An introduction to the techniques of wood,
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 is used with
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.
Like 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
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 following the
link at the bottom of this page.
Copper and steel plate engraving and etching:
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
is 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. The
harder metal, steel, allows a finer groove but was only available from the
earlier 1800s and copper is easier to work. Gravers of different widths
are used to create grooves of different widths.
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
Based 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
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.