What Are the Different Types of Hand Engraving Tools?

L. Whitaker

Gravers and burins are the two basic types of hand engraving tools that printmakers and trades people use for both metal and wood engraving. In general, these tools are used to carve detailed designs into harder surfaces like end-grain wood or metal. Other, more traditional tools include mezzotint rockers and roulettes. Artists use hand engraving tools to create printing plates or decorative designs on metal work.

Burins are made to fit in the palm of the hand.
Burins are made to fit in the palm of the hand.

Burins, whose name comes from the French word for chisel, are basically small chisels with rounded heads that fit into the palm of the hand. The rounded head allows the engraver to carve lines into a surface without cutting his or her hand. The blade itself is angled and is usually slightly longer than the length of the fingers. Burins are among the primary hand engraving tools used by engravers. They create clear, sharp lines by gouging furrows in the surface of wood or metal.

Chisels are commonly used to engrave wood by hand.
Chisels are commonly used to engrave wood by hand.

Unlike burins, gravers vary in shape and size depending on the type of line they create. There are nine basic hand engraving tools under the graver category: bevel, flat, knife, lozenge, onglette, oval, round, liner, and square. Each of these tools creates a different type of line. The most commonly used of these are: the square, which creates a 90 degree v-shaped groove; the flat, which is similar to a chisel; and the liner, which engraves multiple lines at one time. In order to maintain control over the line quality, these hand engraving tools must be kept extremely sharp.

More traditional hand engraving tools include mezzotint rockers and roulettes. Mezzotint rockers are sharp blades that are rocked across the metal surface, incising it to create richly textured areas. Roulettes are fine-toothed wheels used to create smaller textured effects. Newer technology has also influenced the field of engraving by introducing pneumatic or mechanically assisted versions of hand engraving tools. This allows the carving blade to vibrate at speeds up to 15,000 strokes per minute, reducing the amount of pressure needed to engrave harder surfaces.

Hand engraving is considered a highly skilled craft that dates back to the fifth century BCE when people used it to decorate metal work. It eventually became popular as a printmaking form by the late 15th century CE when Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Durer used it to create images during the Northern Renaissance. Hand engraving tools have not changed much since their original incarnation 2,500 years ago. Ancient Greek engraving tools were basically short, sharpened rods that were pushed along a surface to create the incised line.

Engraving tools are commonly made of carbon steel and hardened steel.
Engraving tools are commonly made of carbon steel and hardened steel.

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