Cafe interview with Mike Dubber
Mike is a familiar face at FEGA shows and has enjoyed a reputation of being a top flight hand engraver and teacher for many years. Collectors love his award winning work, and one of his hallmarks is true professionalism in every respect. Mike has set many students on the path to hand engraving and has selflessly shared his time and talents as president of FEGA. Be sure to check out his website at FirearmsEngraving.com for more photos of his beautiful engraving.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mike Dubber!
Q. What’s your name? Michael Dubber
Q. Where are you from? Evansville, Indiana
Q. How long have you been engraving? 44 years, more or less.
Q. What made you become and engraver? I was in my first year of teaching, 1966 – fine arts, at the secondary level in Evansville. IN. Two other teachers, both Industrial Arts teachers, urged me to try engraving. They had been in the system only a few years and each had an interest in firearms. One was doing stock work – checkering and finish work – the other was doing metal work – bluing, scope mounting, etc. – they thought that since I was an art major, that I might have an interest in engraving. I was hooked immediately, and I still am.
Q. Are you a professional engraver? Yes, although I’ve had various careers over my lifetime, I have always been an engraver at heart. After teaching school for ten years I changed to the jewelry industry where I learned more about engraving things other than firearms. I left the jewelry store in 2008, but during my years there I spent most of my time at the engraving bench. Since then I have been entirely engaged in firearms engraving.
Q. How did you learn engraving? It was difficult in the beginning to find any material or other source for learning the art. I looked at photos of firearms, my associate teachers helped me make tools and fashion holding devices, but at that time there was little or nothing available for study – and there was no one in my area who engraved firearms. I starting at Gem Craft Jewelers as a trainee under a gentleman named Ernie Tapscott. Ernie was a Jeweler extradinaire – and he was an accomplished jewelry engraver as well. I learned all the associated arts of stone setting and jewelry manufacturing and repair from him. Ernie was a hand push engraver, and I learned how to do that, but I also applied and transitioned those skills to hammer and chisel engraving for firearms.
Q. What was your biggest obstacle when you started? The biggest obstacle was finding information, even basic information, about how to engrave. The jewelers manuals of the time (most of which were written at the turn-of-the-Century) and those contain information about hand push engraving. That related very little to what I was trying to do on firearms. It was not until 1979 when E.C. Prudhomme wrote the book “The Art of the Engraver” that I had some real study material. Mr. Prudhomme offered one short chapter on technique – at that point in time I considered that to be revolutionary to my art, and how I approached engraving!
Q. Are you a hammer and chisel and or push engraver, or do you use pneumatic tools? The answer is YES! I consider it my good fortune to have learned and used both hammer and chisel and push engraving during the first 12 years of my career. I got my first GRS GraverMeister in 1979 and started a gradual changeover and melding of techniques. 45 years later I divide my time between all three disciplines – I never go a working/engraving day without using hand power, hammer power, and air power in completing the project on my bench. I offer all my students the opportunity to use very piece of equipment I have in my studio, including all brands of contemporary air assisted engraving tools as well as the hammer and chisel.
Q. What are your favorite books pertaining to engraving? To start, my engraving and firearms library is extensive, and I spend a great deal of time learning and relearning about this art. My favorites change now and then, and those books that first helped me understand the art are my all-time favorites, so, the short list is:
James B. Meek, The Art of the Engraver, because it was my first introduction to engraving
C. Roger Bliele, American Engravers, because that book revolutionized engraving in America
Ron Smith, Drawing and Understanding Scroll Design (1 and 2), because I use them occasionally myself and recommend the highly to my students
C. Roger Bleile – American Engravers, American Engravers, The 21st Century, because Roger and his first book in 1979 were instrumental in the outgrowth of the modern engraving in the USA, and especially in the formation of FEGA….The 21st Century brings it all home.
Q. Of the Old Masters, whose work is among your favorite? Frank Hendricks, because I regard Frank as the Renaissance Man of modern engraving, and because I knew him personally, and because he, more than any other, fostered the idea of sharing this art with his fellows and started the movement that manifests itself today in what we see about American Engraving in print and on-line. Furthermore, he was a great artist and engraver. His work was old world, and although I know this question probably should have drawn out names like Nimschke, Kornbrath and that group, Frank worked in the same way.
It was C. Roger Bleile who started the movement to that brought engravers together, and it was Frank Hendricks who helped incorporate and solidify our future. It was also Frank who the planted the seeds of sharing and education within our Charter.
Q. What’s the worst engraving mistake you ever made, and how did you fix it? I must admit to many engraving mistakes – I love lettering, I do it all the time, but I also have done, at least, my fair share of misspelling. But if we are talking about a real mess of a mistake: as young engraver, and not knowing better, my work was decorative, and consisted of a lot of wriggle cut....what we call Western Style Belt Buckle Engraving today. It was my first Model 12 Winchester and my local gunsmith polished it out for engraving. I laid a rolling scroll pattern that covered the entire right panel. I vised it up and started wriggling at the rear of the action. As I rounded the first scroll and headed down the panel, the wriggler slipped and cut an arrow-straight version of the Grand Canyon down the entire side of that Model 12. The damaged side had to be draw filed and polished back to smooth.
Q. What are the majority of your engraving jobs? Today I spend the majority of my time at firearms work – that’s because I’ve retired from the jewelry store. I still do all the engraving for that store and several others in town, but the good thing is that I don’t have to go to work every day!
