Copperplate engraving is an exacting process that created precise images for an age before sharing pictures was simple. Journeyman engraver Lynn Zelesnikar tells us how it’s done.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. In the Silversmith’s Shop, an engraver works alongside the master adding embellishments and designs to fine silver pieces. An engraver might also illustrate copper plates with detailed images, which would then be used to create prints of famous scenes. Lynn Zelesnikar is our guest today and she practices both aspects of the engraver’s trade. Lynn, thank you for being here today.
Lynn Zelesnikar: Thank you for having me.
Harmony: So as I’ve said, you are an engraver who’s accomplished on many fronts and probably the engraving that most people are familiar with in association with silversmith’s trade would be sort of embellishments made to silver pieces. What are some of the things that you might engrave?
Lynn: A typical engraving for what we do in the Silversmith’s Shop is monograms, coats of arms, family crests, inscription work and any other ornamental work that might be desired; floral work, scroll work. So pretty much anything you want.
Harmony: What kind of objects do you find yourself engraving most frequently?
Lynn: Probably the number one thing for the 18th century, as well as today’s era, are things like spoons and jewelry, the smaller objects, cups as well. Kind of work your way up to the larger objects but we sort of do them all today.
Harmony: I stopped by and saw you in the Silversmith’s Shop and you were showing me some of your tools. You said they’re very unchanged. The tools that you use today are almost the same as your counterpart would have used in the colonial era.
Lynn: The gravers that we’re using, gravers are sometimes called burins. It’s just a very sharp piece of steel, relatively short, just a few inches long, and a wooden sort of mushroom style handle. It’s pushed by the heel of the hand driving through the silver or gold or whatever material is required and very, very little changes. You’re right. A little bit aesthetically with the handles, but that’s about it.
Harmony: Well the tool must have to be harder than silver. What is the tool made of?
Lynn: It is steel, it’s hardened steel. And pretty much any material metal-wise can be cut with that push graver. I don’t typically see it as often on steel itself. Needs a little more drive so then a hammer and chisel style of the same tool, little modification to the length of the tool and the angles, but again driven with a very small little hammer more akin to a gunsmith’s engraving or a knife maker doing ornamental work on steel.
Harmony: You’re doing most of this freehand. How did you learn to do it?
Lynn: Lots of practice. I was really fortunate. The master hand engraver, Herbert LaFountain at the time here at Colonial Williamsburg, was looking for an apprentice and I served a 10,000 hour apprenticeship with him, and probably the first year or more was exclusively drawing and design work and that evolved into learning how to make those tools, use them properly, technique and then putting all those two pieces together and creating anything that can be drawn. Design and drawing work is a huge part of the engraver’s trade.
Harmony: It must help if you already have an artistic background or talent?
Harmony: Is your apprenticeship similar to what would have been apprenticed in the 18th century?
Lynn: I don’t have any definite time frames for engravers, but kind of going along looking at other trades [which are] very similar – goldsmiths, silversmiths, any of the metal working trades, almost seems a good average for the 18th century of about 7 years. Mine was a little shorter, but I was sort of in a room very isolated. We were away from the public so we were able to sort of push that along a little bit faster. And the drawing skills, I was lucky that a lot of drawing requirements Mr. LaFountain was having me complete I was able to kind of push through pretty quickly so that was helpful.
Harmony: One of the particularly special things that you are doing in the Silversmith’s Shop now is engraving copper plates. Can we just talk about what that is and then the process of it? When you talk about engraving a copper plate, this is actually how you make an image that’s going to be shared in the 18th century?
Lynn: It’s something that I started doing when I was an apprentice with Mr. LaFountain just sort of dabbling in it, let’s kind of get an idea of what the copper plate engraver does. So we were cutting a few plates, sort of off and on in reverse and that’s sort of the key with the printing work is everything you cut in must be replicated backwards once its printed out. And it sort of started there.
But several years ago, we had an opportunity in the Silversmith’s Shop to work a program called “Metalworking for Revolution” and it was a really neat conference. We had all the metalworkers in the Historic Area took part in this. And we wanted to do something with Silversmith’s Shop, and not a lot of silver is being produced during the revolutionary period. So we naturally looked to Paul Revere and his engraving of the Boston Massacre, or as he titles it, “The Bloody Massacre.” And every kid in history at some point, American history, is going to study that print, and that’s what really got the ball rolling with really getting into the copper plate trade and, you know, looking at a different aspect of engraving, but just a natural expansion.
Harmony: So just for people who might not be familiar with the printing and engravings, Paul Revere was a Boston silversmith and he created this engraving on copper plate in reverse that then you put on a press. You put ink on it and put it on a press?
Harmony: And this how you would share like, well like a poster, or make an illustration, in a book or picture for your wall?
Lynn: All of those, yeah. Sort of the basics of it you’re cutting the imagery into the plate in reverse, the line itself is where the engraving is going to be produced from, so very much in opposite fashion of the way the printing shop is working where the typeset, the lift of that typeset, is what’s being inked. So we’re looking at that reverse.
The ink is sort of smeared, if you will, onto the copper plate that has been warmed so it will accept the ink down in all those little crevices. The excess ink is scraped away and bare-handed I’ll go through and buff that plate with a light dusting of chalk dust and that will lift or polish the rest of the plate so that all that’s left is little fine lines filled with ink. We’ll warm the plate an additional time, add paper over top of that and run it through a rolling style press. So even the press is a little different. Instead of having that downward pressure, it’s going to have this huge wooden roller in the 18th century that’s going to pass over that plate forcing that paper down into the cuts almost like an embossed image.
