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At Derry Keen & Co, Engravers

September 29, 2013
by the gentle author

Don Keen, machine engraving with a pantograph

In Clerkenwell – an area of London where the engraving trade has been established for centuries, where Hogarth, Blake, Caslon and Cruikshank once practised their art – you may still find engravers at work today. Derry Keen & Co are a busy company who supply engraved trophies and undertake almost any manner of graving upon metal.

Don Keen will greet you from behind the front desk at this family business, started by his father Derek Keen and still trading under his pet name of ‘Derry.’ The shop is lined with glass cases displaying every kind of glitzy trophy you could imagine – from traditional silver cups, to statues, crests, plaques and medals, to those futuristic crystal awards that high-flyers stick on their shelves. Pass behind the desk into the ramshackle workshop at the rear and you immediately realise you are in a nineteenth century building. This is industry on a domestic scale, and the arrangement and contents of this cosy crowded space have evolved over the last thirty years to reach the optimal efficiency and comfort of working.

“Originally, my father started the business as ‘Rose & Keen’ in the fifties, they used to make copper trays and candlesticks in our front room in Navarino Rd, Hackney. My dad’s partner, Peter Rose, was a gun engraver and one day he shot and killed himself accidentally with one of the guns he had just engraved,” admitted Don gravely, revealing an unexpected danger of the trade, “In 1954, they had a shop in Grays Inn Rd and dad’s speciality was ‘bright’ cutting on silver cutlery, he was probably the best in this country. He and his brother Michael had a workshop off St John St and they opened this shop in 1977, with a hand-engraving workshop, a machine-engraving workshop and a small display of trophies.”

At this point, Don indicated a sturdy machine at the centre of the workshop, explaining that this was his cherished Taylor Hobson Model K Mark II.  “My career had been lined up elsewhere, but dad said, ‘Why don’t you come and work for us? We need someone to do machine engraving,” he revealed, positioning himself on a stool in front of the device, “I had played upon this machine in my school holidays, and I remember the first job I was let loose on, it was engraving the text of Paul Revere on these Liberty Bowls to celebrate the Bicentenary of the American Declaration of Independence in 1976. There were 1976 silver punch bowls of which I had to do the bulk and I did it very slowly and very carefully. I was eighteen years old.”

Then Don took the black round base of a silver cup and clamped it in place, before slotting a long panel etched with the alphabet into the top of the machine. With his right hand, he guided a pantograph over the etched letters while moving the engraving tool over the base with his left hand, cutting the letterforms into it. Then he removed the base and rubbed a ball of white wax over the words he had incised and they appeared, as if by magic, crisp and regular upon the dark surface.

“We have to be confidential about some of our customers and the work we do,” Don informed me, lowering his voice for dramatic effect, “Often, we know the recipients of awards, so we have to agree not to go out and place bets before they win. We do a lot of sport, we do Crufts and work for the Royal Family, we do Number 10 – regardless of who’s in power – and we do a lot of military and corporate trophies. We do all the Formula One trophies and we supplied them in a sixties style for the film ‘Rush.'” Behind this modest shopfront and unassuming showroom, I had unwittingly discovered a glamorous power house, where the rewards for many of life’s big achievements are minted.

Once I had grasped the essentials of machine engraving, Don led me into the shop next door which can only be reached through the workshop connecting the two premises. Here Don’s brother Michael and his partner Frida Wezel sat peacefully at desks, intent upon their meticulous work as hand engravers.

Michael looked up from the stack of old silver plates that he was engraving with a crest and launched into a monologue about evolving techniques and styles through recent centuries, “In the seventeenth century, if you make a slip, you leave it – whereas in the nineteenth century it has to be clear and regular, and then there is Mr Bateman’s ‘bright’-cutting in the eighteenth century, made to catch your eye.” And he passed me a fork decorated with a border of lozenges that glittered, serving both to illustrate his point and as an example of the work at which his father excelled. Yet on that day, Michael was working in the seventeenth century style, matching the quality of line in an existing motif with one of his own that possessed a subtle irregularity, almost like a pen script.

Across the room, Frida looked up from the silver goblet she was engraving with initials. “It takes ten years to learn,” she assured me, “four years to learn how to do it and another four years to learn to do it well.”

“Four to eight years,” interposed Michael, correcting her.

Ten years to get your lines straight,” proposed Frida, growing excited and gesturing with her graver, “to get the steadiness of hand and get all your letters.”

“At college, I learnt how to hold a graver but here I learnt how to do engraving,” Michael asserted to me, “I learnt by doing it and by working alongside my dad.”

“Lettering is the most challenging part of engraving,” Don announced, halting the dialogue and bringing everyone to accord, “It is not just a question of engraving the letters but of getting the spacing even. We do a Classic Roman and a Classic Script. Lettering is what we specialise in.”

This drew nods of approval from both engravers, as they nodded sagely, returning to the absorbed silence that is their customary mode.

“We’re all going to retire in ten or fifteen years but there’s nobody coming into the trade to run the business in future,” Don confided to me, crossing his arms fatalistically as he watched the engravers at work, “We’ve tried – we’ve had three apprentices and it takes years to teach them but as soon as they’ve learnt how to do hand engraving, they are off to do it from their own front room.”

“There’s always going to be hand engraving,” added Michael, reassuringly, in an unexpected burst of romanticism, “People are always going to want their names engraved inside their wedding rings.”

“We do engraving as it has been done for ever, since steel tools were made,” confirmed Don in agreement, “Hand engraving hasn’t changed, there’s still lot that a computer cannot do accurately.”

“In corners of Clerkenwell and Spitalfields, there are small workshops that keep these crafts going,” Frida informed me confidently and I could not doubt her – because here was the evidence before my eyes.

Frida Wezel & Michael Keen, Hand Engravers

Frida Wezel engraves initials upon a presentation goblet

Michael Keen engraves a new crest upon an old silver plate

“Ten years to get your lines straight, to get the steadiness of hand and get all your letters.”

“At college, I learnt how to hold a graver and here I learnt how to do engraving. I learnt by doing it and by working alongside my dad.”

Derry Keen & Co, 65 Compton St. EC1V 0BN

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. September 29, 2013

    I hope that others will be able to carry on the tradition, even if it looks bleak just now. We are losing so much of our history each day, it’s very sad. Valerie

  2. Dave Barrington permalink
    October 3, 2013

    I have walked past the premises of Derry and Keen on many occasions and at the moment of reading this article I had a signet ring that I wanted engraved so I went in.

    Don welcomed me like a long lost brother and after some banter it turned out that we have many mutual friends in the boxing world (LEBA) who have appeared on Mike did the hand engraving on the item and within an hour and a half and a little local beer tasting session I had a top job done (the ring looks excellent).

    Thank you and long may you reign !!

  3. Gill Washington permalink
    March 27, 2016

    Derek Keen taught me and many other students engraving at West Dean College, and I visited his workshop and met ‘the boys’ and Freda.
    A lovely man – full of enthusiasm and a fantastic teacher, although I would never be more than an amateur.

  4. Cressida Davies permalink
    June 2, 2016

    Hello Gill! Yes, Derek was a genius with a graver – and as Gill says – a fantastic teacher too! I always remember Frida coming down to West Dean college and Derek showing off some of her engravings – ski scenes? Astonishing skills and patience.

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