One the many benefits of the online maker community is that it has placed woodwork within a wide context of handcrafts, and forged a community comprised of craftspeople from across a broad range of disciplines. One such rising star of the craft community is Jenny Bower, a Michigan based engraver who is notable for her intricate and naturalistic hand engraving to locks and woodwork tools – a process she refers to as “unnecessary embellishment”. A couple of months ago I interviewed Jenny for a profile published in issue 256 of Furniture & Cabinet Making. What follows is the unabridged version of that interview.
1. Where did your interest in engraving come from? How did you start engraving?
I actually started to admire hand engraving before I even knew what it was. My mother had a very old locket that was ornately hand engraved. I used to play with it and she eventually gave it to me. It is one of my most treasured possessions. I didn’t understand how it was engraved until I was an adult. My husband met a local man who specialized in hand engraving watches and firearms. He took me to his studio. I was very intrigued with his work and wanted to learn how to do it. He couldn’t take me on as a student but gave me a few pointers to get started. I ordered the tooling and began to practice on my own. It has been a trial and error way of learning for me. I am still learning.
2. Your work is particularly notable for the engraving you do on tools and locks. What is it about these pieces that attracts you?
Most engravers work on guns, watches, knives or jewelry. Though I admire the engraving on those types of objects, I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. I love old hand tools. I am drawn to them. They have so much character to them. Once I became an engraver, I started to see the metal on the old tools as a blank canvas. Locks have always seemed romantic to me. I imagine people locking up their secret treasures with them. However, most locks aren’t very pretty, they are just functional. I wanted to make them beautiful. I started referring to my work, using the hashtag #UnnecessaryEmbelishment on Instagram. What I do to tools and locks isn’t at all necessary but it adds a uniqueness to them. Sometimes it brings a forgotten tool back to the forefront. It makes an ordinary tool into something special. It makes an everyday item a keepsake.
3. Where does your inspiration for engraving come from? Are there other artists or crafts people who have influenced you or who you admire?
Nature, architecture, advertising fonts, hand painted signs, carvings… these are all things that inspire me. It might sound odd but I try to stay away from looking at the work of other engravers. I don’t want to be influenced by it or feel like I need to follow a certain path with engraving. I find myself to be more inspired by creative people in general. I find that passion for craft is contagious. I have many friends who create in completely different capacities than I do. Some of the people who have most inspired me are woodworkers, metal casters, metal fabricators, tool makers, people in the custom automotive industry, woodturners, a whole host of different people. When I am around people who are excited about their craft, I get even more excited about my own. What is wonderful is that as a result there have been opportunities for our crafts to merge into collaborative projects.
4. As well as engraving you also do a lot of handlettering art, including the excellent recent decals in conjunction with Texas Heritage Woodworks. Do you view your drawn art as an extension of engraving or a separate craft? Do the two disciplines compliment each other?
My drawing and my engraving are completely intertwined. I engrave or draw every single day, without fail. The steady hand control that is required for engraving has helped develop my drawing and hand lettering. The sketches and lettering that I draw are often translated into my engraving. I never wanted to copy the traditional engraving designs. Some engravers engrave from templates, I wanted all of my work to be original. Unless I am asked to engrave a specific logo for a customer, or do something in a very particular font, I create the design. When I engrave a monogram in an old style, I make each monogram custom. I am inspired by old fonts but I create my own lettering. I want it to feel unique and unlike something they could get from anyone else.
5. You have a big following on Instagram, a large part of which is from the woodworking community. Do you do any woodwork yourself? What do you think attracts woodworkers to your work as a metal engraving artist? What is the common ground?
