It was over 20 years ago with craftsman Jeff Loehr met an old-time gun engraver. “His name was Herb Estes and he was amazing,” says Jeff. “That guy did knives, guns — he did everything!”
Estes was an elderly gentlemen from a small town in Arkansas. He had learned to engrave metal by hand. “He was close to 80 years old when I met him.”
That chance meeting led to Jeff’s deep desire to engrave weapons. “I like making something pretty that is alsouseful. The ideal of that is a firearm,” he notes. “People have been scratching on tools to make them pretty for a thousand years. A weapon is a strictly utilitarian instrument.
“The lever-action rifles of the cowboys — the old guns that are in museums — that was a tool somebody carried 150 years ago! That gun was in a cowboy’s holster when he was riding the range, checking fences. And some of those cowboys were artisans. I’ve seen designed tapped into guns with just a hammer and nails — nothing more.
“I love utilitarian art!”
The majority of guns Jeff has engraved have included the floral leaf designs known as the Oak Leaf Type or the more classic Belgian scroll. He has created a number of wildlife scenes as well. A regular commission is to engrave a family member’s name on a keepsake gun or knife.
“The oak leaf design,” explains Jeff, “is recognized as the traditional western scroll and it has become my forte. The pattern interlocks and flows out, filling in an entire area. In the Belgian scroll, all of the spaces are filled in with little scrolls and shading. It’s absolutely beautiful when it’s done right!”
Unlike a flat canvas, weapon engraving means constantly moving the piece to allow the flowing lines to extend over three dimensions. “Working in 3D is tricky. You have to hold the engraver at a specific angle so your lines are consistent. Engraving the barrel of a gun? I only have a half-inch of surface area to engrave at a time. I will re-set the piece three times to make a single line. A normal scroll will have 12 main lines plus the shading. It can be hours of work.”
Jeff’s passion for his work is obvious. “What sets quality engraving apart is the smooth transitions, the consistency in shading and backgrounding — really making the design stand out. It’s tough when people say, ‘I want just a little bit of engraving!’ The design should always fit the piece.”