What Are the Best Tips for Engraving Brass?

Megan Shoop

Engraving brass is a way to decorate everything from brass instruments to doorknobs to handmade plaques. A careful hand and the right tools can create very intricate, delicate designs that complement the shape of the piece while also personalizing it. When engraving brass, especially for the first time, it is typically very important to create an engraving template on carbon paper. One must also choose the correct chisel style and use a gentle rocking motion when engraving brass. Bearing down on the chisel could puncture the piece while pressing too lightly may not make discernable impressions.

A man hand-engraving a small brass plate with a hammered chisel.
A man hand-engraving a small brass plate with a hammered chisel.

All engravers, but particularly inexperienced ones, should generally practice their desired design before drawing the final template. The first few drafts are usually drawn onto grid paper, which can help the engraver keep the proportions of the design under control. When drawing, the artist should consider the shape of brass to be engraved. A doorknob may work best with a circular or oval pattern, while a flat plaque can accept nearly any pattern design. Placing the sketches against the object to be engraved may help the artist visualize how it will look and make any necessary adjustments.

Engraved brass globe.
Engraved brass globe.

The next tip for engraving brass involves tracing it onto the object with carbon paper. Attaching the carbon paper to the back of the grid paper with small binder clips or paperclips generally makes the pieces easier to control. One might also consider smoothing the paper against the object and securing it along the edges with painters tape. This leaves both hands free to turn and manipulate the object without fear that the design will fall off. Pressing firmly with a stylus, or even an old pen, should provide enough pressure to transfer the carbon to the brass object.

Before actually beginning the engraving process, the artist must choose a type of chisel. Hammered chisels, which could be clumsy and awkward, used to be an engraver’s only option and are still in use. More popular modern chisels include hand-held tools that have doorknob-like handles that fit in the palm of the hand. The handle holds a small striking mechanism that taps the top of the chisel as the artist works, eliminating the need for a hammer.

One’s third chisel choice is a high-speed rotary tool. These engrave brass very quickly and usually come with kits that include buffing wheels and a range of engraving tips. Many engravers choose between these rotary tools and the hand-held chisels. Rotary tools work faster, but can be harder to control because the heads spin so quickly. Hand-held chisels allow the artist to work more carefully, but take a much longer time to complete a project.

When using any kind of chisel, an engraver must wear protective eye goggles. Even a hand-held chisel can throw metal pieces into one’s face when engraving brass, which can cause serious eye injuries. To use one of these chisels, one should generally brace the wide handle in the palm of one’s hand and press the chisel tip against the piece at a 45° angle. One must then push the chisel away from the body, rocking it very slightly back and forth. This creates a shallow trench which the engraver may go over several times to achieve the proper depth.

High-speed rotary tools must simply be drawn over the brass as if the artist is using a pen. Engraving brass this way may still require several passes, but the artist generally requires less time for each pass. Nearly all brass projects must be buffed after engraving, and a little machine oil or brass cleaner and a soft cloth generally does the trick.

Luxury engraved brass wine glasses.
Luxury engraved brass wine glasses.

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