John Jānis Šteins

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History of Wood Engraving

Here is an article about wood engraving from 1844, reprinted along with illustrations from a sheet that I purchased at a very cool bookstore in Astoria, Oregon last November.

practice of wood engraving

Box is the wood mostly used by modern wood-engravers; pear-tree, and other wood of a similar grain and fibre, being now only used in executing large cuts for posting-bills. In the time of Albert Durer, pear-tree appears to have been most generally employed. The original blocks of the ” Triumphs of Maximilian,” now preserved in the Imperial Library at Vienna, are all of pear-tree. In the time of Papillon, though box was preferred for small cuts requiring great delicacy in the execution, the wood of the apple, pear, and service tree, was still frequently employed. Papillon considered that the box brought from Turkey, though of larger size; was inferior inquality to that of Provence, Italy, and Spain. Next to box, Papillon preferred the wood of the service tree. In his time it appears to have been customary to engrave on the length-way, not on the cross section of the wood. The old wood-engravers, who chiefly used pear-tree and other wood of similar grain, appear to have used, for the purpose of cutting their outlines, a knife with a point slightly curved inwards, in the manner of what is termed a “Wharncliffe,” the old “jack-a-legs,” with a straight edge, is now nearly obsolute, both name and thing. This knife they held in the manner of a pen, and cut towards them, not from them, as is now the practice in using the graver. A figure of such a knife is frequently to be seen in old wood-cuts, together with that of a graver which was probably used in the execution of cross-hatchings.

Box, for the purposes of engraving, is sawn into slices, about three-quarters of an inch thick, which is the height of type, and the crossway of the wood. Sometimes, for the purpose of obtaining pieces of greater length, it is sawn obliquely. Such pieces, however, are not so good to engrave on as those of the same wood which are sawn directly across, in consequence of the obliquity of the grain impeding the equable action of the point of the tool; and rendering it extremely difficult to cut a clear line, in consequence of small portions tearing away at the sides. As the usual diameter of even the largest logs of box does not exceed five or six inches, it becomes necessary when a large block is wanted, to join several pieces together, and to do this properly, so that the joinings may not be perceptible in the impression, requires very great dexterity on the part of the person who prepares the block; indeed, the joining together of several pieces of box so as to form one large compact block of uniformly smooth and levelsurface, requires as much skill as the most delicate piece of cabinet-work. The largest block of this kind ever made or engraved, was the “View of London,” presented in 1843, by the proprietors of the ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS to their subscribers.

The best box is that which is of a yellow colour, like gold, throughout the whole surface, displaying neither specks of white nor reddish-coloured rings.  Such box being of a close grain, and uniformly dense and tenacious, allows of the lines being cut with the greatest clearness and precision, but is also the least liable to display unevenness at the surface, which is usually occasioned by inequality in the density of the several layers of the wood. Wood of a red colour usually wants tenacity, and cuts soft and short; and if it displays many distinct rings it is extremely liable to shrink irregularly, and to thus render it difficult to obtain a perfect impression. Wood confining whitish specks or streaks is apt to break away under the graver in such places. All kinds of box are subject to warp or turn up at the edges and become hollowed in the middle, but more especially such as have not been well seasoned. When a block has become slightly warped in the progress of engraving, it will generally return to a level on being kept for a day or two with its face downwards on a table or shelf. Sometimes, however, it can only be remedied by means of over-lays in printing, to bring up the hollow parts of the surface.

Some artists, before they commence their drawing, are accustomed to whiten the smooth surface of the block with a slight wash of flake white and gum-water; others merely rub the surface with a little finely-powdered Bath brick, mixed with pure water; rubbing it off perfectly clean when dry. The latter seems to be the least objection-able mode of preparing the slippery surface of the block for drawing on with a black-lead pencil, the usual instrument with which draw-ings on wood are made. All the lines which appear in a wood-cutaregenerally drawn on the block by the designer or draftsman in pencil,with the exception of what are technically called ” tints,” indicative of the atmosphere and the sky, such tints being merely washed in with Indian ink. The most faithful wood-engraving of an artist’s design is that in which the engraver has, without adding or diminishing, worked out a perfect facsimile; this, however, according to those who make drawings on wood, is but rarely effected, there being always some alterations or omissions made by the engravers, and invariably for the worse. Wood-engravers, however, deny the truth of the charge in its absolute extent; for, while they admit that a drawing is occasionally marred in their hands, they also insist that it is some-times mended. They also further allege, in their own justification, that an artist who has but little knowledge of the practice of wood-engraving, and no idea whatever of adapting his drawing to the purposes of printing, will frequently produce a design, which, though it may appear very pretty on the block, may yet take more time and pains to engrave than it is worth; and prove, after all, but an indifferent woodcut, which it may be very difficult to print well, even with the aid of overlays, by a hand-press, and utterly impossible to print decently at a steam-press. From the want of such knowledge in the designer, it frequently happens that wood-cuts, though carefully and elaborately engraved, yet appear very insipid when printed; and thus the engraver, who, closely adhering to the drawing, may have done for them all that his art could effect, is blamed for deficiencies which are entirely owing to the designer. For the production of a drawing that will print well and display the full power of wood-engraving, something more is required than the ability to make it on paper or on wood: to succeed—unless by chance—it is necessary that the designer should know how to manage his drawing, so that it may be capable of being properly printed; and he should always bear in mind that he is working for the press.

