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Wood Engravings

History of Book Illustration: 1400-1900

Not to be confused with the woodcut, the wood engraving is a much finer piece of work.  Discrepancies exist in the literature as to its exact date of origin but most agree it is a revival, of sorts, of the earlier woodcut relief process, and can be attributed to Englishman Thomas Bewick in c1775.  Popularising a technical innovation in the printing of illustrations using wood, Bewick applied metal engraving tools to harder woods, cutting detailed designs across their grain, and producing blocks that could be integrated in the press with metal type.  Some of his earliest engravings, in A general history of quadrupeds (1790) and A history of British birds (1797 & 1804), are as important for their precision line work (to be printed in black), as they are for their white (what he chose to leave out).  In this way, Bewick essentially achieved light and shade, rendering his illustrations with a form of tint that many early engravers tried to replicate.  By the mid-19th century, it was not uncommon to see wood engravings that rivalled even the finest copperplate version.  One had to look no further than the brothers Dalziel, who were pre-eminent in the trade until the advent of photo-mechanical processes.

Wood engraving was a laborious process, though; it was time-consuming and expensive.  So when, in 1838, Russia’s Moritz von Jacobi, invented a method for its replication, publishers world-wide readily embraced it.  ‘Electrotyping’, which created a facsimile copy of the original, allowed for mass reproduction and made possible the rapid and efficient circulation of illustrations.  With unprecedented ease, publishers shared images for printing in art magazines and history books, creating opportunities for cross-cultural audiences to learn from identical illustrations.[1]  Art history illustrations, in particular, quickly became part of a popular culture that was shared across geographic, linguistic and social boundaries.  This new reproductive technology allowed foreign publishers to create popular, affordable versions of illustrated books, making them accessible for self-education, for audiences beyond the walls of scholarly institutions.  For the first time, the general masses could experience the connection created by co-existent image and text.  Wood engraving was truly one of the most important mediums to influence the transfer of knowledge globally.


The method…

Though the wood engraving shared similarities with the woodcut, producing a ‘relief’ print from the surface of the woodblock, it differed in several other respects.  Unlike woodcutting, which was performed on the sidegrain or plank of the wood, engraving generally involved working from the end grain or cross-section of a piece of wood taken from the trunk of the tree or a large bough.  The type of wood chosen for engravings also differed from that selected for a woodcut.  To achieve the finest of detail, engravers needed to use a hardwood, preferably box wood or a fruitwood such as pear, which could withstand minute incisions without splintering.  In his book, The art of engraving...(Ackermann & Co., 1841), Fielding even recommended that, once cut, the English box wood pieces should be aged for a further one to two years to ensure they were properly seasoned.  Both the type of wood and the way in which it was cut from the tree impacted the size of the engraving.  Cutting across the grain of what was typically a small tree meant that any large engravings needed to be produced from several pieces of wood joined together.  The final difference between woodcuts and wood engravings lay in the cutting tools themselves.  So, here’s how it all came together…

To prepare a block for engraving, it was first cut into a slice, measuring 2-3 cm, or the same thickness as that of any type which was to be printed simultaneously with it.  Its smooth surface was then covered with a thin layer of powder, such as Bath brick.[2]  Mixed with water, this powder roughened the surface just enough to take the lead from a pencil more freely.  The artist then painted, or drew with a pencil, their design directly onto the surface of the wood.[3]  At times, their work was plainly executed, with only principle flat tints laid in with ink and then touched up with lead pencil.  At other times, they chose the ‘facsimile style’, in which every single line was drawn exactly as it was intended to be produced in the engraving.  They employed cross-hatching techniques, in which one set of lines crossed another at an angle, to create areas of depth in their illustrations.  They even created tonal graduations by drawing lines of various thickness and closeness, every one of which was intended to be reproduced exactly in the engraving.

Satisfied with their design, the artist then handed the wood block to the engraver who used special tools to create the illustration in relief.  Fine lines and intricate detail required much finer tools than the chisels and knives used by woodcutters, the engraver preferring instead a burin or lozenge graver with its v-shaped cutting tip.  They also used tint tools, which were deeper in the sides and perfect for incising a succession of thin parallel lines.  Scoopers were used to remove wood from the middle parts of the block, and flat tools, such as chisels, were used for cutting away areas of the block around the sides of the engraving once it had been completed.  With these tools, the engraver applied both their judgment and skill to the woodblock, cutting away all of the parts left white by the artist in their drawing and leaving, in relief, sharp and clear lines of wood that were to be printed.  In many ways, the facsimile design was much easier for the engraver to execute.  Every line was drawn for them; it required little artistic discernment, only sufficient practical experience.  General designs, painted onto the block, however, required both mechanical skill and artistic prowess; engravers were left almost entirely to themselves to choose how, exactly, to fill out different parts of the illustration.  As Fielding states: “we can give no rules for the use of … lines for expressing certain objects: it is true we can say that straight parallel lines are best for indicating blue sky, and waving lines for clouds, but that is about all we can say.  We cannot tell with what lines the engraver should make out the light leaves of the willow, or the stiff foliage of the yew; the long grass of the meadow left unmown till autumn, or the clean cut lawn where not one blade rises higher than another.  These, and almost every other object, each engraver will represent after his own manner…”.[4]  This artistic interpretation, when combined with individual experience and skill levels, was capable of producing very different results.  Some engravings appeared rough, with little resemblance to nature or the original subject; others were so fine they captured even the subtlest of human expression.  For better or worse, both had a significant impact on the transfer of accurate knowledge to the reader.  Nowhere was this more common than in early works of nature, where some animals were so badly engraved – no doubt made worse by the fact that many engravers had never actually seen a living version of what they were to create on wood.

