Cafe interview with Mitch Moschetti
I don’t remember the year I met Mitch, but it was in the early ‘80s, probably at a FEGA or SCI show. We seemed to hit it off fairly well as we both shared a passion for hand engraving and were both relatively newbies on the scene. As years went by we lost touch until one day Mitch wandered into the forum. I hadn’t seen his work in many years and when I did I was completely blown away. Not many engravers have an easily recognizable style, but Mitch is one who does, and only through years of perseverance does one attain this level of artistry and craftsmanship. He’s witty and cantankerous and smart as a whip and it’s my pleasure to post his interview.
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Mitch Moschetti!
Q. What's your name?
A. Mitch Moschetti
Q. Where are you from?
A. Born & raised in Denver, Colorado, but moved to North Carolina twelve yrs ago.
Q. How long have you been engraving?
A. 33 years and counting.
Q. Are you a hobbyist or professional engraver?
A. Professional...I suppose. Hard to tell some days.
Q. What made you want to become an engraver?
A. I was always into art growing up, but really didn't know anything about engraving until the NRA show was in Denver in the spring of 1980(?) and I was captivated by all the magnificent work (this was obviously before I learned that much of it was probably not all that great). I remember seeing a GRS booth where a guy was demonstrating the Gravermeister....
Q. How did you learn engraving?
A. ...then just a couple weeks later through a curious string of circumstances I met John Rohner on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus (where I was pursuing a degree in environmental biology with increasing indifference). In our first conversation we talked about the NRA show, etc., which led to me taking John's course in museum techniques for my remaining three semesters before graduation. Along with the molding, casting, etc. used in all facets of museology, he also taught me the basics of engraving on the side.
Q. What was your biggest obstacle when you first started?
A. This is going to sound terrible, and terribly ungrateful, for which I apologize, but some of what John taught me turned out to be...hmmm...not entirely...uuuh...quite as it should be? A few things that seemed like minor details at the time regarding sharpening, tool control, scroll design, etc., would eventually require re-learning the correct, or at least better, ways. Looking back, I struggled with a few things that might have been avoided. The larger lesson is to make an effort to be sure your instructor knows what they're trying to teach. Yeah, how you gonna know what you don't know? Everybody looks and sounds like an expert to a neophyte. On a related note, I cringe a bit when I read advice being offered online by relative newbies and hope I wasn't guilty of that too often in my own callow youth.
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'm almost 100% pneumatic any more. Once upon a time I was competent -slow, but competent- with H&C, but my skills in that area have long lain fallow. I'll very occasionally use H&C to replicate a section of border on an old double or some such where the original work has very visible chisel marks, but thankfully not often.
Q. Do you believe the Renaissance masters would have used pneumatic tools, airbrushes,
or other time saving equivalents if they had been available to them?
A. Of course! In their time they used apprentices & assistants as labor-saving devices. It's no different than modern appliances taking the place of servants in today's households. Not to mention they definitely used whatever was the most advanced technology of their day- pantographs to scale up designs, etc. To say they'd draw the line at pneumatic tools, etc., is ludicrous.
Q. What are your favorite books pertaining to engraving?
A. I suppose the usual suspects when I was coming up through the ranks, but I've hardly opened an 'engraving' book in 20 years (tho I have a big stack of 'em). Our shelves are jammed with various art books of all kinds, on a wide variety of media & genres. (*More on this later in the interview- stay tuned!)
Q. Of the old engraving masters, whose work is among your favorite?
A. Would Winston Churchill be offended if I considered him 'old'? You know him much better than I do, Sam...
Q. What's the worst engraving mistake you ever made, and how did you fix it?
A. On the first actual complete gun I ever engraved, a pre-64 Model 70 Winchester, I somehow put the pattern off center on one side of the rear bridge and didn't even notice until the panel was finished. I carefully filed it off, maintaining the contour and stopping at the high-water line, re-polished it, recut it, and nobody ever knew until now!
Also, I was once asked to carve a brief inscription on an oak sculpture pedestal. The job was arranged by a furniture maker friend (who did not build the pedestal in question, but figured if I could incise letters in metal I could do it in wood, right?), who knew a gallery owner, who knew the artist, who knew the client. The wood was awful coarse-grained stuff to carve, the pedestal was huge (about 4.5' tall x 18-20" sq.- like a small coffin) and to top it off, whoever relayed the content of the inscription had it wrong- by an entire word. It left my shop and I never heard about it again. (And yeah, I got paid. It wasn't my fault.)
