It’s 2 a.m. and 71-year-old Robert Valade pecks away with hammer and chisel at the chrome cylinder of a Colt pistol. His often-shaking hands are now calm and steady as those of a surgeon.
Joann, his wife of 49 years, has been in bed asleep for hours.
As Robert completes the commissioned piece, he bows his large head and softly prays, asking God to help him finish the job right. The gentle giant, with hands the size of bear paws, agonizes over each piece, determined to do his best.
It is a scene repeated hundreds of times in the master engraver’s modest Seaside, Oregon, home where he has lived the past 20 years.
“When you work on your own stuff it doesn’t matter so much if you mess it up,” says Robert, who is nearing his 13,000th engraving. “But when you work on somebody else’s heirlooms—like guns that have been passed down through generations—well, golly, you don’t want to foul it up.”
While most engravers have turned to quicker and easier machine methods, Robert is the last of a dying breed—one of fewer than 50 master engravers in the country who relies on the simple tools and methods used 150 years ago to meticulously cut beautiful designs into guns, knives, belt buckles, silver saddles, fishing rods and drum sets.
“I tried a machine once,” the celebrated artist admits. “It did a nice job. But I guess I am just old-fashioned.”
A Serendipitous Beginning
A painfully shy, nervous boy growing up in the small Eastern Oregon town of La Grande, Robert tried his hand at a lot of things. He broke horses, rode bulls, picked cherries, worked as a hunting guide and even learned to fly small planes.
But a love for art—especially oil painting—burned within.
“He seemed to enjoy it, and it calmed him down,” recalls Joann, who met Robert in high school English class. “He would shake. And when he would put his brush on the canvas he was perfectly still.”
Robert dabbled with engraving even before high school.
“Kids would bring me their Zippo lighters and I would scratch something on them, but I never even thought of making any money with it,” Robert says.
A career was born when his brother Pat, now deceased, traded a guy in a bar a few beers for a set of old hand engraving tools. He asked his little brother to engrave an elk on one side of his Winchester Model 94 hunting rifle and a deer on the other in exchange for the tools.
“He showed people and they liked it and they started bringing me things to engrave and they paid me,” says Robert.
His first professional job was in 1968 for famous saddle maker Charlie Baker.
“After no more jobs showed up, I told Joann, ‘I guess we are out of business,’” Robert says. “And then this old farmer drove up with a hunting rifle and I said, ‘Joann, I think we are back in business.’”
The self-taught engraver’s career took off when the late Al Mar, who worked for Gerber Knife Co., hired Robert. When Al started his own company, Robert went with him.
“Al told me that my stuff was in every country in the world, though I never became famous or anything,” Robert says.
The engraving work has brought in much-needed income, but it has always been more than a way to help make ends meet.
“He is a nervous guy who avoids the spotlight,” Joanne says. “Art calms him. He was the high-strung type, where things bothered him. He is very sensitive, and work can get intense at times.”
His time-etched face looks adoringly at his wife and nods in agreement.
“It’s a scary thing when you make that first cut into someone’s heirloom,” Robert says. “It would break my heart if I fouled it up. I pray that I can do the best I can, and when I deliver it, I know in my heart that I have done the best job I can.”
The kid whose graduating class numbered 12 never could have imagined he would become an internationally known artist and engrave guns for presidents and actors and see his work in Hollywood movies.
A Modest Man
Gary Fadden, owner and president of Al Mar Knives, says a Valade-engraved item is likely to bring 30 to 50 percent more value.
More importantly, “his engraving locks an item in time—a signature and a date on it, hand cut into steel,” says Gary. “People will say, ‘My dad gave me that and now he’s gone.’ There is a connection that a signature, especially one cut in steel, brings.”
Gary says Robert is an icon.
“I liked the man’s work before I met the man,” he says. “And when I met the man, I liked him even more.”
Jake Myers, owner of Sunshine Guns in Shelton, Washington, says Robert is the best.
“He is the most humble, caring, nice person and all of his work exudes that caring,” Jake says. “He puts his heart and soul into all of his work.”
Embarrassed by the praise, Robert laughs uncomfortably.
“I didn’t get into it just for the money,” he says. “It’s really kind of a labor of love. I am my own boss. I can take a day off when I want.”
“But he rarely does,” quips Joann.
A Lifetime of Memories
With an infectious, John Candy-like laugh, Robert looks more like a Western actor than many of the stars whose guns he has engraved. But time has engraved its own deep lines into the rugged and kind face, and his bloodshot blue eyes attest to the intensity and precision of the labor.
His workspace—no larger than an oversized closet—looks like a Hollywood museum, with autographed faces from fading photographs watching silently: Bill Clinton, Sammy Davis Jr., Clint Eastwood, Chuck Yeager, Buddy Hackett, Burt Reynolds and John Wayne. Nearly every inch of the sea-blue walls is covered by memorabilia that connects the artist to people, places and times.
Each photograph, poster, gun, knife, hatchet and framed letter attests to the engraver’s popularity, and each has a story that triggers a special memory. Among the pieces Robert has engraved for famous people—including knives and a lighter for Arnold Schwarzenegger, used in the movie “Predator,” and Ringo Starr’s drum set—he is most proud of a set of Colt Single-Action Army revolvers he engraved for Ronald Reagan in 1981, just after he won the presidency.
“Boy, I was nervous with that first cut,” he says.
Despite engraving for celebrities and presidents and becoming personal friends with Hollywood actors, the tenderhearted family man has not allowed any of the glitter to stick to him.
When Sammy Davis Jr. was dying, he told his friend Arvo Ojala of television Westerns fame, “It was worthwhile; it was worth every bit of it,” Robert relates.
“That’s how I feel about my life,” he says. “It was worthwhile.”