Pneumatic Hand Engraving with Tira Mitchell

by Metalwerx on June 21, 2015

Tira Mitchell started big but keeps getting smaller–her hand-engraved projects, that is. What began as a gamble to start a career led to being recognized as one of the country’s most highly-regarded engravers of fine jewelry, heirloom knives, custom guitars, and fast motorcycles. Yacht cannons, musical instruments, elegant firearms, bells, cars and ostrich eggs—she’s worked on all kinds of items for more than two decades.

Knife handles

A selection of engraved knife handles, by Tira Mitchell

Tira keeps her hands and carpals fluid and pain-free by using a modern technological marvel, the pneumatic hand engraving system. The hand piece looks similar to a traditional graver, but the electrically controlled device that runs off compressed air allows the user to have more control over cuts. Novices learn more quickly how to guide the graver, and instead can focus on the pattern and progress of the project.

Tira will teach “Pneumatic Hand Engraving” at Metalwerx August 4 through 9. The workshop is aimed at beginners. Participants will each have their own pneumatic system to use during class, and will practice on steel, copper, and brass before starting on a project of their own design on a steel pendant or dog tag.Initial tags

Initial tag featuring traditional scroll engraving.

Tira had already been engraving eggshells with simple rotary tools when she moved with her family from Omaha to northern California in 1995. A former computer programmer for Fidelity Investments, she wanted to create a business that would be in place by the time her kids were older. “I came across engraving and thought, that’s pretty magical,” she said. “I wanted to know more about what it was, and found someone to teach me, who was two hours away in Modesto.”

That teacher was Benno Heune, who, while convalescing in a Pearl Harbor Hospital in 1944, charged twenty-five cents a word to engrave guns and knives for his fellow servicemen. Back on the mainland, after closing up a sporting goods store he ran for 20 years, Heune began to practice and teach engraving full-time. He later wrote an influential book, “Engraving Tips,” and was celebrated for his art on guns. “It’s the highest art,” Tira said. “ “Engraving is a very technical art form.  Not only does it take time to practice and perfect, but the artist has to make his or her own tools too.”


Knife blade and handle

Close-up of damascene knife blade and engraved handle, by Tira Mitchell.

She can recall the day she walked into a custom Harley-Davidson motorcycle shop in Fairfield, CA, and asked the shop manager if he’d take a chance on her. He told her if she invested in training and tools that she could do a motorcycle. That first bike ended up on top of a slot machine as a grand prize at Harveys Lake Tahoe Casino. Word of her artistry got around, and people began to seek her out. Today Tira counts among her many projects custom work on limited editions of Martin guitars. Her engraving appears on the tuning buttons of a very special guitar on display at the company, the one-and-a-half millionth guitar produced by Martin, a tribute to Leonardo Da Vinci.

Tira and her husband, Robert, operate an online business which specializes in the time-saving pneumatic engraving tools, including the Enset tools that students will use in the Metalwerx workshop. She will teach basic tool making, graver sharpening, layout, scroll design, and  also will discuss the theory of hand lettering. Advanced concepts, such as background removal and gold inlay, will be demonstrated. Traditional engraving is still done today by physically pushing a graver across metal, but a pneumatic system allows you to work on harder metals such as steel, reducing the learning curve–and fatigue.

Silver cuff links

“Rob and Tira” ambigram cuff links, by Tira Mitchell. When read upside down, one name becomes the other.

“It’s very relaxing,” Tira said. “What drew me to it was that I could spend the rest of my life doing better and better. There’s always something more to try. My classes are for people who like the idea of engraving metal but haven’t really done it.”

There are a limited number of spaces available for “Pneumatic Hand Engraving.” To sign up, visit the Metalwerx website or call 781-781-3854.

—by Yleana Martinez


“S” Pendant

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