Harry Caldwell- Carving your Niche

Makers Cabinet gets tagged on Instagram fairly often with customers showing off their new tools or art they've made with them, but not often do we get a complete shock like this. As soon as you see the Caldwell Høvel, you immediately feel the immense amount of value imbued with his engraving.

Harry’s cutting deep grooves into the world of engraving. Having started his journey carving hobo-coins and love-tokens, Harry has become a master engraver who is paving the way for a new generation of makers

Welcome back to our interview series, Cabinet Sessions, where we sit down to chat with designers, artists, and craftspeople. We explore the nature of creativity, ways in which people have found their niche, and ideas for the future. Follow the conversation here on the Makers Cabinet Journal.

Hello Harry, Thanks for joining us today. Why don't you start by telling us a bit about yourself?

Well, I was raised in Michigan by a single mother and my grandparents. They encouraged me to go into the arts, so I always had a lot of support on that level growing up. Whilst studying towards my bachelor's in industrial design, I found myself working for a jewellery company, and by the time I graduated, I was working full-time creating custom designs.

I was beta testing some new 3D modelling software one day when my computer crashed, corrupting my hard drive. Naturally, I threw a bit of a tantrum, so this veteran bench jeweller of about 60 years comes up to me asking what on earth I was complaining about. I told him what had happened and how I'd have to redo all this work because my files were corrupted. He asked, "your files are corrupted?" then turns and pulls out this old, beat-up file and takes a huge groove out of the edge of the workbench with it. Then looks at me and says, "this file is 65 years old, no corruption, you're using the wrong kind of file!". I'd been working in CAD for 15 years at this point but knew I needed something different. 

I'd heard the lead engraver at the Washington store was leaving, and the boss needed someone to take the engraving course and eventually fill the position. I decided to go for it, so a week later I'm on a 5-day intensive course in California. From day one I knew, 'this is the medium for me'. 

After finishing the course, I got an 'out of the blue' call from a toolmaker named Steve Lindsay, "Hey Harry; Brian said you've got some potential and I'd like to help to out" And he sends me $1000 worth of tools, this guy I've never met, just so I could get started immediately. It turned out to be incredibly fortuitous because less than a week later, I was diagnosed with cancer. 

I was going to need daily radiation therapy. I had heard horror stories about treatment stopping people from working for months. I was asking myself, 'will I be able to work?', 'How am I gonna pay my mortgage?' But my boss proposed a deal and said "if you stick around and don't quit on me the next few years you can show up when you can. Stay here and practice whilst you're going through your treatment, and I'll pay you for 40 hours regardless of how long you're here. If it's 20 hours a week? Fine. If it's 40? great. Take care of your mortgage and just practice. We'll consider it an investment". I was speechless and obviously took him up on the offer. 

So for the 27 weeks of radiotherapy, I spent 50 hours a week cutting really ugly marks into plates of brass until finally, some pretty stuff started popping out, then I moved on to silver and then gold and platinum. Effectively I got a paid internship to learn the art of engraving, without which, I wouldn't have excelled in the way I did.

Within a year, I was the lead engraver for the shop and held that position for over five years. There wasn't a challenge I felt I couldn't overcome, and I took on some really interesting commissions. You want a wedding band with a banjo, a crow, musical notes, and the mountains you can see from your house engraved into it? Sure, Why not?

Do you think the battle you've overcome with your health has given you an extra drive to keep pushing onwards?

Yeah, in a lot of ways, overcoming challenges is just the story of my life. Growing up mixed-race in the Midwest, I faced a lot of adversity just for being who I was. It was pretty challenging, even though my grandparents and mom were very good at shielding me from racism. They taught me to keep working hard and overcome life's difficulties. Engraving is one of those things that you can study every day for the rest of your life, and still have more to learn, so you keep going and never give up.

It's great to hear about the source of your drive, but what inspires your creativity?

At the heart of it, just a search for beauty, you can never have enough beauty in the world. 

It's a cliche, but nature is what does it for me. My grandfather always had me outside as a kid, I remember pulling weeds one time, and he told me not to pull out one particular one in the pathway, "Just give it some time, you'll see why". A few weeks later, this beautiful little purple flower popped out of it. Some of the smallest details are the greatest miracles in the world. 

I love creating beauty in metal, making objects that people will cherish and pass down. My work will outlive me, and likely my next two or three generations. It lets me leave my mark on the world, so I don't worry about not being around one day.

You're well known for your engravings of coins. Why did you choose this non-conventional medium?

The first coins I engraved were Bicentennial half dollars; my mother was under the impression they were silver and would be worth a lot of money one day. I'd been engraving for a couple of years when she left them to me, and they were perfect candidates to carve something simple. At the time, I didn't realise what I was creating is called a 'love token'. I still make Love Tokens, and Hobo Nickels, the difference being Hobo Nickels incorporate sculptural aspects and Love Tokens are engraved into a flat blank. The idea with the Hobo Nickel is to make it look like the coin was stamped or minted in the same fashion every other coin is, except with a unique face on it. 

 I didn't know much about Hobo Nickels or Love Tokens until two or three years later. I met a fella named Archie at a function in Tennessee. He was the president of the original coin collecting group that specialised in carve coins, 'The Hobo Nickel Society'. He passed me a pretty rough-looking coin saying "you know if you can carve a coin that looks like this in under an hour, you can make money carving coins" so I thought 'why not?' 