Q. What are the majority of your engraving jobs (guns, jewelry, etc)?
A. Almost all knives now, but historically it was a lot more guns. I do some restoration work on old doubles, etc., for a local gunsmith/gunmaker who handles a lot of that sort of thing. It's a nice change of pace and I get to see some neat stuff.
Q. What type of magnification do you use (microscope, Optivisor, etc)?
A. I have two Leica stereomicroscopes- an S6E w/ 0.5x objective for regular engraving & an S6 for bulino. I don't work with an optivisor or bare-eyed unless it's virtually impossible to get the item in a usable position under a scope (and I can get pretty creative making that happen!)
Q. What part of engraving do you find the most challenging or difficult?
A. Getting the design to my level of satisfaction. I'm very hard on myself in this regard when I know full well I could just phone it in most of the time and almost nobody would notice the difference. I look at others' designs and see how they've connected a leaf or something in an interesting unusual way, then I try something similar and it looks terrible. I'm my own worst critic.
Q. What part of an engraving job do you dislike the most, and why?
A. Re-polishing a fine knife after inlaying gold, especially if it has jade or other stone scales. Hogging out background or inlay cavities runs a close second. They're both grunt work with no redeeming artistic value, but must be done. I need me one of those medieval apprentices.
Q. What's your favorite part of an engraving job, and why?
A. Cashing the check. Oh, probably not what you were looking for, huh? I love that all-too-rare occasion when a knife or gun 'speaks to me' about exactly what is supposed to go on it, aided & abetted by a simpatico client, and the design just flows like good music. Also- and this is a little hard to explain, but I know others experience it- there are times when I've done something particularly cool and it's turned out really well, usually some of my 3D trompe l'oeil "Flying Leaf & Vine" scroll, and I'll look at it with a detached sense of wonder and realize "Hey, I did that!". It's kind of a weird out-of-body experience. Along those lines is also that feeling of being "in the zone" that one often hears about with athletes, where time slows down and, for example, a hitter can see the stitches on a fastball, etc. When I'm engraving it manifests itself as the work becoming hugely magnified and even though I'm already using a microscope it's like I'm engraving a mural or walking around inside the design. When I take a break and come back I'm often struck by how tiny it really is.
Q. Do you like or dislike lettering, and why?
A. It depends. I don't mind doing clean, neat, straightforward lettering, but I do really enjoy the occasional project that allows for artistic freedom with the letter forms. I wish there were more demand for nice monograms, but I think too many people look towards the possibility/eventuality of resale value nowadays.
Q. What kinds of engraving do you refuse to do?
A. In the last few years I have decided to avoid, if not refuse outright, most types of scenes or images. It's just not something I do often enough to do efficiently and while the last couple jobs turned out nicely they were ridiculously underbid (see clownfish below- aaarrrggghhh.). There are plenty of competent hands filling that market niche in the trade.
Q. How do you rate the quality of engraving done today as opposed to 50 or 100 years ago?
A. I think that's an unfair comparison to make, or at least difficult to do fairly. The better among today's engravers are the best ever, but without our artistic ancestors where would we be? It's kind of like comparing athletes of yesteryear to now. The game has changed in many ways.
Q. Do you perceive any part of hand engraving as a dying art?
A. If anything, perhaps the beautiful monograms & family crests that used to adorn so many heirlooms, but are now of a largely bygone age. I flip thru the Bergling books and "The Cyclopedia of Monograms", etc. and think about how much fun it would have been to design those. I'd add the elaborate old stock certificates and other examples of functional printed art.
Q. What country or countries impress you with their highly skilled engravers?
A. The good ol' US of A. I love our variety & versatility & willingness to experiment with styles and techniques. One cannot argue the Europeans & Brits don't have their fair share of masters, but too often they appear artistically bound by their teaching & tradition.
Q. What engravers were most influential to you?
A. Winston Churchill & Lynton McKenzie, in large part because photos of their work were widely available in magazines of the early/mid '80s- a prime source of study material. Luckily, they both did great work and I wasn't blindly and ignorantly trying to emulate a couple of hacks with aggressive PR agents.
