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Engraving Techniques

An introduction to the techniques of wood, steel and

copper engraving, etching and Lithography.

Woodcuts:Woodcut knife
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 Plankface is the along the grainall 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.

Relief work prints off the areas left after the other material has been cut away.

Wood engraving:A cross-grain block is the red area. The image is cut into the top (end grain) area.
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 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 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).

The process of etching.

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 involvesA metal or wood graver. 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 areas.

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 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.