Craftsmanship and Community

By Jennifer Bowers
By Jennifer Bowers

Connecting with like-minded makers both online and off

The work of a craftsperson is precise, detailed and focused. It can also be solitary and isolating. As a hand engraver, most of my time is spent alone at my workbench, quietly focused. 

A couple of years ago, two television programs visited my workshop while filming the work of my husband, Nathan Bower, who is a clockmaker. Members of the cast and crew of both shows asked me why I wasn’t sharing my work on social media. Prior to their nudges, I hadn’t given social media much thought. A couple of months later, I began posting my work and sharing bits of my process.

People unfamiliar with hand engraving often assume that my work is done by an engraving machine. Social media gave me a way to share my craft and to show visually that my work is created by hand. It also allowed me to connect with makers and craftspeople from around the world — something I had never previously considered was combining my hand-craft with that of another maker.

Craftsmanship is a word that resonates deep within me. It is a word that represents dedication, attention to detail, honing of traditional skills and a very personal desire to put one’s self into their creations. 

To be asked to add my hand engraving to another person’s work is an honor for me. When a person takes his or her craft seriously, there is a part of themselves invested into each piece they create. When I collaborate with other craftspeople, I take that into consideration, crafting my work to fit the piece in a complementary fashion.

A couple of years ago I was contacted by Mark Hicks, of The Plate 11 Workbench Company. Mark specializes in hand-crafting Roubo workbenches. 

He was looking for a way to sign his work and asked me to create a badge using a handwritten font, similar to that on the original Roubo plans, and surround it with engraved flourishes. Each badge is placed on one of Mark’s benches or shave horses before they are sent to the customer, with a serial number engraved on the back. After hand-engraving dozens of badges for Mark’s pieces, I finally met him and saw his creations at an event in Amana, Iowa in 2017 called “Handworks.” 

Handworks is a weekend long event organized to bring hand-craft to the spotlight. The Amana Colonies served as the perfect location: small outbuildings and barns housed tool-makers and craftspeople from around the world, showcasing their work through both displays and demonstrations. 

The main barn at Handworks.

I met many of my social media acquaintances in person at this event and there was an instant connection, as many of us had watched each other’s projects from start to finish, daily over the course of several years. 

Though many of us have naturally introverted personalities, the ice had already been broken over years of communication through our social media sites and blogs. There were several people I had done work for, or with, that I had never met in the flesh. It felt like a gathering of old friends, friends who share the same unusual journey of being a craftsperson. 

My friend Anne @anneofalltrades and I with PBS woodworking legend Roy Underhill.

This event, and the growing presence of makers and craftspeople on various social media platforms, is proof there is still interest and need for items made by hand. Hand-engraving is a craft that may not seem like it fits into today’s automated society; laser and CNC engraving machines can cut perfectly into the metal each and every time. Sometimes that perfection can look a bit too perfect, and doesn’t have the same warmth to it as a piece engraved by hand. Though I engrave some designs more than once, like the badges mentioned above, most of my designs are one-of-a-kind. 

The engraving is done freehand, exactly to fit the piece. There are variations to the cuts, changes in depth, and bevels within the lines. It takes many hours to cut each line into the metal one by one, focusing carefully so my hand does not slip. 

When I am commissioned to hand-engrave a piece, people often tell me that the item is special to them for a particular reason or that they desire it to be a keepsake one day.  The work becomes personal to me as well as to its owner.  Quality craftsmanship will stand the test of time, telling a story to a future generation. 

Jenny can be found on Instagram at @jbowerengraving

*all images courtesy of JBowerEngraving

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