Talkin' to John

BrianPowley

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Thread starter #1
Last Saturday, my wife handed the phone to me and said "John Rohner???" (How cool,huh?)
It was great to talk to him again. A fascinating young man and he's only 88 years old!
John congratulated me on the article "If I Had A Hammer" published in the latest "THE ENGRAVER" magazine.
The old boy was happy to see a part of his collection gracing the pages of the finest engraving journal on the planet---all Thanks to Andrew Biggs!
John reminded me that his collection of hammer heads includes the works of E. Prudhomme, A.A.White, Lynton MacKenzie, Winston Churchill, Ron Smith, Eric Gold and about 40 other engravers. (I'm not purposefully omitting anyone here---just trying to recall our conversation as best as I can)
It is completely humbling to have some of my work included in this collection and I feel that it is a great honor to have been asked in the first place.
According to him, there are quite a few hammers "out there" waiting to find their way home.
He didn't put me up to this, but I emplore those who have been so honored, to honor a simple request from John Rohner: "Would you like to engrave a hammer for me?"
 

Daniel Houwer

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#2
Congratulations Brian.
I liked the article too and have really liked an article about Mr. Rohners hammers in the engraver a while back.
And from the first time I saw those hammers I wanted to know where these things are offered for sale, or does Mr. Rohner make them himself?
Anyways, that collection got better again by the adition of yours and is already a museum and study by itself.
 
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#3
Hi Brian

The hammers are fun things to cut and the collection is a national treasure for sure. So much history and talent inside those boxes. The Rohner family were at Reno last year and a pure delight to meet.

Cheers
Andrew
 

Doc Mark

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#4
I too met the Rohner family in Reno and felt honored to talk to John for quite a while. The whole family seemed to be having a great time and I hope they can return next year. Ever since I first heard of the hammer collection, it's been a dream of mine to reach the level of engraving skill to be asked to contribute.
 

Frank P

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#5
this fascinating man would sure give a fascinating interview...
Brian, please ask mr Rohner he s willing to.. it would be nice all of us can share this..
There s a lot of Rohners living around my neighbourhood, so I presume his origins must be swiss...
:beerchug:
Frank
 

pilkguns

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Frank, not exactly an interview, but this was the text of an article that appeared in the issue #89 FEGA magazine


John R. Rohner: The Godfather of the American Engraving Renaissance
By Scott Pilkington and Lisa Rohner Schafer


For my friend John Rohner- whose ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’, the Gravermeister, is the major advance made since the early years of gun engraving in the 16th Century. – With best regards from Larry Wilson. — inscribed in John’s copy of R.L. Wilson’s book, “ L.D. Nimschke, Firearms Engraver”

Many are aware of John Rohner’s role in co-founding GRS and co-developing the Gravermeister with his brother-in-law, Don Glaser. If that is all he had done to impact the field of engraving, his reputation as one who had helped bring about the Renaissance of American engraving would be secure.
But his impact has been much broader. Consider that his writings on engraving appeared in numerous publications providing knowledge to buyers and practitioners alike. His passion for the art led him to create techniques and methods that are standards in the American engraver’s toolkit today. His interests in wildlife art, guns and engraving forged a lifetime of friendships with others who shared those interests including Bob Brownell, Len Brownell, John Amber, Elmer Keith, Maynard Reece, John Warren, Rene Delcour, Cole Agee, Larry Wilson, Jack Prudhomme, Lynton McKenzie, Franz Marktl, John Amber, Francis Lee Jacques, Bruce Meek, John Dutcher , Frank Brownell and others. Among such as these he was a source of cross-pollination, advancing the art of engraving with wildlife artists, gun-makers, gun writers and publishers.
Now in his 88th year, John Rohner is truly a living legend among engravers; his influences are felt in so many areas, sometimes unknown to those using methods he developed.