In the present day it is usual to have the subject completely drawn on the block, in all its details, and with the intended effect of lightvand shade; in the time of Papillon, however, it appears to have been customary with the French engravers to trace at first on the block merely the outlines of the subject from a finished drawing on paper, to which they referred for the details and the effect, as they proceeded with their work, just as a copperplate engraver refers to the drawing of his subject.

As the pencil-drawing on the block would be liable to become obliterated in the course of engraving, were it to remain quite exposed, it is customary for wood-engravers to cover all the block, except the part on which they may be actually employed, with a cap of paper ,fitting close and tied tightly round the edges. As the drawing on the block is apt to be injured by the breath, a kind of screen or shade, formed of a piece of card-board or stiff paper, covering the nostrils and mouth, and secured by a string passing behind the ears, is frequently worn by wood-engravers, in damp or frosty weather, when employed on fine work. They also usually wear a shade, both to protect the eyes, and to more particularly confine the view to the work before them.

As all the lines in an engraved wood-block are in relief, their extremities, both at the edges and in the middle of the subject, are ex-tremely liable to come off too heavy in printing, in consequence of the paper in such places being pressed not only on to, but, to a certain extent, down over them. In order to remedy this, when it is particularly desirable that certain parts should be lightly printed, and show the lines gradually declining till they become lost in the paper, the block is lowered in such places before the drawing is made on it; by which means the pressure of the platten or the cylinder on such places is reduced, and the desired lightness obtained. In vignette subjects where the edges are required to be light, the lowering of the block in such places is extremely simple ; lowering in the middle of the block, however, is not so easy an operation, and before it can be properly done, it is necessary to have the parts intended to be light sketched in as as a guide to the operator. For lowering a block in this manner,a tool something like a burnisher of a copperplate engraver is used. Sometimes also the lines in such places are lowered by means of a fine file, after the cut has been engraved on a perfectly flat surface. Though “lowering” ) has been claimed as a recent invention, it was known to the old wood-engravers : Papillon has described his method of lowering by scraping down the lines after the block  was engraved; and instances of lowering are frequent in Bewick’s works.

When a block has been damaged, or badly engraved, in any part, the injury may be repaired, if not extending over a large surface.This is effected by drilling the part out, and inserting a plug, on the face of which the defective portion of the subject is re-drawn or engraved.  Many instances of such repairs are perceptible in on wood-engravings, but in them the face of the plug is generally square. However well the repair may have been made, it is extremely difficult  to prevent the trace of it appearing, to a scrutinising eye, like a white line round the plug, which is very liable to become loosened from the action of the press. Of a cut which has had a plug inserted it is generally advisable to take a cast, and to print from that, and not from the original block.

The tools which a wood-engraver employs to execute his work are extremely simple. They consist of gravers, to cut the lines defining the forms, and suggesting the idea of the varied tint and texture of his subject; and of chisels and gouges, to cut or scoop out the larger masses of wood where the subject has to appear white. The gravers are of two kinds—gravers simply so called, and “tint-tools.”

gravers for wood engraving

The gravers-proper are used to cut the various lines, straight, crooked, curved, or crossing, which define the forms of the different objects, and indicate their character and texture; tint-tools, which are thinner in the blade, and more acutely annular at the point than gravers-proper, are used to cut the parallel lines which constitute what is technically termed a tint. In the use of these tools, in clearly cutting the more delicate portions of his subject, is displayed the engraver’s skill; if in the adaptation of lines of all kinds to significantly convey as complete, an idea of his subject as his art will allow, he displays both a knowledge of pictorial effect, and the power of representing it by the means of wood-engraving, he is justly entitled to the name of an artist.