Harmony: So this started for you with the Bloody Massacre print. How did it develop from there?
Lynn: Well we had great success with the turnout. The prints were coming out really clean. We were comparing to an original print that we have here in Colonial Williamsburg’s collection which was a fantastic find to study in working with our curatorial staff there, being able to sort of spread ourselves out with other areas of the museum. And we started looking at other printers, other engravers, how does this evolve from, you know, kind of where we started?
I got interested in doing something a little less bloody and a little less violent as the massacre, and we started to look into botanicals. I found a woman engraver by the name of Maria Sibylla Marian. She is an incredible artist of the 18th or actually 17th century and she comes from a long family of printers, engravers and painters. She does some fantastic studies of insects and botanicals at that time so we picked a couple of images, one being a pepper plant as well as a cacao plant. If you like chocolate, that’s where your chocolate is coming from. And so we’ve now done the two additional prints and we’ve got definite plans to continue with this process of copper plate work.
Harmony: So after we talked about the process, how you transfer the outline of the image onto your paper then you illustrate it yourself? You paint it in.
Lynn: They’re coming out with a pretty stark black and white image. Think of almost just a pen and ink drawing. There’s no gray scale to it at all. So to create sort of the life of those imageries, especially looking at the Boston Massacre, you want sort of that punch of color to really make it come alive. When we start looking at botanicals, there’s just such a characteristic of those colorings that you really need to catch the eye, that, you know, really bring life to it.
So then we have to watercolor them; many, many years of water coloring finally paid off. And so I’ll sit down and hand watercolor each print and we’re using a tint, a palate that is something we know is from the 18th century so we really are trying to mesh that technique as well. Certainly not my strongest point, we want to concentrate on the engraving, but we want to take it that one step farther.
Harmony: The pieces are beautiful but it strikes me too that this is actually a very vital trade in the 18th century because you don’t have a lot of ways of sharing and duplicating images.
Lynn: Right. This is basically the Xerox machine and photography of the 18th century. Paintings are fantastic; woodblocks we definitely see that type of engraving. You know, there’s always that relay of image. But if we want to see it taken a little more detailed and certainly like you had mentioned earlier about illustrating books, you know. If you want those illustrations done for an encyclopedia or propaganda like Paul Revere’s creating, you know, it’s definitely something that the engraver’s going to be called to do.
Harmony: It can be very powerful.
Lynn: The push style of engraving that I’m doing is not the only type of engraving to produce this type of imagery. We also see mezzotint engraving, we’ll see etchings. A lot of folks that term is thrown around pretty loosely, but that’s actually a chemical process. We do see it absolutely in the 18th century, and we don’t want to discount that. But the push style of engraving is something we’re going to see ready at hand and for the type of engraving that I’m doing, it’s definitely something we can do in front of the public which is really what we want to share and we can do it safely and create the same imagery from the period that we’re portraying.
Harmony: So you’ve sort of resurrected this trade here for us in Colonial Williamsburg’s Revolutionary City?
Harmony: Is this something that would have been common to many silversmith shops during the colonial era?
Lynn: I don’t think so. Not here in Virginia. We don’t really have much of evidence for it. We do know some of this copper plate work is being done in the colonies, but again the evidence is just really slim. A lot of this type of work is really something we’re seeing contracted through engravers in Europe more often than not.
Harmony: So how does it come to America? Is there a master engraver that travels here?
Lynn: There’s quite a few engravers. I would almost say that those engravers are not specializing as they were in England. So the engraver that might have been doing copper plate work might be going back into doing silver work, you know, cutting those monograms and coats of arms. Same technique, it’s just, you know, different bit of medium and different product.
Harmony: Well it’s more than just something lovely to hear about. This is also something lovely and authentic to the 18th century that you can own. You sell these prints.
Lynn: Absolutely. Yeah. We didn’t want to keep this to ourselves totally. So it’s something that we definitely are trying our hardest to make it available to anybody interested. And so we’re trying, again, sort of find imagery that’s eye catching today; try to look at the 18th century product but make it in a, you know, very 21st century aesthetic that would look nice on your living room wall or your dining room. And we’re going to try to continue in that vein in trying to find more products that were there in the 18th century with those prints that somebody might like to have today. The Silversmith’s Shop can make that happen. The Golden Ball, who we’re attached to in the Historic Area, are already selling two of our prints and shortly we’ll have the third print in there and any additional ones.
Harmony: Lynn, we hope folks will come by and see you in the Historic Area. The engraving work that you do as well as the other work that’s done in the Silversmith’s Shop. Where is your shop located?
Lynn: We’re located on the Duke of Gloucester Street. We are at the sign of the Golden Ball. It’s the James Craig Silversmith Shop right between the Millinery Shop and the Raleigh Tavern. We’re pretty much there every day 9:00-5:00 p.m. and come down and see us.
Harmony: And we can also find you on FaceBook and keep up with your projects.
Lynn: Absolutely. We’ve jumped into the 21st century. We just want to make sure the 2 minutes of the project you’re going to see when you come to visit us you can continue to see how they evolve and Facebook’s allowed us to do that.
Harmony: What’s the Facebook page called?
Lynn: The James Craig Silversmith Shop.
Harmony: Lynn, thank you so much for being our guest today.