This also brings up another point: I believe many of us who were learning in that era were attempting to recreate these fabulous gradient shading techniques by using ever finer, ever more densely spaced shade lines, when what we were really seeing was the result of the typical halftoned and/or 4-color process magazine photo. The first time I saw an actual engraving by Winston I was immediately struck by the perfectly cut, clearly distinct lines of the shading & crosshatching, but it was definitely not the ultra-fine, ethereal effect I was expecting. It was simultaneously a letdown and an uplifting epiphany as I realized the beauty of what actually was, not what I thought it would/should be. In those days high resolution repros or actual photographs were almost as rare to see as the real article. Low-res halftones were the norm. The internet is fantastic for making high quality, hi-res images, especially close-ups, available for engravers to study. And that's my- "When I was your age all we had were crappy magazine photos and we were glad to have 'em! You whippersnappers with your internet & computers & tablets & smartphones got it so easy these days- it's made ya soft..."
Q. What affect has the internet had on your hand engraving?
A. The massive exchange of information- photos, video, forum conversations, etc., are just tremendous. I've been at it for over 30 yrs and still find lots of little tips, suggestions, etc., of both artistic & technical natures, that are helpful. Funny how "The Information Age" is so influential on one of man's oldest endeavors.
Q. What advice would you give to someone who wants to learn engraving?
A. Learn to SEE good engraving, then learn to DRAW it. If you can't see it and draw it, you can never cut it.
::: Personal :::
Q. How many children do you have?
A. Just the furry 4-legged kind. At the moment we have three Jack Russell terriers (Jillian, Jelly Bean, & Jaq 'the Russell Sprout' -yes, really- sisters from the same litter) and have had as many as six at one time.
Q. What's the occupation of your spousal unit?
A. My wife, Andrea, is currently the office manager/do-everything person for a small publisher that specializes in education (she calls her job: "Daycare for large children"). She has done, and can do, pretty much anything. Her résumé makes for interesting reading- from floral designer to marketing director of Colorado's biggest architecture firm and everything in between.
Q. If you have traveled, what was the most exciting country you
visited and what did you enjoy most?
A. A toss-up between Zimbabwe and France (Paris). Loved nearly every minute of everything in both places.
Q. Do you have an interesting experience while traveling that you'd
like to share?
A. In 1987 I was riding the subway ("The Tube") out to Heathrow and an Italian couple was sitting across from me. In good English he asked which is the international terminal at the airport? He was some surprised when the American kid answered in his native language! (Now my Italian is so rusty I'm not sure I could handle a simple question like that...)
Q. Besides engraving, what are your hobbies and interests?
A. Cooking, woodworking, reading (maybe 75-100 books/yr, mostly murder mysteries & other fiction), walking the dogs with my wife at the NC Arboretum, playing handyman around the house. My dad owned a small general contracting company, so I grew up in the trades and can darn near build a house from the foundation to the shingles. Particularly enjoy plumbing & electrical.
Q. Where is your favorite place to be?
A. Too many to pick one, but under a huge mahogany tree in Zimbabwe ranks right up there. On a more mundane daily basis, it's beer:30/cocktail hour with my wife before dinner.
Q. What’s one thing of which you are most proud?
A. That's a tough one. I don't have any children to be 'proud of' and while I have a fine collection of nieces & nephews it's not like I had anything to do with it. I guess there's a sense of accomplishment in my work, that of the 6+ billion people on the planet I can do a few things that almost nobody else can, or at least haven't so far anyway.
Q. When you were a child, who was your hero?
A. I suppose my parents, though I'm sure I didn't appreciate that at the time.
Q. Tell us something few people know about you.
A. Hmmm, trying to think of something that I want anybody else to know... How about the fact that I have almost zero interest in collecting/owning virtually any sort of art or art object, including fine guns or knives and/or my own work? When the brief afterglow of a great project fades I'm over it. Next! With the exception of some jewelry & drawings I've done for my wife, there's really not a single thing I've ever done that I've wanted to keep. Beyond a certain attractive level of home & shop decor, I'm not interested in having much in the way of art. I love museums & books, but just don't have a burning desire to see any particular piece on a daily basis. I'm not very acquisitive and to be honest, I know a few people who really, really are and it creeps me out a bit, wondering about their intense compulsion to own/control/possess what are ultimately just things. Fine quality tools are another matter, but even there, if I can't use it I have no use for it.
