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Engraver Marius Mellebye: ‘I love making beautiful shapes in my mind’

Hand engraver and scrollwork designer Marius Mellebye is an early adopter of Affinity, first on iPad and then on Mac. He chats to us about the art of hand engraving and how the Affinity suite has played a pivotal role in his creative journey and in branching out into other areas of design.
Marius, please tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born in the north of Norway and have lived in a few different locations throughout the country. I spent 20 years in Oslo before moving to a nice little village named Sitges just outside Barcelona, Spain,  about ten years ago after meeting my wife.

I have been drawing for as long as I can remember, but I was never really into things like animals, people or stuff like that. Instead, I liked to create all kinds of abstract doodle scrollwork shapes, and I really enjoyed doing all the small details and shadowing. I would draw on everything. Even at school, my books were full of doodles and scribbles, which was not always popular with my teachers, but just loved making beautiful shapes in my mind.

“I liked to create all kinds of abstract doodle scrollwork shapes, and I really enjoyed doing all the small details and shadowing.”

Gold ring engraving process.

At that time, I obviously didn’t know about all the unwritten rules and techniques involved in designing the acanthus scrollwork I do today, and was really surprised when I started to study it, just how much there is to it. But I found it was—and still is—really fun to learn about.

I have always felt the need to use my hands and create something. I have also done pinstriping, gold leafing and leather work, mostly for custom motorcycles and cars. I guess the highlight of that career was making motorcycle seats for all the members of Motörhead. It was an order from Victory Motorcycles, who were making a Motörhead signature model and it was a bit fun to meet them on stage. I’m not a big Motörhead fan, but Lemmy was an icon, and his motorcycle and my seat are in a gallery in Hollywood.

After I moved to Spain, I started working with CustomTrim and did a lot of leatherwork on multi-million dollar superyachts for the billionaires before the hand engraving took over. Even in that kind of work, I used the Affinity suite to make mock-up photos for clients for the quotes. I think it gave me an advantage.

What inspired you to try your hand at metal engraving?

I’m not 100% sure, but I have always thought it was really fascinating to look at. As already mentioned, I was doing pinstriping, gold leaf and leather tooling for custom motorcycles and cars, and it seemed a natural step to put my designs on custom automotive metal parts as well, so I saved up for a Lindsay NitroG20 graver. It’s the so-called motorcycle graver, and it hits hard and can dig really deep into metal, but I didn’t use it as much as I planned the first couple of years and didn’t have a good workshop to use it in.

At the time, I was living in an apartment in the middle of Oslo with neighbours over, under and on each side, so it wasn’t always very popular with a noisy compressor and metal hitting metal.

The very first watch Marius engraved with Lindsay Nitro.

After I moved to Spain, I got my own workshop and started to get more and more into engraving, as I had a place where I could make as much noise as I wanted 24/7. I then realised fast that automotive engraving wasn’t really for me, and I was getting more and more into smaller items and details like jewellery.

I really wanted to try to engrave watches but the motorcycle graver I had was a little too rough for these small items. I tried really hard and developed a technique of being super careful, so it kind of worked for a while, and my first engraved watch was my wife’s (above) and it was done with this graver. I remember even the toolmaker Steve Lindsay commented and was impressed with the “fine” details I got out of a graver that was designed to be more for automotive work.

After that, I saved up for a decent vice and got a Lindsay PalmControl and an AirGraver foot control which is a lot more suited for fine detailed engraving. I guess I became a tool addict as well, and today, I have six pneumatic gravers from Lindsay, five push gravers, some hammer and chisel gravers, a couple of vices and a lot of accessories for all kinds of jewellery and watches.

Engraving tools used by Marius.
You use a lot of vintage and re-purposed objects for your engraving, like silver cutlery. Where do you find these objects and what are your favourite objects to engrave?

We have some good friends who used to have an antique shop here in Sitges, where I live, and every antique shop has drawers full of old silver spoons and forks. I started to cut and make them into rings and necklaces and, of course, engraved them and then sold them in the same antique shop. Also, friends and family started to collect old silver cutlery for me.

At first, I started to sell a few to some friends, and then friends of friends. They got quite popular, and after a while, I had some of my engraved items in different shops here in Sitges, but I wanted to get more into fine detailed engraving.

Even though it was fun and an easy way to start engraving actual items, today, I regret a little that I sold those items. I have some left, and I see now that I really wasn’t ready, and the designs aren’t very good. At least not for what I know and can do today. And in these times, if you put something online, it’s probably there forever, so it’s something we have to think about.

Today, I will say what I enjoy most is stainless steel watches and knives. I have a little collection of collectable high-end knives I should start cutting, but I’ll know when the time is right—probably soon.

"This gold ring was probably the most demanding project in 2023. There are so many details in this small 14-karat gold ring, I spent many hours on it. After I finished it, there was an accident where someone polished it and removed all the engraving details. I got it back on my bench totally ruined and tried to do it all again from what was left. This is after it was engraved for a second time."
What inspired you to get an iPad and start working creatively on it, and how did you discover Affinity Designer?

