Seals of approvalBy Rod Ohira
define the Mattos clan
MAKING hand-pressed stamps in Hawaii has been a specialty for three generations of engravers named Abel Mattos.
What the late Abel Sr. learned from Englishman Walter Beakbane was passed to his son. And Abel Jr., 67, taught it to Abel III, 31.
"The master, my dad, taught me the old-fashioned way that he learned from Beakbane, and I learned by doing it with his technical support," Abel Jr. "Now I'm the master and my son is learning the same way."
Techniques and tools of the trade haven't changed since 1900, when Beakbane founded Commercial Engraving Co. and took on Abel Sr., who was then 15 years old, as his apprentice.
The primary tool is still a small hammer with a six-inch hickory handle that was made in Lancaster, England, on March 12, 1889.
Beakbane brought it with him to Hawaii and the hammer, which still has its original head and handle, has been used on every hand-pressed seal made by the company.
A hammer is to an engraver what a brush is to a painter.
"When I hold another hammer, it just doesn't feel comfortable," Abel III said, grasping the old hammer. "This one just fits perfectly in my hand."
Their engraving block, which is used to hold a brass die in place; gravers, which are carving tools and several sets of punchers have been around as long as the hammer.
Among the unique hand-pressed stamps made by the Mattos family are three-inch-diameter seals for the state, the Honolulu mayor and East-West Center. The 30-pound cast-iron "great presser" for those seals is no longer being manufactured, Abel Jr. said.
The biggest seals today have a diameter of 21/4 inches, he added.
"A seal is lifetime," Abel Jr. said. "It's like a signature, only in 3-D. It can never be duplicated or forged because another engraver could never be able to punch the seal the same way.
"That's why banks want seals on all their documents. It's the perfect corporate signature."
Abel Jr. and his son make their seals by hand.
After drawing the design provided by customers onto a brass die, they use the graver to slowly carve out the design.
"The depth is all judgment, and there's no room for error," Abel Jr. said.
The rest of the detail work is done with the hammer and punchers.
"When the engraving is done, we make a cast-type metal," Abel Jr. said. "The (brass) die is the female and the cast the male. The dye is on top of the hand press."
Documents to be stamped with an official seal are placed in between the hand press.
"Our biggest clientele are law firms," Abel Jr. said. "We can still make a profit because there's still a demand for seals.
"A lot of people are starting to gamble on rubber stamps because it shows up on documents that are copied but the stamps used can also be duplicated unlike seals."
The cost of hand-pressed seals range from $28.50 to $300.
"What we do is stuff the computers can't do," Abel Jr. said. "Doing it by hand, you can be sensitive to how deep you're cutting."
The Mattos family tracks its engraving roots to Beakbane's business. Abel Sr. bought the company in 1938, a year after Beakbane sold his business to Honolulu Paper Co. and retired. Abel Sr. never changed the company name from "Beakbane."
"When my father died in April 1973, I changed the name to keep the memory of my father," Abel Jr. said.
The engraving shop, originally located on Alakea Street near the current site of District Court, made several moves before arriving at its current site at 221 S. King St., Ewa of the Hawaiian Electric Co. building.
"We've been here 30 years," Abel Jr. said.
After his father died, Abel Jr. kept his full-time engraving job at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard while his wife, the former Beverly Ruth Souza, ran the shop. He would come home and do engraving at night.
Abel III, the third eldest of seven children, started getting interested in engraving when he was in the fourth grade.
"I've always like carving," he said. "I learned a lot about engraving from just watching my father.
"You have to be patient and be able to think. You're dealing with a lot of ugly shapes, and mostly it's about how to hold things so you can work on it."
Abel Jr. estimates he has made 20,000 to 30,000 seals.
One of the most difficult jobs was the large plaque featuring the Hawaii and U.S. Navy seals at the Arizona Memorial. While working at the shipyard, he spent over a month of work days on it.
Abel Jr.'s father made the old "County of Oahu" seal.
"I still have it and maybe they'll need to use it again," he said, chuckling.