March 21, 2014 |

Hi-Line Living: A bright cut star

While most people in the area know that Big Sandy boasts an international rock star of the music world, few realize that another internationally acclaimed rock star of another sort quietly goes about her work in her small studio on the edge of town. She is a rock star of the metal engraving world, and she is on her own quiet mission.

Pam Burke
Engraver Diane Scalese talks about a commissioned piece she is currently working on.

The early years

Diane Scalese has been engraving metal since a day in 1986 when she stood watching her husband, Bob, a bit and spur maker, struggling to figure out how to engrave on a pair of spurs.

Metal engraving has been practiced throughout centuries to adorn metal with ornamental designs created with a multitude of styles and techniques. Examples are seen on all kinds of metal objects, from jewelry to trophy nameplates, gun hardware and the press plates used to print money. Engravers use what are essentially small, very sharp chisels, called gravers, to cut designs in the metal and even sculpt it.

Though Bob and Diane were making quality spurs, "they're not worth anything till you decorate them," she said, and that was what created the need for engraving, and his frustration.

"I bet he made three cuts, and it was like, 'Ooh, I have got to do this.' It just hit me over the head," she said.

Fast forward 26 years and Diane, a master engraver, now engraves several different styles, designs, scrolls and images into everything from steel and aluminum to silver and gold, on just about anything from jewelry to guns. But at that time, Montana natives Diane and Bob were just starting a family, she said, and she scrounged to find any spare minutes she could, usually late in the evening and during nap time, to learn the craft.

"I just plugged along working at it, and working at it. It took me a long time, but I finally gained a little bit of technique," she said.

And by that she means that by 1989, the pair was turning out work good enough to get the license to sell official Montana state centennial bits and spurs that Bob had fabricated and Diane had engraved.

Diane said she is largely self-taught - and was almost exclusively self-taught in the early days, largely because she didn't realize structured engraving classes even existed and becauese engravers she met in various shops were not interested in handing out their trade secrets, especially to a young mother with a toddler and a baby, she said.

"I'm guessing, now that I know more, it's because they probably didn't think I was serious more than not really wanting to share - though, uh, I think there was some of that, too," she said with a shrug.

One person, who was in the business, who did offer help was Duke Pursley, a knife maker from Big Sandy - and this was long before she even moved to his town.

She said Pursley kept in touch after their first meeting and one day in 1992, when the Scaleses were living in Lame Deer, he called to tell her he was taking her to an engraver's class in Colorado. Bob "made it work," she said, with their now grade-school-aged kids for the two weeks she was at Trinidad Junior College learning how to inlay silver and gold into steel.

"And that's when I learned to make gravers do what you want them to," she said. "Before, I really didn't know how to sharpen. It was taking me forever, and I was just getting marginal luck with my cuts and I never really did know why. It was just a struggle all the time."

A few years later, the Scaleses moved to Big Sandy for work, she said, and when Bob's job was eliminated within six months after they arrived and bought a house, they stayed on, turning to their bit and spur fabrication and engraving work full-time for their living.

Into the limelight

Through her membership in the Firearms Engravers Guild of America - for which she now serves as an officer - Diane took her work to a FEGA show in 2002. While she was there, she said, Bob convinced her to try a microscope, used to increase the visibility of the engraved work, which was available by the manufacturer for engravers to try out during the show.

Diane said she was reluctant to try it because everything the engravers did under the microscope was displayed on a big screen television set for the audience to watch. Eventually she did go up there, and this decision changed the course of her life and engraving career.

While she was making practice cuts in the metal, Diane said, a bracelet she was wearing kept flashing onto the screen, and by the time she was finished trying out the microscope, that bracelet had attracted attention. She was approached by a nice gentleman who asked to see her bracelet, and after finding out it was her own craftsmanship, he asked to see more.

That gentleman, she said, was Don Glaser, a co-founder of GRS Tools which is one of the premiere manufacturers and sellers of engraving equipment and supplies worldwide, and by the end of the day she was asked to join GRS' exclusive training staff. Diane's skills and her popularity, both as an engraver and a teacher, has increased exponentially in the past 11-plus years.

Her classes at GRS, usually two or three each year, sell out almost immediately and her name recognition has reached international status.

This all came about even though, at the time she got the offer from GRS, she said, she "still didn't realize they had classes."

Teaching it forward

Though teaching has brought her in contact with some of the most experienced people in the engraving world and given her a unique opportunity to perfect her own skills, it's that opportunity to pass those skills along to others that Diane said she is passionate about.

This is especially true when it comes to the bright cut style, sometimes called western bright cut because at one time it was found almost exclusively in western-style belt buckles and jewelry.

"I have been on a campaign to not call it western because there are a lot of people who don't want it to look cowboy ... they don't connect that with fine jewelry, fine pieces," she said. "The only reason we call it western is because when engraving basically died out in the '30s and '40s the only people who kept it alive were the western people. When it started coming back it was the western guys who knew the techniques and revived it so now it's western.

"I'm trying to combat that a little and just call it bright cutting," she said, "and it's amazing how that is allowing it to come back. It doesn't just scream 'I'm cowboy,' it looks good on all kinds of jewelry, very fine jewelry."

Bright cut is unique for its sweeping, curved cuts with fully scrolled designs that lack shading and background and, most importantly, for its many sharp, clean-cut facets that make the metal sparkle and give the style its name.

In those early years, Diane said she had seen and admired examples of skilled bright cut, and cringed over the less-than-skilled ones, but no one would share their knowledge of the technique, so she struggled to learn it on her own.

The closest thing she ever had to instruction she said was when she took on some engraving work for Montana Silversmiths in Columbus to help them meet a deadline for a big order. Their master engraver allowed her to come in to watch him work for two hours on a Saturday, she said, and he told her what angles to keep her graver bit at - "the face angle was a 40 and 15 degrees for the belly."

"And then I watched him and that was really all I needed. Those were the missing pieces. I watched how he put those cuts together, and then I had a buckle here (for an example) and I had the buckles to engrave, so I could look at it, I could study it right here," she said. "It wasn't instant, but that kind of put me over the top."

Once the style clicked for her and she had taught it for a while, she understood why she had found plenty of how-to books on engraving, especially gun engraving, but no instructional books on bright cutting.

"You can't tell anyone how to do it. There's no way to describe it," she said. "I have to show you. It's not difficult, but there's no way to say 'put the right corner of your graver in the metal, and now as you go you want to meter it out' - and now they're already confused. 'What is metering it out?' 'Well, roll it over.' 'Well, how far?' 'I don't know, You want to be so far at the end of the cut. If it's a shorter cut, then you roll over faster than if it's this long cut.' This all gets lost in translation."

Though she had never taught before starting at GRS and was scared to begin, Diane said she had jumped at the opportunity to teach there "because I had been turned out of so many shops, and I thought, if you don't show other people how to do this it's going to die. Because when everybody who does it dies, it's gone if you don't pass it on.

"And it's so ridiculous to not teach," she added. "Whether it's saddle making or beading or (horse hair) hitching, these arts will die if you don't pass them on."

Diane said she is a very disciplined worker and gets out to her studio 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday - and Saturday and Sunday, and evenings, and even more hours when she's trying to get ready for a show, or caught up after attending one.

"As you know, the nightlife isn't wild in Big Sandy, so a lot of times it's either housework or engraving. I'll be out here every day ... ," she said. "I love to do this. After all these years I still can't wait - I love to get up in the morning and get out here."

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