I must admit, I have always been a so-called Apple “fanboy”—whatever that means, and I don’t care what people think about it. Since my first computer 35 years ago or so, was an Apple LC III I started to make music on, I have never used anything other than Apple.

At first, when I tested an iPad, I could not really afford one and I wasn’t sure if I really needed one—even if I wanted one. I went to a few Apple stores, testing and testing, just to tease myself and in the end convinced myself this is a tool I really needed. I liked how responsive the Apple Pencil was on the screen and how natural it felt to draw on it, while at the same time being so portable. I draw on paper too, but with intricate designs, it’s really cool to have a digital eraser not wrinkling the paper and drawing on layers.

I managed to save up for an iPad Pro 12,9“ 2nd. generation, and have been using it every day since. Now I’m on my second iPad Pro M1 2021. For me, it’s the obvious choice and I’m thinking of getting another, but I’m sitting on the fence a little in case they release something larger than 12,9.

On my desktop, I was always using Photoshop and Illustrator, but honestly, I was never really comfortable using the programs. They didn’t feel very intuitive–especially Illustrator, which I found so complicated to use. The menus were hidden and kind of complicated to learn—for me, anyway. Then they started with their crazy subscription model and one day, I was reading an article about Affinity Designer and Photo and that the apps were to be released for iPad.

First, I got Affinity Photo, even though I didn’t do that much photo editing. I was really surprised by how logical and powerful the app was, and I did a lot of drawing on it as well, so I could not wait for Affinity Designer to be released.

“For me, it was a real game changer having such powerful apps on the iPad, so I got both Photo and Designer for my Mac as well and never looked back.”

"Scrollwork design in raster persona in Affinity Designer. I often draw different designs like this to develop my style and try to come up with new ideas."

For me, it was a real game changer having such powerful apps on the iPad, so I got both Photo and Designer for my Mac as well and never looked back. I must admit I use both Designer and Photo more on my iPad these days as they’re just so logical, powerful and easy to understand. And with the pencil, the user experience is just amazing!

Some tasks are still easier on the desktop versions though, so it’s great to easily change between the iPad and desktop when needed. Affinity V2 had some really great updates, and I’m really loving it. They really have everything I need and I can honestly say it’s been part of making the career change possible. It may sound like an exaggeration, but I would say it changed my life. Not only the way I was working, but I started to get a lot of requests to make designs for others as well.

I always recommend people to make their own designs, as it’s so much more rewarding to engrave a design you made yourself, but I have made designs for books, logos, vector designs for KeyBar and others. I even give some online classes and teach others how to use the apps for engraving designs.

What made you adopt it into your workflow for designing engravings?

In the beginning, I was mostly sketching out designs on paper or in Procreate, and then people asked me if I could do it in vector as well, as some clients of mine require that, so I just jumped into it and did some jobs for laser engravers who needed vectors. It was quite fun to try to make the hand-drawn designs still look kind of organic, even if they are laser engraved. And a few jobs led to more and more.

I must say I had some really nice and patient clients letting me learn, (while trying and failing, in the beginning). I really learned a lot from this, and now I know how much work it takes, but at the same time, it’s really fun! To be honest, without Affinity Designer on the iPad, I would not be where I am today, doing all these design jobs for others.

“To be honest, without Affinity Designer on the iPad, I would not be where I am today, doing all these design jobs for others.”

A sketch for a font design in Affinity Designer for iPad.
Can you explain your process and how a digital design becomes a hand-engraved piece?

When I have an object to engrave, either for myself or for a client, I always start by getting the template or the outline of that specific object. Then, I import it into Affinity Designer and use the Pixel Persona to roughly draw and try out different ideas.

When I have a rough idea, I like to make a new layer and try to make the design more accurate and clear, as there are usually a lot of stems and spines going over and under each other in my designs. When I have something I like, I actually make yet another layer to draw on top of that, just to enhance the small details. Here I can be a little more “free” and artistic, which makes it flow better.

After that, the shadowing process starts, and when it is done, there are usually thousands of pencil strokes. I’m quite a perfectionist, but let me say it doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but as perfect as I think I can do it. There is a constant learning process, so what I thought was perfect last year might not be so good in my eyes today. But I guess that relates to most creative artists.

Anyway, if the design is for my own hand engraving, I scale the design into the correct size, flip it horizontally and transfer the outline of the design onto the object to engrave. There are many different ways to transfer a design onto metal, which is probably not so interesting for most here.

If the design is for a laser engraver or a client that requires it as a vector design, I go back into the Vector Persona and start making the outlines of my hand-drawn design, then the shadowing. What I often hear from my clients, is that my vector designs look very organic and hand-drawn, and that’s why I always draw the design in the Pixel Persona first—to get that hand-drawn feel over it. I always play around a lot in the Stroke Studio as well to try to get that pressure feeling of a real drawing. That is a mistake I see a lot with laser engravers—they do not think about line thickness and use the same thickness throughout the whole design.

“What I often hear from my clients, is that my vector designs look very organic and hand-drawn, and that’s why I always draw the design in the Pixel Persona first—to get that hand-drawn feel over it. I always play around a lot in the Stroke Studio as well to try to get that pressure feeling of a real drawing. ”

"Mirror finish golden necklace with silver inlay I created for my wife."
How and where did you learn all your different crafts?