The woodworking community on Instagram has been incredible. I dabble only a tiny bit in woodworking. I follow many woodworkers on social media. I find them to be a hard working group who are willing to encourage others and who are passionate about preserving traditional handcraft skills. I have a deep respect for people who work with their hands and create things with attention to detail, creating things that are built to last. These friends have inspired me to venture into the realm of woodworking. This year I was asked to engrave a monogrammed wax seal stamp for someone. It was important to me to be able to make the entire thing. I am fortunate to have several tools at my disposal as I am married to a horologist (a clockmaker). My husband works mostly with metal but has occasionally turned wood on some of our metal lathes. He gave me a piece of walnut and a few pointers. I studied the Instagram tutorials made by my woodturning friends and turned my first small handle. I posted the progress on my Instagram page and was cheered on by the woodworking community. In addition to that, several of them sent me boxes of turning blanks with notes of encouragement. I was completely overwhelmed by their generosity. I received gorgeous exotic woods and figured burls. I have since made a few more handles and plan to continue making them for all of my custom engraved stamps. My husband surprised me with my own small lathe and my dad gave me a set of turning tools that he had purchased 30 years ago and never used.
What attracts woodworkers to my work as an engraving artist? Initially, I think that my love for tools got me into the community. The mutual affection for hand tools was a starting point. Once I started showing my engraving work on tools, they became interested in my process and respected the fact that it was done by hand, not a computerized machine. I have since worked with woodworkers on many projects. I have engraved small hand planes, I have made tool box plaques, maker’s mark medallions for Mark Hicks’ (Plate 11 Woodworking) custom Roubo workbenches, wax seals of woodworker’s initials for them to use on their correspondence, engraved screw heads for Florip Tool Works‘ custom hand saws, engraved names and logos onto shaves made by Caleb James, engraved a marking gauge made by Farnsworth Guitars, as well as numerous pairs of calipers, chisel ferrules, levels, rulers and tape measures. My work is very personal to me. I put myself into the design, I think about the person I am creating the engraving for. It means a lot to me to know that my work is being treasured.
6. What would be your dream commission be, or your dream tool to engrave?
For many years I refused to engrave on anyone’s personal item. Engraving by hand there is always a risk of a slip that could ruin a piece. It would absolutely devastate me to ruin something that was irreplaceable. I will take some commissions on personal items but I’m particular as to which ones. My dream commissions have been to work with people who I admire and respect. In all honesty, making things for my friends in the community of craftsmen and makers, brings me the most fulfillment. It has always been a goal to engrave all over one of my husband’s hand crafted clocks. He makes each component of his clocks by hand. He makes the screws, he machines the gears and then hand cuts all of the spokes and the plates… it takes months. I have engraved some components of his clocks, but he wants me to engrave very elaborate designs onto some of his future creations. I am looking forward to that. I know he crafts each piece with precision and care and I am honored to be able to collaborate with him.
7. You recently wrote a very thought provoking submission for the “Perfect In 1000 words or less” series for the Daily Skepp. How did writing this piece cause you to reflect on your work and development as a craftsperson? Has it affected how you’ve approached your work since writing the piece?
I was very transparent and honest in the piece I wrote for the Daily Skep. Perfectionism has been a struggle for me since I was very small. Being able to talk about perfection openly in the essay helped me to face it head on. I heard from so many craftspeople after that article was posted. Many people identified with what I had to say and shared their stories with me. I realized it is a common bond that many craftsmen share. We strive to do our best and sometimes that can propel us forward into amazing things and sometimes it can be a weight around our ankles that holds us back out of a fear of failure. Since I wrote the piece, I’ve become much more daring in trying new things. This spring I would like to try blacksmithing. I am planning to sign up for a program locally. A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have even admitted out loud that I wanted to test the blacksmithing waters. I have no expectations of being stellar, I have no goals of being a blacksmith. However, I have an appetite for learning more about handcraft and other forms of metal work.
8. What does 2017 have in store for you? Are there new projects or work on the horizon?
I have some collaborations coming with other craftsmen in 2017 that I am very excited about. I’m looking forward to finding new and unusual things to unnecessarily embellish. I am looking forward to attending the Handworks convention in Amana, IA and meet some of the people in the woodworking community who I have never met in person but already consider friends. We have bounced ideas off of each other through texts and emails, worked together on projects across the miles, and we have each other’s creations on our respective workbenches… It will feel like a reunion and I cannot wait to shake their hands, thank them for their inspiration and talk with them about their upcoming projects. I think it will also spark more ideas, more collaborations.