How this Altavista Resident Built a Life Using Age-Old Art Techniques
Most Americans delve into an industry, work on average 40 hours each week for 40 years, then retire on 40 percent of their income. But master engraver Tim George of Altavista chiseled against that mold by mastering and selling a unique artform.
Every well-designed engraving you see in this story was done by hand. No fancy machinery like air utensils, high-end microscopes, or expensive engraving pens. Only tools made from small carbide steel drill blanks, countless hours of chisel practice and refinement, and a passion to master this ageless art.
The art of engraving is as old as time, but very few still practice the traditional hands-only techniques. Engraving is the art of carving initials, patterns, and picture art into an object’s metal components.
The industry rose to prominence in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, and evolved further as time passed. Today, popular metal objects signatured with engravements include handguns and rifles, knives, and a wide variety of jewelry.
“What we do is so cool, and I just love it,” George said. “You’re in contact with the metal in a different way. This is closer to the way it was done thousands of years ago, going on back to cavemen carving images on the wall.”
According to the Firearms Engravers Guild of America (FEGA), where he is a member, George is one of 50 certified master engravers in the country.
For decades, jewelry, knife, and gun companies have commissioned George to engrave his illustrations and designs into exclusive and limited-edition products. George also extends his services to private clients, who pay upwards of tens of thousands for just one project.
Popular features of his art include 24 karat yellow gold, 18 karat green gold, and even rose gold, in addition to multi-dimensional layering and flush.
George has been commissioned by Ruger, Colt, and even William Henry, a jewelry company that sold one of George’s masterpieces for $57,000. His work has also been featured in magazines and other publications with national circulations, like Garden & Gun.
“Now that I’m older, I often reflect back on my career and wonder sometimes how the heck I made it,” George said.
“I was lucky in that I loved my job and really enjoyed creating something every day out of nothing. I also had, and still have, the ability to critique my work and be proud of it, but also to notice little things to improve on.
Most commissions begin with a sketch. Once approved, it may take George anywhere between a couple weeks to a year to complete one project, depending on size, features, and workload.
George’s love for art began with his grandparents.
His grandmother on his mother’s side was a painter, and his grandfather on his dad’s side was a craftsman. Both of his daughters are also entrenched in the visual arts, one being a photographer, and the other an art teacher.
“I do think that art runs in people’s families,” George said. “This is the only thing I have ever done for a living, aside from being a ski mechanic. I like to have a flexible schedule.”
With art holding a special place in his soul, George looked for any opportunities to leverage this passion for a living. In 1981, George apprenticed under master engraver Ken Hurst, a former master for Colt Firearms. As Hurst’s company grew, George became his general manager and even trained new engravers. By 1987, large projects came to an end, so he and two other engravers formed their own company, Old Dominion Engravers, based out of Lynchburg. In 1990, as his knowledge and skill improved, George left the company to go solo—and he has never looked back.
“I still shake my head when I think back over my past,” he said. “I never thought about it much in my early days. I just wanted to learn as much as I could as fast as I could. I was trained to be a production engraver when I first started and was paid piecemeal, so I learned to be fast. Most of the better engravers that I know are fast and efficient, so that always helped.”
George works from the basement of his home. There’s nothing fancy about his 8-by-16-foot “office”—just a couple tables and tools scattered around the room. Several scratch marks blemish the floor, worn down by his chair.
Through it all, George is thankful for health, as his craft can become physically demanding.
“I never thought about it then, but I think about it now: I’ve never broken a bone. …If you’re cutting, you need to be moving your whole body,” he said.
George has coated his art onto some of the nation’s most expensive collectible guns, knives, and jewelry. People often ask him if he ever experiences apprehension while handling delicate, expensive weaponry. His answer is always the same: never.
Aside from engraving, George enjoys fishing, cigars and bourbon, and participating in the public square. He is on the Altavista town council.
“I loved growing up in Lynchburg,” he said. “I lived there for more than 30 years. I moved to Altavista about 22 years ago for family reasons and fell in love with this small town immediately. I love our parks, the YMCA, and the beautiful Staunton River that runs right through our town.”
George showcases much of his work through Instagram, where he shares photos of current projects and even videos of him at work.
“There are very few of ‘us’ that still basically use the hammer and chisel method in the US,” he said. “I know lots of engravers that I admire that use the new modern method—air-assisted tools in conjunction with microscopes. They do incredible work. I guess I just like the way I learned the best. I like antiques and feel pleasure doing what I do the old-fashioned way.”
For more information, visit George’s Instagram profile @timgeorgeengraving. To learn more about his portfolio, visit his website www.timgeorgeengraving.com.