The Early Years
John grew up along the Iowa River just south of Iowa City where he spent his days hunting, fishing, and camping. Guns were a passion of his from a very early age. At the outbreak of World War II, he left behind two years at St. Ambrose College to work on the construction of the Alcan Highway. The year 1943 found him working in Seattle at Boeing with the plan to return to Alaska as a Junior Airport Manager.
“After a month of getting up at 4 a.m. to catch a bus for class I decided I wanted to do something easier,” Rohner says. “Maybe it wasn’t my most brilliant moment, but I joined the Marines.”
Esthetics was the deciding factor in his choice of that branch of service. “My Mom sometimes forced me to wear sailor suits as a kid, and I hated that. So the Navy was out. I couldn’t stomach the mis-fitted Army uniforms, with their hats pulled down over their ears. That left the Marines,” Rohner recalls.
At the age of 19, then Corporal Rohner shipped off to Saipan as a Combat Intelligence Specialist with the First Rocket Detachment, Fourth Marine Division. John recalls sitting in the dark listening to soldiers hurl insults back and forth and he . John says the rockets being launched is something he will never forget. The barrage made a great big “WOOSHING” sound, the sky was filled with rockets and the whole war stopped when they took off. Johns, war did stop shortly thereafter when a piece shrapnel put him on hospital ship stateside


He enrolled at the University of Iowa to earn his bachelor’s degree in Zoology and a master’s in Museology (Museum Studies). He was a member of the 1947 University of Iowa rifle team that placed second in the nation in the NCAA Championships. During his collegiate summers from 1946-50 he worked for the Forest Service based out of Challis, Idaho, patrolling the primitive area along the middle fork of the Salmon River with his horse, mule and dog as company. It was during this time he developed a friendship with Idaho resident and gun-writer, Elmer Keith — the first of many friendships with noted individuals in the gun world.
Throughout his summers and while completing his degrees and later while teaching, John collected wildlife specimens for the University of Iowa Natural History Museum including a vast collection of birds and some mammals. Many of these mounted specimens are on display there to this day.

Bit by the Engraving Bug
In the early 1950s, while he was teaching at the University of Iowa, John supplemented his income by trading in guns — a talent that came in handy years later when he had seven children to feed. The engraved guns he encountered piqued his interest in the art, and he decided to try and decorate a gun for himself. After a poor attempt at etching, John realized that only a hammer and graver would give him the look he was after. And so he was on the road to becoming a hand engraver.
His new interest led him to contact Cole Agee, hoping to swap some of Agee’s engraving for some of John’s trade guns. Agee agreed, and John picked up a few engraving pointers from the well-known engraver in the course of the transaction.
Seldom satisfied with his work, he nonetheless kept at it bit by bit. His effort was rewarded with his work appearing on the cover of the March 1955 issue of American Rifleman. A teacher by nature, he was soon writing articles to share his newfound knowledge, the first appearing the June ’56 edition of GUNS magazine entitled “How to be a Gun Engraver.”
Other publications followed, and soon John was in the company of gunsmith tool-provider, Bob Brownell. That friendship led to an introduction to fellow Iowan and established engraver, James “Bruce” Meek. Meek inspired and helped John with his engraving; and likewise, John was a contributor who helped with Meek’s 1973 book, The Art of Engraving. Brownell’s published the book, which is considered the engraving “bible” to many of today’s engravers. John also authored a detailed treatise for the beginning engraver that appeared in another Brownell’s published book, Gunsmith Kinks.

The Gravermeister
In 1962 John moved his family to Boulder, Colorado, where he began teaching museology and wildlife habitat groups at the University of Colorado. He had been discussing the mechanical aspects of engraving with his sister’s husband, Don Glaser. Glaser, an engineer with many patents in the printing field that used vacuum devices, saw a vacuum process as a way to create the tool that John was envisioning. Together they developed the Gravermeister — the first product of GRS Corporation and the forerunner of many of today’s air-powered systems.
John ran GRS alone out of his home for the first eleven years, while teaching at the University. “My days didn’t end until I’d put in several hours writing letters, making calls, getting invoices together. Most nights I didn’t stop until the ten-o’clock news came on.” John grew and nurtured the company through his engraving knowledge, enthusiasm and salesmanship. Meanwhile, back in Kansas, brother-in-law Don focused his efforts on the machining, production and invention aspects of the business.
John’s reputation as an established engraver, with published work and skills at “real hand engraving” opened many doors to this newfangled machine, albeit often with much hostility from old timers who feared an easier method would lead to a cheapening of their hard-earned skills. Today those concerns seem antiquated, as air-powered engravers produced by GRS and Lindsay Tools dominate much of the engraving world.