With all of my crafts—pinstriping, gilding, leatherwork, hand engraving, photo editing and vector designing—I am self-taught. I’m not good at opening manuals, so it’s a case of trying, failing, asking some good friends if needed, then trying some more, and, of course, a lot of YouTube videos. I must say the tutorial videos Affinity create are really good. There are a lot of techniques I can use, even in my designs.

Do you think your art will always have a hand-crafted element, as opposed to being solely digital?

Yes definitely. I always do the sketches on paper or in the Pixel Persona on the iPad first. I know some artists don’t agree, but I feel that drawing in raster on a tablet is just as much hand-crafted as pencil and paper. It’s also really important to me that it has a hand-crafted feel and look to it.

I have a laser graver too, but I will not use it for metal engraving. Although I have to admit there are some really good artists out there with a laser, and it’s exciting and a little scary to see what the future will bring. I’m 100% sure my main work will be hand-crafted, but I’m not afraid to use digital tools. I love the combination of getting my hands dirty and the fine technology together.

“I’m 100% sure my main work will be hand-crafted, but I’m not afraid to use digital tools. I love the combination of getting my hands dirty and the fine technology together.”

"3,5 mm sized letters inlaid with 24 Karat gold. I used Affinity Designer to modify the font to fit."
What has been your all-time favourite creative project to work on?

Oh, I’ve had many exciting projects to work on recently. I have designed a lot of watch dials for a new watch brand: Impossible Watch Co, which has been really fun. I’m working on some new designs for a pair of sunglasses, but due to the situation in the world today, it’s a little on hold. The producer has devoted all his time to help the people in Ukraine. I might engrave an item for him, though, for an auction where all the income will go to help people in the country. That will be an important job.

I have also done a book design and loads of designs for different artists. I get a lot of requests, but I can’t say yes to all, as I have my own projects too! But the most exciting project is still under development, and I can’t say much about it yet, but I will start engraving it this year… Another really exciting thing is the way Affinity Designer has been part of the journey—of changing my life and the way I work.

"I designed a set of Procreate brushes and actually used Affinity Designer to create the brush pack. Here I used them on a mock-up photo on a watch from Impossible Watch Company. I made a lot of designs for them in 2022/23.
How would you describe the engraving community?

There are not so many engravers here in Spain, or in Norway for that matter, at least that I know of, but everyone I have met here is really nice. We are mostly in the same situation. Engraving is a lot more popular in the USA and of course “over there” it’s a lot more shows, events and clients, so I guess we here in Europe have to try to prove even harder what we can too. And very often the only way we can show our work is by photos in forums or on social media, so Affinity Photo is also a great tool to use. I mostly shoot in RAW format and edit and adjust colours after in Photo.

The social media world is very complex and I try to stay more out of it now than I did in the beginning, but at the same time, it’s a necessary tool today. For some people, you see it’s important to be friends with the “right” people and you can easily get excluded by some if you don’t like this or do like that.

That being said, there are some truly amazing and great people there too, and over time I have built some really great friendships. There are some people that I can say have become some of my closest friends. Even though we met through engraving, we almost never talk about it, but have a lot of other things in common.

Even though I try to be less active, my inbox is always open and I always try to answer the best I can, when I can. At times there can be a lot of messages, so I can’t always answer quickly, but I always try my best. Quotes I only do by email.

I would say it’s probably no different than any creative community. You will find all kinds of people, and over time, you realise who to keep close and who to keep at a distance, but I only ever compete with myself. It’s great and inspiring to see others succeed and discuss techniques, but I can only do the best I can, compared to what I did yesterday.

"A custom-made Lindsay tool handle and a titanium dog tag I hand engraved."
What advice would you give anyone looking to explore engraving as an art form?

Draw a lot, and I really mean a lot! I think one of the most important things about engraving is to be able to make designs and layouts that fit the item to engrave. I’m constantly learning new things and techniques. Study, learn the build-up of the scrollwork or whatever you want to engrave, make sure your backbone is perfect, practice, practice and practice! In my humble opinion, I don’t think you will be a good engraver unless you are able to make a good design that fits well to an object. I’m sure you’ll be able to engrave well, but I think the design is way more important.

There are not that many options here in Spain or Norway, but if you have a chance to take a class or two, it can shorten your learning curve a lot and probably save years of practice by trying and failing on your own, but it also comes at a cost. So it depends on how serious you are or what you are willing to put into it. A good engraver will not get away with a bad design, but a decent engraver can get away with a good design.

You can see more of Marius’ stunning engravings on his website and Instagram, and learn more about his process on YouTube.


Spotlight editor

As editor of Affinity Spotlight Melanie oversees the stories, interviews and tutorials published on the site. Outside of work she enjoys travelling, reading crime thrillers, Pilates and dabbling in a spot of oil painting. Get in touch with Melanie if you would like to contribute or be featured on Affinity Spotlight.

Credits & Footnotes

All images copyright © of Marius Mellebye and used with permission.