Buffs, burrs and gravers are lined up neatly on Frank Gurney's spotless workbench in front of a window that overlooks the slopes of Scarborough. Adjacent to the windows are a couple of bird feeders that attract a lively crowd this December afternoon.
Gurney likes to watch the birds but when he sits down to work, he often forgets about his surroundings and about the time. Gurney is a hand engraver. He holds up his current project, a silver bracelet. "I've been working on that for over a week," he says. "But it is difficult for me to pinpoint the amount of time as I don't keep track."
Gurney is 87 years old. He retired three years ago and sold his equipment. "That was a foolish mistake," he said. "I didn't know what to do. I felt like I had died."
He went to get new tools to take up engraving again. He says wistfully, "I have no more lapidary equipment, that's equipment for cutting stone, but I would like to get it again."
Gurney says that sometimes engravers make their own special tools even if they use them only once. The only appliance in Gurney's workshop that is plugged in is a home-made machine for touching up gravers.
When Gurney was 16, he apprenticed with Birks jewellery in Victoria. "Then I went into the army," Gurney said. He served in the Air Force from 1943 to 1946. "When I came back, I continued engraving."
Back then, an apprenticeship took at least five years. This may seem like a long period but Gurney says a craft like engraving takes time to master. "You don't find it in a hobby shop because it takes so long. For about one year, you have to practice cutting."
Gurney has created several keepsakes for royalty. He engraved the baton for the Edmonton Commonwealth Games in 1978. It is a walrus tusk with gold caps at both ends. He also worked on a lighter for the Queen. And he engraved a large silver plate with pure gold inscriptions that was presented to the Royal Family when they visited Alaska in 1970. "I wonder what they do with all those things."
In Victoria, Gurney created the brass plates for Munro's, a well-known bookstore.
A big part of Gurney's business has been engraving guns. "I've done a lot of custom work on rifles and handguns but most of my business has been in the United States and it is nearly impossible to send guns across the border any more."
Working with weapons has put Gurney in dangerous positions in the past. He said, "I've been held up a few times. They tied me up in my office and put a hood over my head. They broke into my house looking for guns."
Always interested in expanding his range of skills, Gurney tackled the art of heraldry. He designs coats of arms and creates rings that are used for sealing. What is especially challenging is that he has to engrave the coat of arms in the reverse of how it will appear on the seal.
Gurney also used to cut and engrave gemstones. He holds up an amethyst bust of a beautiful woman. "I call her Scarface because she has a flaw under her eye," he jokes. The name has stuck even though no scar is visible to the untrained eye. Among the statues Gurney has carved are bulldogs, unicorns and an imaginary Inca god.
Gurney once saw an Ukrainian Easter egg and was inspired to engrave a chicken egg. "It took five eggs because the walls kept weakening. I had to work with a special graver with a fine point," he laughed. "All together it must have taken me about 500 hours."
Gurney didn't engrave the egg for anyone in particular but once he started the process, he wanted to finish it. He knows that patience is essential in his craft. He shakes the egg and says, "Listen, it is all dried up inside. Outside, it bears all the symbols of Easter."
Among the countless treasures Gurney has made is a belt buckle of gold on silver that says 'Alberta Diamond Jubilee.' And, in 2009, he created a replica of the Grey Cup.
Gurney said, "I've worked with just about everything, gold, silver, steel and brass and precious stones at some time. But my favourites are gold and silver. They have nice textures and cut well."
But these materials are also very expensive. "I pay $32 per ounce of silver now; gold is $1,700 per ounce." Add his many hours of labour, it's no wonder his creations are expensive. He added, "But sometimes people only see it as a piece that is shiny."
Gurney is sad to report that machine engraving has replaced some of the work that has traditionally been done by hand. "The machine does a fine job for trophies or routine engravings. If you would like a name engraved, the machine can do it but it is confined to a template. With hand engraving, you can even replicate a signature. You can do anything."
Gurney adds that machine engraving is cheaper as it is much faster.
Gurney, who used to teach a class in Edmonton, thinks the option to learn the trade of hand engraving should be available more widely. "It should be done again in trade schools. It's very popular in England. People there are more inclined to demand things to be original. But in this part of the world, it seems that cheaper is always better."
Gurney misses having a pet. "I had a dog but he was blind and sick so I had to put him down." Because of his advanced age, Gurney does not want to have another dog but he is thinking of getting a lovebird. "They are so beautiful and I heard that you can even teach them tricks."
Gurney says that he hasn't been able to get much commissioned work. This year, he has made four silver bracelets. They were for sale at the Shamon Gallery at Artisan Square. Even though they were much admired, they haven't been sold over the summer and Gurney moved them to the Union Steamship Company store. "I had them priced at $650 each but when they didn't sell, I reduced them to $400."
There is some pressure to lower the price even further but Gurney says, "Each bracelet costs me $130 for the silver. Then there are mailing fees and fees to get the silver hardened, bent and polished by a silversmith. That comes to nearly $300."
Added to that are the countless hours Gurney spends working on them.
Although Gurney would like his work to sell, he says that it is the process that is important. He shrugs, "I'll keep on making bracelets and things. I am having so much fun with my work."