The intricate metalwork of Dave Riccardo
Perhaps you’ve never heard the name Dave Riccardo. Chances are, unless you follow the niche world of fine metalworking, you haven’t – and Dave is probably okay with that. If you do follow it, however, there’s no avoiding him. At 43-years-old, Riccardo is considered something of a “young punk” making waves in a profession where a decade of experience means you’re just getting started.
His work has been featured alongside 29 of the best contemporary American metalsmiths in “American Engravers: The 21st Century.” Colt Firearms released a limited edition (400 were made) Model 1911 pistol donning Riccardo’s design. He is the head engraver for the RGM Watch Company out of Mount Joy and is regularly featured in national and international publications and shows highlighting the top metal craftsmen in the world.
“Not bad,” he said, “for a kid from Fourth Street.”
Riccardo acknowledges two major Williamsport influences on his early development. With the abundance of jewelers and goldsmiths in the area, it’s not hard to imagine a starry-eyed young man taking in each and every movement of a master jeweler; but the truth is: the influences were establishments, not just individuals.
“The James V. Brown Library was crucial to me growing up. Kids would say they were going to the library and go somewhere else; I actually went there,” he said.
It was at the James V. Brown library that Riccardo first encountered a book called Steel Canvas, a book, he said, that really got him started as an engraver. He also gives credit to the Williamsport Area High School’s art department in the late 1980s.
“I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for that [influence]; I had some great teachers,” he said.
After high school, Riccardo studied drawing and painting at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Upon graduating, he got a job at an advertising agency, but ended up moving back to Williamsport for about a year. He then moved to Colorado with some other Williamsport natives and worked a string of jobs “that were all really cool; all sort of art related,” he said.
Riccardo did things like printmaking at a silkscreen shop (printmaking is something he continues to do to this day), making snowboards and blowing glass.
When his grandmother died, Riccardo moved back to Williamsport but had difficulty finding the right place to live and the right type of work. Long-time friend and owner of Bastian Metalworks, Steve Bastian then “took me under his wing and starting showing me some metal fabrication and jewelry work,” Riccardo said. “At that point, it was more ‘scratching metal.’ It was pretty bad,” he said with a laugh.
Riccardo then went back to school, this time in Kansas and with the sole purpose of dedicating himself to improving his craft, something he said that has never left him. He took an apprenticeship in northern Michigan (where he now lives and works with his wife, son and dog), and has since studied with some of the best engravers alive and working today.
Since then, Riccardo has gone from seeking out the best to being among those sought out; he’s given seminars in Amsterdam and private tutelage in Ireland, though teaching has never been his primary focus.
“That,” he said, “is the work.”
An engraver uses tools that are unsurprisingly called gravers. The process is subtractive, slowly removing metal from a source piece until you’re left with the desired image. In softer metals, Riccardo’s process is probably not dissimilar from those used hundreds of years ago; he pushes the graver through the metal by hand, shaving the metal with each stroke. He also uses a hammer and a chisel with a graver attached to the end. The most advanced tool Riccardo has at his disposal however is an air-powered, reciprocating graver whose speed can be controlled by the pressure the artist applies. The tool is not unlike a tattooist’s machine, though the engraver has more control over the actual mechanical speed of the tool. He also uses a 30x stereo microscope and a rotating ball-vice while he works.
“The whole process,” he said, “is like patting your head and rubbing your stomach while looking through a microscope.”
In a short YouTube documentary on Riccardo and his work called “The Art of Engraving,” he said “My favorite piece is always the next one; I always want to be perpetuating myself further and further.”
He doesn’t seem the type to seek approval from anyone but himself.
“If you put everything out there, everything into a piece, there should never be fear of criticism, because you can never go back and say, ‘well, I could have worked a little harder,” he said. Riccardo credits that mentality to his “Pennsylvania work ethic.”
Whatever it is, it’s working for him.