Boxwood continues as the primo material for making a wood engraving block. Carved on the end grain, a quality block will hold the finest detail a graver can make in any direction. A beautifully polished boxwood surface gives a satisfying chirping sound as the cutter incises lines on the block’s face and feels silken to the touch. “Half the fun of Wood Engraving is the sweet, sharp movement of the well-ground tool upon the block. The resistance of the iron-hard wood to the graver sets up a tension that is curiously exciting.” – Douglas Bliss – Dryad Leaflet on Wood Engraving.
The boxwood round shown here comes from a branch of the plant. More of a shrub than a tree, it grows very slowly. One can barely count the annular rings with the naked eye. Combined with other qualities it offers itself up as the most desired material for a wood engraving print.
Box varies in quality. The preferred English box has become nearly impossible to find. After that, the Turkish variety becomes a close second. Regretfully, quality wood no longer exists in meaningful quantities although some engravers have looked to Central America for new sources.
Since we never know when war or pestilence will break out I’ve made it a priority to collect as much raw boxwood as I can. I cut sections from the rounds to glue up larger blocks. In this example, I’ve drilled out flaws and repaired the holes with some boxwood plugs.
End-grain Eastern maple makes for beautiful engraving blocks. Some composite materials such as epoxy resins or even Plexiglas can fill the void although not as enjoyable from a tactile point of view. Some blockmakers use lemonwood as an excellent alternative to box.