Cafe interview with Marty Rabeno
I guess it was back in the early '80s when I met Marty at a FEGA show, and I've always been impressed with the variety of styles and techniques he's mastered over the years. Turn an engraver with formal art training loose on blank gun steel and beautiful things can happen, and such is the case with Marty's work. He cuts a variety of scroll styles from traditional to his own style, and captures crisp and accurate detail in bulino scenes as well. His engravings reside in prestigious collections and his table is always busy at FEGA shows. Try not to drool too much when viewing the photos attached to this interview!
Ladies and gentlemen, here he is...Marty Rabeno!
Q. What's your name?
A. Martin Rabeno
Q. Where are you from?
A. At the present time I am living in Durango Colorado. I am originally from New York where I grew up and worked.
Q. How long have you been engraving?
A. I started blindly fooling around with engraving tools while working towards my Masters Degree in Art Education. The college had a great Gold and Silversmithing program and some engraving tools that nobody really knew how to use. This was around 1974 or so.
Q. What made you want to become an engraver?
A. Growing up in the Bronx, NYC and as an art student, I had many opportunities to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. My favorite part of the museum was the Hall of Armor where they had on display the most magnificent array of old guns. Growing up in the Cowboy movies and Davy Crockett era, I was fascinated by old guns and flintlocks. Of course the highly embellished and engraved guns held a particular appeal to the artist in me. I built a few flintlock rifles to shoot and hunt with because they were pretty neat to just shoot with all the flame and smoke. I then wanted to engrave the brass inlays and patch boxes. One thing just led to another at that point. I still enjoy going out with my flintlock and am getting an itch to build another one.
Q. Are you a hobbyist or professional engraver?
A. I suppose you can call me a hobbyist who makes money enjoying my hobby. So I guess that would qualify me as a professional engraver.
Q. How did you learn engraving?
A. I have no formal engraving training. It just wasn’t available to me back then. It was mostly trial and error. Mostly error. When I actually did meet up with another person trying to engrave we sort of latched on to each other and blindly tried to help one another. The first “real” engraver I met was George Spring from Colt. He taught me how to do gold inlays and was a good mentor and friend for many years. Once we formed our guild, FEGA, we finally had a source of help and that is how I learned most of what I have learned over the years. Of course my formal art training did help me with the visual side of our art.
Q. What was your biggest obstacle when you first started?
A. The total lack of resource material on how to do anything with engraving. I was not even sure where or what tools to buy. My first engraving tools were actually ground down chain saw files. The release of Meeks book and running into Ray Phillips when he first started selling his Ngraver tool was like the Pearly Gates had opened up and I finally had some tools and a direction to try and go towards.
Q. Are you a hammer & chisel and/or push engraver, or do you use
pneumatic tools, or a combination of hand and power?
A. I use all three methods when I engrave. I started out using hammer and chisel and still like it for many things such as background removal and restoration work. Mostly I do use a GRS Airtact, as I love not having to search for a foot throttle and it just feels very natural to me as I do like to hand push, especially when I do my animals. Most of my animals however are done with a non-powered old-fashioned push graver.
Q. What are your favorite books pertaining to engraving?
A. Any book that has great detailed pictures is my favorite. However my first love was the Nimschke book that I still look at for inspiration.
Q. Of the old engraving masters, whose work is among your favorite?
A. Nimschke, The Ulrichs, Kornbrath and Greibel of the old gun masters. I do also admire the engravings of Dore, Durer and the old “banknote” engravers. I must also mention my good friend Frank Hendricks who was an inspiration to many of us with his immense talent and willingness to share. These guys were really good.
Q. What's the worst engraving mistake you ever made, and how did you fix it?
A. Sometimes my worst mistake is actually taking on a project or a new client that I just feel uneasy about. Other than that I have been lucky in that any “mishap” has been able to be corrected by files and paper.
Q. What are the majority of your engraving jobs (guns, jewelry, etc)?
A. Mostly firearms and some custom knives.
Q. What type of magnification do you use (microscope, Optivisor, etc)?
A. I use a number 10 optivisor for most of my work. I do have a microscope that I also use but I just feel that I can get a better sense of the scope of the engraving with my optivisor. The microscope lacks a wide field of view and I have trouble with my depth perception with it, as the image is flat and just feels totally out of scale. I do enjoy the microscope for shading since I am working one small area at a time.
Q. What part of engraving do you find the most challenging or difficult?
A. Creating an interesting layout and design is always the most challenging. The bizarre shaped areas that we are required to make come alive do test our imagination.
Q. What part of an engraving job do you dislike the most, and why?
A. Lettering and backgrounds. They are very mechanical and boring to do.
Q. What's your favorite part of an engraving job, and why?
A. My favorite part of engraving is doing the animals or game scenes. While scrollwork is very creative and demanding, I just enjoy figures better. I guess it’s because I can be a bit more creative and feels more like I am drawing.
Q. What kinds of engraving do you refuse to do?
A. I have over the years refused to make a copy of an old style engraving on an old gun. To me it wreaks of doing a phony and trying to deceive someone. When asked if I can do lets say a copy of a Nimschke on a gun by someone I usually say “Yes I can but I am going to sign it.” That usually ends the discussion. I am happy to help with a restoration but will not do a flat out copy/phony.
The other type of engraving job I don’t care for is “production work” While there is nothing wrong with doing this type of engraving I just get bored too easy and it becomes a chore doing the same thing over and over again. I find it hard at times to engrave revolver cylinders after I am halfway through them due to the repetitive nature of the chambers so I usually try to reverse the patterns between each one. I have been fortunate in that I have always had one of a kind commissions to work on.