For a year or so that's all I worked on, one hobo nickel after another and 'carved' out my niche in the engraving world. Engraving can be a bit of a good old boys club, and as far as inclusivity is concerned, the industry has a way to go. There's a lot of amazing people, But it's challenging being one of just a few people of colour. It's another experiment in integration, no different from growing up in Michigan. Luckily my engraving skills earnt me a level of respect throughout the community. Once I achieved that I started opening my mouth and standing up for the people and lifestyles that I support. Some people get upset at that; it's a mixed bag. 

As well as political themes, popular culture and fantasy elements pop up in your work too. One of our favourites is your 'banana on hobo' coin. Can you shed some light on these more contemporary influences? 

I'm glad you asked, because those less traditional designs are what I really love to do. Your classic hobo nickel design is, well, a hobo. The style is derived from the early 1900s when hobos carved images of themselves and their friends into coins. When I first started, I became known as 'that elf guy' because I put elf ears on all of my hobo nickels. I'm a bit of a sci-fi nerd too and remember seeing Mae C. Jemison (the first female African American astronaut) on Star Trek as a kid. The idea of putting her on a coin was obvious. I just thought, 'she's an inspiration; she deserves to be on a coin'.  

We're big fans of the art form, but we're not master engravers like yourself. What are some challenges of engraving that we might not be aware of?

A common misconception is that 'metal is an unforgiving surface to work on'. Yes, there's an element of permanence to it because it lasts a long time, but metal is far more forgiving to work with than paper. If you cut a piece of paper in the wrong place, there's no way to fix that. If I make an incorrect cut or scratch something whilst engraving, there are ways to fix that or work it into the design.

One of the most difficult techniques is imparting colour. The majority of the metals you work with are grey or silver, so you're limited to monotone designs. You can, however, add colour by using other metals, for 'banana on a hobo' I added a fine 24 karat gold inlay. You can also use heat-treating using a very fine torch to apply a heat patina selectively. Some folks are wildly successful at this technique, and you can get purples, blues even greens or yellows. I happen to be red, green colour blind so that technique isn't as exciting for me but I do love working with gold and platinum inlays.

At Makers Cabinet, we often talk about the balance between digital and analogue design techniques. We think there will always be a place for analogue design processes. Do you have any thoughts on analogue vs digital in an increasingly digitised world?

I completely agree that there will always be space for analogue design, especially in engraving. A computer just can't replicate some things, and it's the reason a lot of engravers don't jump ship.

There are a handful of great machines out there, laser engravers, CNC, even some with cutting systems designed to mimic a hand engraving but you might as well just do it by hand. There's no labour-saving after the massive amount of design and programming that has to be done. Sure, there's always going to be the threat that machines could take over part of the work, but the computer's inspiration still has to come from us. Eventually, we'll develop a hybrid system. 

For many years I scrapped computer design altogether, if I couldn't draw it, then I didn't want to bother engraving it. When you're working on jewellery, your surface area might only be two millimetres wide, so you can't rely on printed transfers or pre-made designs. I do sometimes use an iPad to refine design ideas; it just saves a lot of paper.

You've engraved your Hovel, which we think is just beautiful. It's amazing what you can do when you have more surface area to work with. Odin, Ben, and Noah asked you to engrave one for them. Can you talk me through your design?

Sure, they requested a design that reflected all three of them, so it pays homage to their origins in Norway, Great Britain, and California. I decided on two medallions of a California poppy and a Tudor Rose to bridge the gap over the pond, then some Viking style knotwork filling the remaining space. It was a really lovely project to work on and came together very naturally. I enjoy projects so much more when a client gives me some themes to work with and trusts me to put it together in a cohesive way, that's when I do my best work 

You mentioned using an iPad to refine design ideas, what are some of the tools you use in your design process?

Well, I start all of my designs on paper. I'm a traditionalist in that regard. I tend to begin with a circle template and a nice sharp pencil so, with a Hovel and Iris, I'm pretty much in heaven, it's a wonderful combination of tools to work with. Oddly enough, I like to work on watercolour paper; there's something about the texture that allows these serendipitous moments when the paper imparts its own character to the design.

When making fine jewellery, most of the manufacturing is done by hand, so it makes sense to design by hand also. Using CAD, you can easily design something so complex; it's impossible to recreate in metal. It's one of the dangers of being too reliant on technology. 

That must be frustrating. I'm sure you've learnt some hard lessons on the road to becoming a master engraver. Do you have any advice for people who are looking to master their craft? 

Yeah, don't stop! Make mistakes often and make big mistakes; that's what you learn from. If you want to be good at something, practice it every single day. Keep practising to the point where it makes you almost sick to do it again, then do it again. When you want to throw the artwork out the window, that's when you learn the lessons you need to learn. Just keep going.

Harry, it's been a pleasure speaking with you. What do you have planned for the future? What can we look forward to seeing? 

Well, my Hobo Nickel work is becoming more politically charged than ever. I'll definitely be making more activist coins. I'm bored of seeing old white men on coins all day, so I'll be putting black women, underrepresented groups within the country and folks from my community on coins. I want to celebrate my people, you know. I am a queer-identifying man of colour, and there's a lot of folks like me out there that don't have a voice. I'm going to use my artistic soap box to give those unheard voices some amplification. 

I'm going to continue with the work I really love. I'm excited to engrave more Høvels and see what I can do with some Irises. Knives and Guns are at the core of the engraving world, but I'm happy out here on the edges, exploring new stuff.

 

Find Harry's custom engraved Høvel and coins for purchase on Etsy with this link, and more beautiful engravings on his website caldwellcrafted.com

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Harry's shown us a different side to the maker's journey. Through hardship, moments of inspiration, and passion for evolving the craft of the past, he's created a beautiful world of opportunity for himself and future makers who follow him.