Q. What kind of magnification do you use? I’m a Magna Visor engraver – it’s all I ever needed, and I’m still comfortable there. I have good eyes and I wear contacts. My Optometrist makes these wonderful, light-weight precision half-lens dual-magnifying spectacles that I’ve been wearing for 40 years. With contacts lenses to correct vision, the magnifying glasses and the Optivisor, I can see most anything I need to engrave clearly.
I have a microscope, but it gets very little use….for most of the engraving I do it is an obstacle to my work. I can always pull it into place when I need to bring something close – like detailing the face and eyes of a human or animal figure.
Always looking for the ultimate source for magnification, I recently purchased a set of Zeiss Surgical Loupes. These allow me to engrave without the obvious physical restrictions of the microscope, so the Zeiss Loupes might be the answer. I do not object to the use of scopes, loupes, or any other source of magnification. After teaching engraving to well over 450 students, I truly understand that everyone sees differently. Moreover, most folks do not see well enough to engrave without magnification of one kind or another. I have to qualify what I’m saying here because I engrave firearms and jewelry….not nickels and miniatures of one kind or another. What I object to is telling everyone that they must have a microscope to engrave well – that’s as absurd as it is expensive.
Q. Do you like or dislike lettering? I’ve spent much of my career engraving lettering – I love it! I admire those who can do it well and I enjoy teaching lettering. I can make more money per hour cutting letters than any other engraving I do.
I was in a conversation with Ben Lane during the recent CCA Show in Kansas City. Ben and I were discussing engraving with several students of the art. Ben said that best practice than any beginning engraver can do is script lettering – because it contains all the elements of the art of cutting metal….and I agree.
Q. What kinds of engraving do you refuse to do? As a commercial engraver I have engraved a long list of things, big and small, hard and soft, and did a lot of stuff for groceries! That list includes many items I cut as part of my daily business that I would not cut today. I’m sure most engravers are the same; we refine our taste, we find our niche’, and at the peak of our careers we determine a direction that does not include all those things we had to engrave while we were in survival mode.
Now, having turned my nose in disgust at trite engraving jobs, big and small, I might engrave another one of those brass antebellum door knockers, but only if the commission is $1,000, like the one I broke rank for last year. There must be a pecuniary message in there somewhere?
Q. How do you rate the quality of engraving done today as opposed to 50 – 100 years ago? I truly admire the work of the old Masters, they gave us a platform, standards and goals, but they could not compete with the Modern Masters.
Q. Do you perceive any part of hand engraving as a dying art? Yes, perhaps the arts of hammer-chisel work and some hand-push engraving has capitulated to modern method. The age of air gravers has flourished and brought new talent to the stage; it is taking root over the staunchest objections of Old World convention. That’s regrettable for us old dogs, but it’s also part of growth in a technical age. The ability to work with one’s hands, eyes and artistic intellect are more important to me, and that’s what I try to foster in my students. Drive the graver with air, I don’t really care. Likewise, when we come to rely entirely on computers, printers, 4 axis mills, stamps and other mechanical devices to design and cut engraving - take the art out our hands – we will unequivocally abandon traditions of hand engraving, and it won’t be the same. I’ll probably be gone by then, so I’ll leave it to the new generation to keep the faith - please!
Q. What countries impress you with their highly skilled engravers? I’ve been to the studios in Brescia; Creative Arts, Pederosoli, Fracassi, and Giovanelli to name a few. I was very excited to see that Creative Arts listed as a GRS Grand Masters Class – I applied immediately! The Italians are all about art – it has existed in them for so long, and they do it so well!
Q. What advice would you give to someone who wants to learn engraving? Buy books, CDs, spend considerable time drawing scrolls. Look at and listen to the Forum chatter, there’s lots of good information available there. Be cautious of the kind of advice you pick up there, because there’s also a lot of questionable information being passed around.
Beware of salesmanship and personal preference when choosing your engraving equipment. Try all brands of engraving equipment before you choose – I will never tell anyone what they should buy until I see how they work.
At your very first opportunity enroll in a class; don’t put it off. Your engraving skills will grow exponentially through good instruction with a qualified teacher.
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Nice interview, Mike! Thanks, Sam!
"State your name and address for the record, please."
was this an interview or an interrogation?
We seldom have the opportunity to vent when asked to do so - most of us vent without really thinking about what we are saying. It's often a knee-jerk reaction to something something we like - or dislike. Sam has provided a wonderful format with the Cafe Interview - some well-founded and strategic questions, and the opportunity to answer truthfully, and with conviction.
Great reading thanks Mike.
Thanks for doing the interview, Mike. It's great for us to get an insight to your past and how your art has come about over your career.
I am pleased to see you interviewed for this forum. The members can learn much from your comments and experience. Your own contributions to our art are so numerous and significant.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments about my books and efforts.
C. Roger Bleile
Author of American Engravers series of books.
NRA Benefactor Life Member
Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind. Johannes Brahms
I also am glad to see your interview Mike. It has been a long and enjoyable friendship and I look forward to many more years to enjoy your artistic endevors. Bravo!
(The Other Sam)
Guns, Guitars and Old Cars
Cravingravin=a chronic malady that afflicts some of the world's nicest people...TOS
a few minutes of enjoyable reading. thanks to mike, and sam as well. i always enjoy the interviews. nice to see how some have come to where they are in the engraving arts.
Nice to see the inverview with Mike. What it doesn't mention is how Mike has helped many an engraver (like myself) over the years and has been a great supporter of FEGA over the years. A great guy and a class act!