham's Eye Hospital and it improved slightly. The treatment involved having a course of botox injections. When I was first told of this I was thrilled. I thought I wouldn't have a wrinkle again. Alas, I've still got the wrinkles. It didn't get rid of even one.

And the most rewarding part?

Seeing the finished job. Heavily embossed print on paper takes some beating.

I engraved a gold crest several years ago for a fashion catalogue. I was watching News at Ten one evening and the very same fashion show in Paris was featured.

Engraving by Graham ShortA gold crest engraving by Graham Short

On the front row, right next to the catwalk, was sitting Christina Onassis. She had the catalogue on her lap and was stroking the gold crest with her fingers. It's something everyone does. It's irresistible.

What is your most interesting story from your years in this business?

I started taking an interest in miniature engraving when I was about 17 years of age. Pennies bearing the date 1933 were often in the headlines. There were only seven of them struck.

I used to look out for a 1935 penny and re-engrave the 5 so that it looked like a 3! I 'doctored' several of these pennies and a couple of them were even featured in the local newspaper. I can imagine the excitement felt by those who thought they had found a genuine 1933 coin.

Under a magnifying glass they were immediately identifiable as a fake but to the untrained naked eye they were passable. I released about 40 of these pennies into circulation!

It was March, 1962, I was just two years into my six-year apprenticeship, when an elderly London engraver, George Mason, whose specialty was engraving miniature lettering on crests and coats of arms, visited our company.

He stood and watched, looking over my shoulder as I was attempting to 're-date' one of these pennies. I remember he found it quite amusing. He was chuckling to himself.

A few days later, he sent a penny in the post to me. It was wrapped in an envelope with a message scrawled on the front. It read, 'Look closely at the King's hair'. Using the smallest lettering imaginable, he'd engraved, in very small Palace Script lettering, a message in the monarch's hair.

It read: I'm the best engraver in the world and you are just a common forger, young man!

I placed it in the envelope and sent it back to him. I cheekily wrote a note to this master-engraver explaining that his engraving was flawed and that he should look closely, under a microscope, at the letter 'o' in the word 'young'.

He would have received it the next day on April 1st. Working under a microscope, I'd engraved, 'April Fool!' in even smaller lettering which fitted inside the letter 'o'.

To this day I don't know what he must have thought when he examined it closely. He never even replied, but I'd love to have seen his face.

I'd like to think he was impressed with my skill.

What or who's engraving would you most like to do?

I'd like to engrave the winners name on the trophy at the Wimbledon tennis championships. I already engrave the Royal Box invitations every year for Wimbledon, so I'm half way there.

I'd also like to be able to engrave plates for twenty pound notes. Now that would be lucrative!

Images: Graham Short

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