How to Engrave Copper

By Pam Raymer-Lea
Engraving has greatly enhanced this copper heart.

Engraving is an ancient art used for decoration, scene depiction and printing plates. Today, most printing plates are made by machines, but fine artists still make engraved plates in order to create prints. Decorative engraving and scene depiction are achieved by using a series of burins or gravers to carve lines into the copper by hand, creating the desired design. The finished result is quite beautiful when skillfully done.

This copper kettle would make a perfect subject for engraving.

Select the copper you plan to engrave. Spend less money on thin sheets of copper, which will have a quilted or depression leading to the engraving lines you make. Using thicker, more expensive sheets of copper will retain a smooth overall surface with only your engraving lines to interrupt it. Consider engraving an existing copper item, such as a cup, dish, trophy or piece of jewelry, after you have become proficient at working with flat pieces of copper.

Burins look much like these carving tools.

Choose your burins, also called gravers, which are steel carving tools with very fine tips and wooden ball-like handles made to fit in your palm. Choose a diamond- or square-shaped graver to make straight lines. Make wider, brighter lines using a round burin. Create an undercut line using an angle tint tool, which is suitable if you plan to use your plate for printing.

Paper currency often makes use of fields of texture.

Pick a different set of gravers to fill larger areas, such as flat burins or Florentine liners, which are special flat tools with multiple grooves cut into them. Use roulets and mezzotint rockers to create fields of pattern, which you can also make using a metal punch and hammer. Select a burnishing tool to smooth or depress large areas.

Use a fine-tip marking pen to draw your design onto the copper.

Use a fine-tip ink marker to draw your image on the copper. Hold your piece in your gloved hand or secure it in an engraver’s vise. Push your burin through the lines of your design using differing pressures and angles to achieve the widths and depths required to translate your image. Feel the lines for a burr, or sharply raised area beside your cut, which you must remove and adjust your tool or technique to avoid making again.

Different techniques can create a variety of shading.

Create the impression that some areas are darker by “hatching,” which is a series of parallel lines all in one area. Make a darker image by hatching again at a different angle, or “cross hatching.” Achieve other shaded areas by making a series of dots, called “stippling,” with a metal punch and light hammer. Make your dots larger or closer to create a darker image. Use similar techniques to drawing with ink when engraving on your copper.

Tip

If you plan to use your copper plate for making prints, all of your lines, dots or any other engraving must be undercut in order to hold the ink.

Copper plates are not the most desirable for printing purposes. For printing, you may get better results from steel-faced copper plates, steel plates or zinc plates.

Warning

Gravers are very sharp. Protect your holding hand with a leather glove.

About the Author

Pam Raymer-Lea is based in Los Angeles. She holds a M.F.A. in film and television, a master's degree in education and a B.S. in fine art. Raymer-Lea has taught a variety of subjects including filmmaking, writing, art, art history and science. She is a jewelry maker and is skilled in a variety of crafts ranging from glass blowing to home improvement.