Once the engraving was complete, printing ink was gently and evenly applied to the block’s surface with a dabber.  Only a little was required, so as not to force it between the engraved lines.  A piece of paper was then placed over it, followed by some card to prevent damage to the lines from pressure, and a burnisher then rubber firmly over the whole to produce the paper impression.  Colour-printed engravings were not common but they were possible if the printmaker was capable of ‘registering’, or lining up multiple blocks, inked in different colours in different areas, so that they printed in exactly the same place on the page.


Wood engraving had one very important advantage over other printing methods of its time – the capability for stereotyping.  During the 1700s, printing involved the placement of individual letters (moveable type) and furniture[5] manually in the ‘chase’, a heavy steel frame used with the printing press.  Once combined the set up created a ‘forme’ which would then be inked and pressed against paper to print an entire, single page.  Typesetting was costly and laborious, and it held up the progress of other works whilst the type was in use.  Stereotyping essentially freed up the printer’s type and allowed them to reprint documents with ease.

To produce a stereotype, a mould of the ‘forme’ (engraved woodblock, plus any accompanying type) was taken in papier-mâché or plaster of Paris.  This mould, a temporary negative of sorts, was then placed in a casting box and a thin metal replica of the forme was caste from molten metal.  It was this replica which could then be used to produce multiple copies of the same work, saving the original wood engraving from otherwise inevitable damage.  The stereotype, or ‘stereo’ as it was often called, revolutionised the way popular books were printed, influencing, in a positive way, both availability and affordability.


A 19th century invention by Moritz von Jacobi, electrotyping complemented the older technology of stereotyping.  What set it apart from stereotyping was its applicability to any irregular surface, whether it be engraved wood, steel, copper-plate or a complete ‘forme’.  The first British example of electrotyping for printing appeared in the London Journal in April 1840, and by the late 1800s it had become the predominant technology for the production of plates for letterpress printing.

To produce an electrotype, a mould was taken of the original engraving, using a soft material such as wax or gutta-percha.  This mould was then made electrically conducting via a thin application of graphite powder to its surface.  A wire was attached to the conductive surface and the mould suspended in an electrolyte solution.  The electrotyping was then activated by electric currents which flowed between anode wires, also immersed in the solution, and the wire connected to the coated mould surface.  This process would generate the growth of a thin layer of copper, or other metal, on the mould.  Once it had reached the desired thickness, the electric current was stopped, the mould and attached electrotype removed from the solution, and the electrotype and wax mould separated. The electrotype, or ‘electro’ as it was often called, could then be incorporated with moveable type to compose a forme, ready for printing.  The accuracy and durability of these plates made them so popular with printers and publishers alike, that an international network of image exchange began to emerge, which saw their use continue well into the 20th century.

On display in this cabinet were the following wood engravings:


[1] Von Lintel, Amy M., “Wood engravings, the marvellous spread of illustrated publications, and the history of art”, Modernism/modernity, vol. 19, no. 3, Sep 2012, p. 516

[2] The Bath brick was patented by William Champion and John Browne in 1823.  It was originally made from the clay dredged from the River Parrett in England which carried a heavy burden of silt.  When mixed, shaped into a mould and left to dry, these bricks could be scraped to produce a mild abrasive powder containing fine particles of alumina and silica.  The gritty power was particularly good for scouring and could also be used for polishing when combined with water.

[3] Modified techniques for the drawing aspect of the process appeared as early as 1860, when transferring a photograph onto the block was made possible by engraver, Thomas Bolton.  According to Dyos and Wolff, Bolton sensitised the surface of the woodblock on which he had a photograph printed from a negative.  He then made the engraving through the photograph as though it had been a drawing in tint on the block. The Victorian City: Images and Realities, Volume 2, edited by Harold James Dyos, Michael Wolff, 2002, p. 578

[4] Fielding, T. H., The art of engraving…London: Published by Ackermann & Co., 1841, p. 73

[5] Furniture is the term used to describe pieces of wood that are shorter than the height of the type. These pieces are used to lay out type by blocking out empty spaces (white space) in a layout set in a chase.

Lee Hayes
October 2019

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