John Jānis Šteins

:: Artist ::

Chapter 14





THE process of making a burnished print from the finished block is quite a simple matter , and only requires a reasonable amount of care and concentration. The engraver has presumably provided himself with a gelatine roller , which ought to have legs to prevent the soft surface of the roller from resting on and being marked by inequalities on the bench. He will need some kind of inking slab, such as a litho stone, a sheet of glass or a smooth tile , a tube of printer’s ink, and a burnisher. At a pinch the  back of a spoon or a tooth-brush handle will serve as a burnisher. A little ink is smeared from the tube along the roller and then distributed equally over its surface, by rolling it on the inking slab . As little ink as possible should be used, for too much ink will clog any fine lines.

The roller is then passed lightly backwards and forwards over the block. A sheet of Japanese paper is then laid on the inked surface and rubbed lightly with the burnisher, care being taken that the paper does not slip before it has stuck to the block. Then, before any great pressure has been used , a card should be laid over the paper to prevent its being torn through being forced down into a sudden depression in the block. More force can be exerted on the card , and when the design can be seen through the thin paper the card will be unnecessary, as the parts where the greatest care should be taken can easily be seen. If necessary, one end of the paper can be lifted very carefully and rolled back, to see how the print is progressing.

Printing by means of a burnisher, however, is a lengthy and wearisome business compared with using a press, and it seems most uneconomical that the artist should spend time printing his editions when he ought to be busy designing and engraving his next block . After pulling a print to satisfy himself that there is nothing more he wishes to do to the block, he ought to be able to hand it over to a printer who will print the edition for him. But my experience has been that although the average printer will produce a perfect print on chalk surfaced paper, very few can give so good a print on Japanese paper.

Where there are large areas of white to be left in the print and the block is not to be used with type, but belongs to a limited edition of artist ‘s proofs , there is no reason why all the whites should be cut out . The printer can mask these with clean paper before putting the block in the press. It is very little more trouble for the printer and saves a great deal of work. Cutting away large spaces of white is always the least interesting part of wood-engraving.

One trouble which may befall the engraver is to find that his block has warped owing to heat, excessive dryness, or some other cause. If the face of the block becomes convex, try damping the back. The ends of the grain at the back will swell and should straighten the block. Similarly, the face must be damped if it becomes concave. If a small depression shows on the face of the block, moisten it and hold a lighted match over it. The usual procedure is to spit on it , but wet blotting-paper is quite efficacious and a little more elegant. These measures are necessary only where the block is to be printed in a press. For a burnished print it is not so important that the surface should be absolutely level.

The block should not be exposed to heat . I once left a roller and a large block exposed to a hot sun , and when I found them again the gelatine was a black pool on the table and the block had cracks all over the surface. I put the block away in a dark, cool cupboard and forgot all about it . Six months later I came across it and to my surprise it had completely recovered.

The editions of wood-engravings are usually limited in number, even more so than in the case of etchings . They may be anything from twenty to a hundred, but from twenty-five to fifty is more usual. The prices are lower than those of etchings, presumably because the initial expense is so very much less, but the process is certainly no quicker . It is ‘rare to find a wood-engraving priced more highly than three guineas and most of them are less than that . Most artists are, however , very willing to meet the demand for a low-priced print.

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