Lister, who grew up in Boerne and lives near Welfare, is a third-generation firearm and knife engraver. He makes his designs in steel, gold, silver, and bronze using a hammer and chisel.
My dad taught me how to engrave when I was seventeen years old. I started on six-by-twelve practice plates made of steel. My dad would draw a design on the plate the same way he’d draw on a fancy piece: dust it with talcum powder and draw with pencil. That way you can erase easily. He would clamp a practice plate down, grab a chisel off the bench, and demonstrate. Then it was my turn to make my cut look like his. After dinner each night, I’d go out to the shop attached to the house and practice as long as I could stand it.
Three months after I started, my dad thought I was ready to go. My design had progressed from “yuck” to “well, not too bad.” Now, bear in mind, what was good enough back then wouldn’t be good enough now. It was passable. I’d recommend to my son that he practice longer, because once you do your work, it’s out there in the world and you can’t get it back.
It’s wise to spend more time on the design than on the cutting, because a bad design is still a bad design, no matter how well it is cut. The style that my dad schooled me on initially is what we refer to as American, or Nimschke. Louis Nimschke worked in the late 1800’s, and he developed a design that basically consists of stylized scrolls and foliage with a punched-dot background. After that, I learned to draw game animals, like deer, and to do lettering. That was a benchmark. Engraving a scroll is one thing; you can mess up and not everyone can see that. But mess up the ABC’s, and they’ll nail you.
After my dad retired, I developed a technique in which I inlaid steel with steel. Normally we’d inlay a gun with something like gold, but I was talking with him, and we wondered, What if we used steel? I tried it, and it worked. I could sculpt it to add dimension. In one case, I was working on a shotgun I had designed with oak leaves and quail. I applied raised steel to some of the leaves—just a sixteenth of an inch—and that extra depth made a nice contrast.
On an average day, I’ll grab a couple cups of coffee in the morning, and at nine I’ll go into the studio I built next to our home. It’s not in the house, so I can make a mess and make noise. I turn on the radio, then figure out where I left off. The method I use is hammer and chisel, which is pretty archaic. I work standing up. I’m right-handed, but the chisel is in my left hand, and I tap with my right. That’s sort of backward from what you might think. It takes practice to stand and make these fluid cuts by tapping a chisel.
In this trade, a mistake is called a fly out. You skid and make a scratch. Usually in a cut, the metal is raised on either side of the trough, so to fix the mistake you can burnish that metal back toward the middle. Sometimes you can sand it. Other times you can inlay steel or put a similar material back in, though there could be color differences and it may still look funny. It’s difficult. It’s best to just avoid making mistakes.
You don’t get a lot of tire kickers in my business. People who want special work know what they’re asking for, and they’re prepared to pay or they don’t ask. I work at all levels. I engrave mandolin parts, for example. I’ve engraved stethoscopes. Spurs. Several years back I started making bracelets for ladies, just to diversify a bit. And since it’s hard to walk into a nice restaurant with a shotgun, I began engraving belt buckles. I’ll do some engraving for a firearm, say, and the client may buy a decorative item for his lady friend, and she may not care about the details, but he’ll say, “That’s a Colt engraving from 1878.”
This is how a custom order usually works. Somebody calls and, for example, wants to give a gun as a present to a guy who’s retiring. Often he has heard about me through word of mouth. I say, “Sure, what would you like?” and he says, “Well, this is what it needs to say,” and “Where would you put that?” I make some suggestions, and he says, “Okay,” and “Go ahead,” and “Do that.” Then I do it and he’s happy. That’s a basic job. Now, on high-end commissions, the person often has a concept, like “I want to do something with African game animals.” Or a specific image, like his bird-hunting dog. That’s a tough one, because he sees something in his dog that nobody else sees, and as the artist, you have to be really observant and look for things that are particular to that black Lab.
I don’t refuse much work, but I do have a few rules. I don’t do nudes. This is going to sound prudish, but I have three daughters and a wife. So I turn those commissions down. I’ve also turned down a marijuana leaf. I said, “No, not here, sorry. Can’t do that.”
On one of the nicer things I’ve done, the gun owner came to me and said, “You have carte blanche, but you need to make it so nice you don’t want to give it back.” This was a client I had been working with for a decade, and I spent the better part of a year on it. The scene had Indians and buffalo. I took elements from vignettes by Remington and Russell. I used gold inlay, multicolored. When I was done, I truly didn’t want to let go of it.
I’ve been working thirty-plus years, so when somebody new comes to me, there’s a built-in trust. That’s hard to come by, because it’s a small niche. If you don’t do what you’re supposed to, word gets around. It’s about your relationships. This year I was commissioned to do my very first fly rod. The client looked on my website and selected a hodgepodge of designs he liked. I put it together, and afterward, I received this nice letter from him. He said, “You listened, and what you did exceeded my expectations.” That made me feel really good. He’s using this rod, and he’ll probably hand it down to his son, and so on down the line. And I’m part of that heirloom.