Meanwhile . . . Back at the Museum
In the mid-sixties John instituted a program at the University of Colorado to train Native Americans in the museum methods required to preserve and display the artifacts and history of their cultures. The program expanded to include students from Africa, who were sponsored by their governments to come and learn what had previously been done by outsiders — that is collecting, restoring, maintaining and displaying the art and objects of their cultures.
Already a collector of Native American art, contact with his African students led him to a new interest — African Art. He makes no claim on being an authority on African art despite the fact that he has amassed a collection of over 700 pieces from more than 100 tribes. His newfound knowledge of this esoteric art study led him to author the book, Art Treasures from African Runners that was published in 2000 by University Press of Colorado. From an engraving viewpoint, it is fascinating to see how Rohner’s interest in African art influenced his engraving. The leaf formations inside of his later scrollwork resembles the eye features found in many African masks.
As the curator of a museum, John had an interest in replicating both animal specimens and artifacts to use in exhibits. This led to experimenting with silicone molds and acrylic for casting these items. Over time, Dow Corning sent him various samples to try and compare. Rohner’s results eventually brought high praise from museum officials around the world.
His efforts were of great benefit to archeologists; they frequently were restricted from removing specimens from a host nation. John’s casting technique allowed them to take a detailed replica from the site for further study back in their home country. These casting techniques also were applicable to precious metals. John reproduced ancient coins, flawless enough that they fooled even the most astute historical numismatists worldwide.
But most importantly to engravers, the technique allowed him to collect engraving samples from other noted engravers. By reproducing a plastic cast rather than the real firearm, he could keep and study other artisan’s work, even down to the remotest chisel mark. Engravers today commonly collect and trade castings of each other’s work for study and enjoyment little realizing that this is yet another of John Rohner’s contributions to the art.

Engraving No More
In 1993 John retired from the University of Colorado. He continued to engrave guns, motivated simply by his love for the craft and his passion for guns. One unique feature that John’s engraved guns possess is their finish . . .or more correctly said, their lack thereof. After the engraving cuts are blackened, it is left the natural steel color, protected by Renaissance Wax.
John’s answer when asked about the lack of finish? “No matter what finish you put on it, someone is going to ask, ‘How come you didn’t nickel plate it?’ ‘How come you didn’t blue it?’ ‘How come you didn’t case harden it?’ Well I ask, ‘’ How come chickens don’t pee? They drink water don’t they?’ I leave it natural and Renaissance Wax does fine. If whoever gets it wants to do something with it, that’s their decision.”
In 2009 at the age of 86, John engraved his last masterpiece, a first generation Colt SAA in his ornamental Africanized scroll. His eyesight had been problematic for the previous few years. It finally got to the point when he had to put the graver down and his. His son Hans finished the screw heads of his final projectiece.



The Legacy
John believes his greatest contribution is this; “ I loved to teach people who got a hell of a lot better than I was.” And there are many noted names among today’s engravers who learned directly from John such as Eric Gold, Steve Lindsay, Jim Kelso, Mitch Moschetti, Ben Lane and the late Don Glaser and Guieseppe Forte to name a few. John’s passion influenced his wife, Dorothy and several of their children to pursue the art. At age 14, son Hans had his engraving featured in the famous annual Gun Digest. Now, four decades later, Hans uses his engraving skills to decorate and detail the custom jewelry he creates.
Even accomplished engravers benefited from John’s teaching; Lynton McKenzie, already one of the most accomplished engravers of his day, learned the technique of selective French graying on blued steel developed by John. The technique was so visually stunning when applied to McKenzie’s engraving that it set the engraving world on its ear. Selective French graying is used by nearly all engravers in the United States today.
There were a number of factors that led to the American Engraving Renaissance over the last 30 years. James B. Meek’s 1973 book The Art of Engraving; and C. Roger Bleile’s 1980 book American Engravers are often rightly attributed as part of this. The subsequent establishment of FEGA in 1982 gave engravers a sense of common goals and a forum to share ideas, techniques and promote more interest in the art. But is entirely possible that none of these events would have taken place without the interest, experimentation and passion that John Rohner gave to the art in the ‘50s and 60s. His “how to” articles, published photographs of his own engraved guns, and promotion of the GRS tools at regional gun shows and annual NRA conventions brought engraving to the forefront in unheard of ways and led to an increased awareness of the art. As talented engravers sprung up in America it paved the road for publishers like Brownell’s and Wallace Beinfeld’s to invest in printing hardback books on the subject. Certainly his gregarious personality and sometimes wacky humor made John a friend to many influential people in the gun world and brought interest to engraving at all levels, from the poor wannabe practitioners to the magazines moguls and coined connoisseurs who could afford the subject of his passion.
As FEGA celebrates its 30th anniversary, it must be considered that it was 30 years prior, that a young John Rohner was making his first cuts with a hammer and chisel, and wondering how he could get more people interested in this unique art form on arms. In the coming years his articles and promotion of this art form along with new tools to aid aspiring engravers helped rekindle the art. His teaching has been multiplied a thousand times over by his articles and seminars, and it is for this reason, I consider John R. Rohner to be the godfather of the American Engraving Renaissance
Though he has engraved his last gun, the list of John R. Rohner masterpieces grows each year, created through the hands, eyes, and hearts of all the engravers that he influenced over the last half century.


