An introduction to the techniques of
wood, steel and copper engraving, etching and Lithography.
A very old (the first) technique, woodcuts are created by cutting into
the plank face of the wood with a knife. The plank face means that
face with the grain of the wood running parallel to the printing
surface. Because the plank face
used with all the grain running in one direction across the work face,
it cannot be engraved as this would tear the wood strands and fibres
and not leave a clean finish. Instead a sharp special knife is used to
cut the wood. Woodcuts are relief work in that the ink is spread onto
the areas that have not been cut. The artist therefore cuts the wood
surface to leave the lines required behind.
woodcuts, wood engraving is a relief method. Unlike woodcuts, the cuts
are made into the face across the grain on a hardwood such as boxwood
with an engraving tool similar to that used by steel plate and copper
plate engravers, a graver. Woods such as boxwood have a very fine and
hard cell structure and because the wood is cut across the grain there
is very little directional effect from the wood grain. Much finer and
more subtle work could be undertaken than with woodcuts. Also the
hardwood used by the wood engraver allowed thousands of prints to be
made which the woodcut would not.
Thomas Bewick was one of the greatest Wood engravers. You can read
notes about his life a work written by John Rayner in 1945 with an
extensive range of examples of his work by clicking here:
Copper and steel plate engraving and
These are both intaglio methods, ie. designs carved into or beneath
the surface of hard metal. Etching involves the removal of metal from
selected areas using acid (or chemicals).
Unlike relief methods,
with intaglio methods, the ink is rolled into the cuts. The surface is
then wiped clean (leaving the ink in the grooves) and when the paper
is pressed hard against the surface the ink is absorbed to create the
image. So the engraver cuts the lines as they are required on the
final image. Engraving involves the use of cutting tools, metal
gravers, to remove the metal. The graver was pushed (Iím sure there is
a better, proper word for it!) gently
across the surface of the polished metal plate to create a fine
groove. Gravers of different widths are used to create grooves of
This very different
from the above techniques! An absorbent stone surface, such as
limestone, has the image drawn on it using a greasy, water repellent
material such as wax. When finished, the stone is moistened with water
so that, where there is no wax the water is absorbed, where there is
wax the water is repelled. (The stone can be treated to encourage this
to happen). When the ink is applied, it stick to the dry wax parts and
is repelled by the moist parts. The ink is therefore only placed on
the wax areas.
on the system of lithography above using stones, this was the first
true multi-colour printing system (rather than hand coloured). A
separate stone (and drawing) was required for each colour used with
over a dozen stones sometimes being employed! As with modern
multi-colour printing (your daily newspaper for example) each colour
had to be carefully registered, so each stone had to be positioned
exactly and in relation to the paper positioned for the printing to
ensure the final picture was not blurred.
In all these methods, the image (and writing!)
has to be done back to front (as a mirror image) so it appears the
right way round on the final print.