Wednesday, October 10, 2007

People often ask me about that little electric engraving tool shown in this picture. Some want to find a tool that will make engraving easier and a few have asked me if the tool would be kinder to arthritic hands. It's made by Foredom and it's called a micro motor. It spins at extremely high speeds and works the same way a dentist's drill works (it sounds like one too). There are other tools that work, but this one is the best I've found. There is no flex-shaft to struggle with. The hand piece is smaller than other brands, so engraving with it is like drawing with a fat pen or pencil. It's very handy when removing large areas of material. It's expensive and, like any other power tool, it can be dangerous. If the operator is distracted or relaxes, the bit (I use an inverted-cone shape) can bite into the material and pull the tool with it, out of control.
I use the power tool for most of my engraving. When I want total control and I'm working in a small delicate area, I use hand tools. For the most part, I can't finish engraving a block any faster with the power tool than with hand tools and I can't say that the power tool is any easier on my hands, arms or back than using the hand tools.

I have no answer for the question: "Then why use it?".

Sunday, October 07, 2007

More Ergonomics of Wood Engraving

I constructed a stand out of plywood (left), with a slightly inclined surface for the block and a lower shelf in back for a lamp. I covered the sharp edges of the stand with foam plumbing pipe insulation (the gray strip at the top edges) and adhered them with acrylic contact cement. To keep the stand from slipping on the Formica work counter I used a piece of rubber nonskid sheet beneath the stand.
This system has been working very well, with no complaints from my back or neck. Then a few months ago I began noticing my right shoulder was aching and as time went on it was getting worse. I couldn't figure out what was causing the pain until I realized it was because my arm was constantly raised as I engraved. The stand is putting my shoulder in an awkward position for hours at a time, day after day, week after week, and causing the pain.
I've learned that I need to change my working position periodically. I've changed back to a conventional chair and am working at the level of the work bench and the pain in the shoulder is gradually disappearing. I plan to change between these two work positions monthly, to eliminate the stress.
"A change is as good as a rest."

Ergonomics of Wood Engraving

I often engrave on a block during an eight, ten or sometimes twelve hour day, with breaks for lunch and dinner. A few years ago I began to experience back and neck pains and figured it had something to do with the way I was sitting at the work bench. I realized my back was straining as I leaned over the block to engrave and I remembered seeing an unusual chair at Simon Brett's studio in Marlborough, England. He told me then that it helped his back and I figured this might eliminate my back ache as well, so I bought one at a local office supply store.
When I sat in the "kneeling" chair with my butt on the upper pad and knees on the lower pad, and my back straight, my work bench was too low. I could see that I had to raise the work surface to keep my back straight. Old phone books and piled up sand bags weren't secure enough.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Printing an engraved block in a press requires a block that is consistently level and finding an end-grain block which is level and truly flat is not easy. Most blocks I purchase have low spots and sometimes the different segments of the block are at slightly different levels. This is a problem when printing on a press because the ink and the pressure are less in the low areas. I solve this problem by sanding all the blocks I use before doing any engraving on them. I've mounted plate glass to a high work table in my studio, upon which I attach carborundum sand paper in three grits (100 to 400) with rubber cement. For larger blocks I butt two sheets of the same grit together. The sand paper mounted tightly to the flat glass gives a very even surface.

I set the block on the sandpaper and, with modest pressure, I work the block in a small circular motion, moving it over the sand paper, making sure the block stays within the edges of the sandpaper. I try to keep the pressure I use evenly distributed over the back of the block. Periodically I rotate the block so I'm not applying more pressure to one area than another. At intervals I use a small hand vacuum to keep the grit of the sand paper from clogging with sand dust. Wood dust is easily removed this way. But "Resingrave" clogs the sand paper more and this synthetic material is very difficult to remove. I have found nearly all Resingrave blocks to have uneven surfaces. The Resingrave block surface has a smooth "skin" and, when sanded, small pits, which seem to be caused by air bubbles in the synthetic solution, are exposed.

I pick the block up every now and then and I look at the block at eye level, holding the block toward a strong light source. The pattern of sanded and unsanded portions of the block are apparent this way. When the entire surface texture of the block looks the same it means the high surfaces have been sanded down to match the low areas. I move then to the finer grit paper and repeat the process.