Q. Where were you on September 11, 2001?
A. Denver, at home and horrified like most of the rest of the planet.
Q. Do you have any pet peeves?
A. Bad drivers, especially those who don't comprehend the whole "Left lane is for passing" thing. People who can't/won't/don't control their dogs. In general, people who act like they're the only ones on the planet and we're just extras in their movie. In fact, don't get me started on this one... (See attached: Vols. I-IV)
Q. What is your favorite thing to do in your home town?
A. Visit the Biltmore house on a cruddy, rainy, cold day in winter when it's deserted and my wife & I can spend hours studying the stone & woodwork, etc. without clamoring hordes of tacky tourists. If you're ever near Asheville, NC it's a "don't miss" for anyone interested in the decorative arts. (And it's right up the street from our home. Ok, like 15 miles up the street, but you really can hang a right at the end of our block and it will take you right to the front door!)
Q. If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would it be?
A. I could name a few people in the current political arena I'd love to spend some time with, but don't want to get into that here.
Q. Who (living or deceased) would you most liked to have met?
A. Michelangelo or Leonardo DaVinci. Maybe have lunch with both, I'd buy. ;-)
Q. Describe what you would think of as a perfect day.
A. Too many possibilities to even ponder. Perfect days just sometimes happen.
Q. Tell us a good short, clean joke.
A. A freshly washed SmartCar. Oh well, 3 out of 4 ain't bad.
Q. Is there anything else you'd like to say to the folks reading this?
A. At 53 yrs of age, my mechanical skills as an engraver have pretty much peaked, or at least reached a plateau which I hope will last awhile. Thankfully, that has happened at a reasonably high level, but like all athletic/physical abilities it will be impossible to maintain forever. The thought of this inexorable process has lead me to focus more on becoming a better artist. To learn & explore new ways to express myself with our relatively limited palette of lines & dots in a handful of suitable metals. I'd like to be known as an artist who works in metal engraving, rather than simply an "engraver" (not that there's anything wrong with that!).
Along those lines, I really wish there were more -heck, ANY- market demand for engraving as standalone works of art. It's virtually 100% dependent on/secondary to the objects upon which we work and its perceived value therein. A $2500 knife + $5,000 engraving = $7,500 engraved knife. A nicely turned or machined block of polished steel with an equivalent amount of engraving = "practice plate" or "demo piece". It sometimes seems as if engraving has no independent intrinsic value at all. Would anyone base the value of a painting or sculpture on the price of the canvas or bronze? And no, I really don't have a clue what can be done about it. Sssiiiggghhh.....
Very enjoyable read! I'm with you Mitch on the left lane and (barking) dogs!!
(The Other Sam)
Guns, Guitars and Old Cars
Cravingravin=a chronic malady that afflicts some of the world's nicest people...TOS
Your one of my favorites man, you rock.
A really great interview, and wonderful work, Mitch.
You sound like you have a great head on your shoulders.
All the best,
Thanks great insight lovely work as well.
Of course its all great but….my favorite quote & definitely food for thought!
"Along those lines, I really wish there were more -heck, ANY- market demand for engraving as standalone works of art. It's virtually 100% dependent on/secondary to the objects upon which we work and its perceived value therein. A $2500 knife + $5,000 engraving = $7,500 engraved knife. A nicely turned or machined block of polished steel with an equivalent amount of engraving = "practice plate" or "demo piece". It sometimes seems as if engraving has no independent intrinsic value at all. Would anyone base the value of a painting or sculpture on the price of the canvas or bronze? And no, I really don't have a clue what can be done about it. Sssiiiggghhh….."
Thanks Mitch & Sam!
Thank you for the interview Mitch and Sam, very interesting!
Mitch, what a great interview! I can empathise with virtually everything you've written, maybe it's because we're of a certain vintage and have been in this game a similar amount of time. Some days I just feel I've been engraving too long and other days I know it's the best job in the world!
Mitch, When the future archeologists excavate the museum with your work in it, what do you want to say to them? It is very nice getting to know you a bit more. Thank you for your time and inspiration, Fred
Want to learn to engrave, "cut an inch a Day every Day" Jim Small