Q. How do you rate the quality of engraving done today as opposed to
50 or 100 years ago?
A. I am in total awe at the better quality engravings being done today. As always there are different levels of skills in any craft or art and there is a lot of poor quality work being done. However with the Internet and exchanging of ideas and skills that is prevalent today, we have expanded the art beyond what has traditionally been geographical boundaries. In the past it has been very easy to identify an engraving location or country by it’s pattern or style. Today these different techniques and styles are being blended into a universal vision. I no longer can say I like the style of one country over another. Rather today I can say I like this persons work or this persons and here is why. I also vigorously believe that today is the best era for the American Engraver. No longer are we identifying ourselves with old world masters who have come to work here. There is a new generation that can hold their own against the best the world has to offer. There is a wonderful camaraderie and exchange of ideas going on. I love it.
Q. Do you perceive any part of hand engraving as a dying art?
A. I think the art/skill of pushing g a graver by hand is a dying part of our art. This however is not necessarily a bad thing with all the wonderful new hand and pneumatic tools on the market. It helps us move along faster with the technical mechanical skill of engraving but it still does nothing for the creative genius in us all.
Q. What advice would you give to someone who wants to learn engraving?
A. DRAW…DRAW and then do some more DRAWING. That is the best advise I can give anyone in any art field. Drawing is your language and has multiple benefits for everyone. It helps you visualize ideas while improving your eye, hand, and mind coordination. This coordination is very important while you are engraving or actually creating anything. Without the ability to create and visualize your work will never stand out in a crowd or be unique to you in a positive way. Without the coordination motor skills, your work will lack a clean professional appearance. Also when you feel you are ready, take an engraving class with someone whose work you admire and is a good teacher.
::: Personal :::
Q. How many children do you have?
A. Two sons, one grand daughter with another on the way this March.
Q. What's the occupation of your wife/husband?
A. She was an elementary school teacher, first grade.
Q. Besides engraving, what are your hobbies and interests?
A. I enjoy collecting antique guns, shooting clays, hunting, skiing and just being in the outdoors.
Q. Where is your favorite place to be?
A. Right now I would have to say right here in the mountains of Colorado. There is just so much eye candy all around me it seems like make believe.
Q. What’s one thing of which you are most proud?
A. My two sons of course
Q. When you were a child, who was your hero?
A. The Lone Ranger and Davy Crockett. Errol Flynn and John Wayne were pretty cool also.
Q. Do you have any pet peeves?
A. I suppose you could say my pet peeve is an individual who thinks they have something coming to them without being respectful and want something handed to them on a silver platter. Titles do not mean a thing on their own especially when they are self-endowed. Respect is something that is earned not something you automatically get by just being in a certain situation or group.
Q. What is your favorite thing to do in your home town?
A. Exploring the awesome natural beauty that surrounds me here. The Durango Silverton narrow gauge train ride through the mountains is pretty awesome also. It’s a visual buffet.
Q. What one person was most influential in your life?
A. I find it very hard to limit this answer to only one person. I would have to say my family of course for their support and understanding over the years from my grandparents right on down. Also I cannot forget all the friends I have made in FEGA that have influenced me with their talent, friendship and guidance.
Q. Describe what you would think of as a perfect day.
A. How about being on to of a mountain enjoying the view while eating a Salami sandwich and drinking a Dr Brown Cream Soda. It’s a New York thing.
Q. Tell us a good short, clean joke.
A. Is there such a joke?
Q. Is there anything else you'd like to say to the folks reading this?
A. Life is too short. So do what you enjoy, don’t stop having fun and don’t take yourself or your abilities too seriously. If your head grows too big you will tip over and fall flat on your face to the amusement of others.
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Thank you Marty!!! You are always so willing to give aid.
Sam,thank you for doing this also!mike
Marty, Happy New Year and congratulation,this a wonderful interview.Marty and I met at a gun show in Newburg N.Y.around the mid 70's when we both had hair.Marty's been a big help to many us over the years with his advice and guidance in the Art of Engraving.Keep up the good work old friend. J.J.Roberts
Last edited by JJ Roberts; 01-02-2012 at 07:43 PM.
You are one of my favorite people to talk with. You are always giving in information of all forms of design and engraving. You definitely inspire one to get home from FEGA and get busy working on ideas you give to us old scratchers.
I enjoyed reading your interview, by the way, where is this New York you refer to?
Neat story! Thanks to you both!
Another great interview, Thanks Marty for sharing your life along with your art. I'd love to see what you'll do with a flinter ...... started yet?
Thanks Sam for bringing these fine artists into our lives from a personal level.
Thanks fir taking the time to do these interviews. It's enlightening to read the stories of the best engravers around.
It is great to hear stories about the past.
Thanks for sharing
Thanks Marty. I first saw your work in the Bieile book back in 82 when Roger autographed it. I got it out and looked again at he work you did back then-inspriring a style that was quite distictive. Your work is still inspiring today and your scenes have inspired many many engravers to strive and grow- Thank you. I was born in the Greenhorns and raised in Ouray- Been gone gone a long time though-Thinking seriously of going home these days-Fred
Want to learn to engrave, "cut an inch a Day every Day" Jim Small
Sam and Marty, Thanks for sharing your story. You are an inspiration to us all. I can see why you say you like the animals the best. They are wonderful! Thanks again, Texas Terry