Sidebar:
One of John’s most impressive contributions to the engraving world has to be his collections of engraved hammers. A collector by nature, John wasn’t dissuaded by the unlikelihood of amassing a sampling of the great engravers of the world. With his resources limited by the seven mouths he had to feed, John got creative. He chose the head of a chasing hammer to be the repository of the décor.
For 20 years he has been sending this, the most common and inexpensive tool of the trade, to engravers throughout the world, requesting that they grace it with their scroll. The result is a collection of over forty engraved hammers — undoubtedly the greatest assemblage of multiple engravers’ work, yet all contained in the area the size of a briefcase.


Bullet point treatment?
Other interesting side-notes about John:

• Max Goodwin, one of John’s Sunshine Canyon neighbors, was a vice-president at Coors. He caught an interest in Sheutzen rifles from John, ultimately leading to Coors’ sponsorship of Schuetzenfest.

• Other notable engravers John visited with in their homes or workshops shops, include Alvin White, Cole Agee, John Warren and Arnold Griebel.

• Along with his good friend, noted Colorado gunmaker, Dick Hodgson, John was responsible for Lynton McKenzie moving to Boulder after leaving New Orleans Arms.

• John and Jim Kelso were instrumental in helping Russian engraver and diemaker Amayak Stepanyan move to the United States and eventually become a citizen.

• Another of idea of John’s that became a reality through Don Glaser was a simple-to-use, accurate, and repeatable sharpening fixture. This tool doubly made the GRS engraving method an easier learning curve.

• During one of his northern trips, he collected the first Conodont Paleozoic macro-fossils ever recorded from the arctic. One of which bears his name.

Eric Gold, who grew up near the Rohners, spent many hours with John learning engraving skills, but said it sure did’nt hurt that their were four beautiful daughters there as well.

.
 

Frank P

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#7
wow, most impressive.. what a career and certainly one of the big names in engraving history..
Thanks a lot Scott, most kind of you.. thanks as well in the name of all non FEGA members for letting us peeping into the magazine..
:beerchug:Frank
 
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Roger Bleile

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#8
John's a treasure. I'm privilidged to know him. After I featured him in my 1980 book, I lost track of him when he moved to NC but thanks to Scott Pilkington we were reaquainted a few years ago. Our trip to the Eitlejorg Museum, in Kurt Horvath's motorhome to visit Mike Dubber's exhibit was a very memorable event with Scott getting tattooed by Carl and John telling jokes along the way. John blows away the stereotype of the grouchy old man.

My thanks to Scott for reconnecting us and to Brian for this post. Now if I can only get my hammer head done:eek:

ps: John has the hammer heads custom made for him. Over the years he has had various sources.

Roger
 

BrianPowley

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Thread starter #9
Roger, I was really surprised when he called...and so polite too!
I think we talked for about 45 minutes. He kept trying to keep the conversation short because he didn't want to tie up my Saturday morning.
Heck, I wouldn't let him go! It's always a pleasure to get those phone calls.
 

Mike Fennell

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#10
Excellent thread.

It was a great pleasure to meet John Rohner and his family at Reno. A more gracious group would be hard to find - his daughters learned I was looking for him, led me to him and introduced me.

It is my understanding that John's son, Hans Rohner, engraved one of the hammers in the photograph on p. 345 of Roger's book, top row, 2d from right. Of course I had to have Hans sign that page, opposite his father's signature.
 

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