the essential graver's pillow

Most wood-engravers, when at work, are accustomed to place the block on a leather sand-bag, which at once affords a firm rest, and allows of the block being turned with facility in any direction, by the left hand, while the right is employed in cutting a line. Some, however, place the block on a kind of frame, on which it is moveable by means of a pivot. Of the comparative merits of those two modes of resting the block it is not easy to decide, seeing that each is adopted by some of the best wood-engravers of the time. Those who have been accustomed to the one mode rarely abandon it for the other; to us, however, the sand-bag appears the most preferable, as being the simplest, and affording the greatest facility of turning the block, and suiting it, by the motion of the left hand, to the action of the graver.

lamp for diffuse light

As the wood engraver requires a strong and dear light, he generally, when working at night, employs either a glass globe filled with water, or a large lens, to concentrate the light of his lamp, and to cast it upon the block which he is engaged in engraving. The advantage which the globe has over the lens, with regard to the greater clearness and coolness of the light which it transmits, is in some degree counterbalanced by its greater liability to become broken, and the water become spilled over the table and among the blocks.

In taking a proof of his cut—which can only be done when the whole of the subject is engraved, otherwise the drawing would be effaced—the wood-engraver employs a small dauber to ink it, and a blunt-edged burnisher, to rub off the impression, which is usually taken on India paper, a piece of card being placed above to equalise the friction, and to prevent the lines being broken. Wood engravers are frequently charged with heightening their proofs by distributing a little more or less ink on certain parts of the block, and by burnishing such parts more or less, accordingly as they wish them to appear dark or light in the impression ; thus giving to the cut an effect which it is impossible it should have when fairly printed. In consequence of this practice printers are not unfrequently blamed for not bringing up a cut equal to the engraver’s proof, when, in fact, it is utterly impossible to obtain such an impression by means of a press, however careful the pressman may be in overlaying. The wood-engraver who not only misemploys his time, but also deceives the person who employs him.

One of the great advantages which wood-engraving possesses over copper as a means of multiplying pictorial subjects, is the facility and cheapness with which its productions can he printed at the same time with letter-press. Wood engravings are not to be estimated by a comparison with copper-plates; but are to be judged of by the power and significance with which they excite ideas in the mind, with reference to the means employed in their execution, and on the consideration of the thousands whose knowledge is thus extemied, and whose pleasure ia thus increased, compared with the hundred’s who can afford to purchase copper-plate engravings. Though wood engraving in connection with the press has already done much for the dissemination of both useful and entertaining knowledge, it has yet more to do.

Artists of talent are not only every day becoming convinced of the advantages of wood-engraving as a means of communicating to the great body of the people a knowledge and a taste for works of art, but are also furnishing wood-engravers with new designs. The steampress, a mighty engine, multiplies their joint productions by tens of thousands, almost with the rapidity of thought; and yet the demand increases with the supply, as if in those, for whose gratification they are intended, the “appetite increased with what it fed on.”

For the purpose of showing how efficiently wood-engraving, in connection with the steam-press, can represent some of   the higher creations of art and convey an idea of their most striking characteristics as displaying the sentiment or imagination of the original artist, the following subjects have been drawn and engraved, not as servile copies of copper-plate engravings, but with regard to the peculiar powers of wood-engraving to translate, if we may so speak such subjects into its own graphic language, witli a view to their being multiplied by means of the steam-press. How far the draftsman and the engraver have succeeded, we leave our readers to decide for themselves. The subjects are – 1. “The Prophet Jeremiah,” from an engraving after the original painting by Michael Angelo, among his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, at Rome. 2. ” Virgin and Child,” after a drawing by Raffaelle.

ink dauber and burnishing tool

3 . A Cartoon Iby Raffaelle. It is to be observed that this subject is entirely executed by means of horizontal, parallel lines, intended to indicate its uniformity of colour as a chiaroscuro. 4. ” Garden Scene” from Whatteau  5. ” Head of Captain Coram,” the liberal promoter of the Foundling Hospital,  after Hogarth.  6. ” The Infant Hercules,” after Sir Joshua Reynolds. 7. A portion of ” The Death of the Children of Niobe,” after Wollett’s engraving form the painting by Wilson. The foliage, which, in the copper-plate, would cost the engraver much time and pains, is, in the wood-cut, executed with great facility. 8. ” Imogene,” after Westall.

For the proper execution of those cuts, the proprietors of the ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS have spared no expense; for their wish has been to present them to their subscribers and readers as the best specimens of wood-engravings of their kind and character that have ever been previously printed by means of a steam-press.

(The End.)

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