Wood Engraving Block Making

boxwood logHere’s a couple of boxwood stumps along with a branch sitting on my messy band saw. The one in the foreground is about 8 inches across at the widest part.

As you can see the wood is quite dry showing those splits in the wood. So the trick is to get as much yield as possible in order to make up a block suitable for engraving.

Having cut a slice from the “loaf” I’ll be able to plan how best to get good sized chunks for sanding and edging so they can be glued together to form a nice seamless block. It’s a bit of work but I enjoy it. Trouble is, with so much invested it makes engraving the finished and polished block all the more intimidating.

I’m aiming for a couple of wood engraving blocks of approximately 4″ by 6″ each. Of course I won’t be able to get that from just one of those slices.

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26 thoughts on “Wood Engraving Block Making

  1. Dear sir, this process is very interesting i use also maple, lemon tree, orange tree but boxwood is the best one i think. When we cut boxwood in autumn (low moon)and try to be careful with the drying, we avoid many problems.
    congratulations
    G.D.B

  2. I THINK M.R. G.D.B MEANS HE ALSO USES MAPLE RATHER THAN MARPLE? AND THE LEMON TREE HE IS REFERING TO IS CALLED LEMON WOOD (CALYCOPHLLUM)ALSO REFERED TO AS DEGAME WHICH IS THE BEST SUBSTITUTE FOR BOXWOOD . ON THE SUBJECT OF SEASONING END GRAIN TIMBER IT TAKES A BIT LONGER THAN THE USUAL 1″(THICKNESS)PER YEAR FOR SIDE GRAIN.I WOULD AFTER HAVING CUT A GOOD 1″ THICK ROUND FROM THE LOG STORE THEM ON STICKERS ( THIN LENGTHS OF TIMBER) WHAT EVER YOU HAVE TO HAND YOU CAN RIP DOWN AND STACK YOUR ROUNDS ON TOP OF THESE IN STACKS . I USED TO WORK FOR A COMPANY MAKING BLOCKS SO WE HAD HUNDREDS OF ROUNDS SO COULD STACK MANY ON TOP OF EACH OTHER,WITH THE SHEER WEIGHT THE LOWER ROUNDS WOULD BENEFIT IE STAY FLATTER THAN THE ONES ABOVE BUT YOU COULD ACHIEVE THIS BY APPLYING A WEIGHT. BACK TO THE SEASONING TIME SCALE THE LONGER THE BETTER I WOULD USUALLY LEAVE THEM FOR AT LEAST 3 YEARS LEANING TOWARDS 4 YEARS FOR GREATER STABILITY BUT OF COURSE WE WERE SELLING ON A LARGE SCALE TO MANY ARTISTS SO QUALITY HAD TO BE PARAMOUNT. FOR YOUR OWN NEEDS YOU COULD GET AWAY WITH A LESSER TIME FRAME YOU WOULD HAVE TO EXPERIMENT.I SUPPOSE ITS A BIT OF A GUESSING GAME AS TO WHERE AND WHAT TEMPERATURE TO KEEP YOUR ROUNDS WHILE SEASONING WHICH WILL ALSO DETERMINE HOW LONG TO SEASON AND THE LEAST AMOUNT OF SPLITTING AND SHAKES YOU WILL INCUR.IDEALLY YOU WOULD WANT AN AREA AWAY FROM SUNLIGHT IE FLUCTUATING HEAT SOURCES AND TO KEEP THEM AT A FAIRLY CONSTANT TEMPERATURE.KEEP A GOOD EYE ON THEM.I HOPE THIS IS OF SOME USE TO YOU. PAUL BENDALL A FORMER BLOCK MAKER WHICH I DO MISS.

  3. Thanks Paul, that’s very useful information. I must have a lifetime’s supply of box that’s been drying for 25 years. Not all of it is primo quality but certainly enough for some good blocks.

  4. Hi again , it’s very interesting to find out reading further regarding your engraving for the center for action & contemplation and the block used was made by T.N. Lawrence son. The company I mentioned I worked for, was the same company I was there making blocks from 1991- 2001.I I wonder if I made your block.

  5. Paul, there’s a chance you made the blocks handed down to me by my late father. Although I have a sneaking suspicion he acquired them in the eighties, if not earlier. The blocks were absolutely gorgeous with a beautiful surface on both sides, splined and glued.

    They are very precious to me, so I have to think hard before actually committing to making a cut.

    Perhaps you could offer some advice on resurfacing blocks that have had their edition pulled. I have a stationary belt sander as well as a 12 inch disk sander, but I worry about overheating the surface and causing check marks in the wood. Perhaps a router and jig could be used to clean up the surface with a final sanding to get polished surface.

  6. Hi John,although I did make a few blocks surfaced on both sides I didn’t make any in the 80s thats a shame almost a connection.On the subject of resurfacing your blocks is a difficult one as you are aware you don’t want to over heat the surface of the block, when I was making blocks we had a machine called a backing down machine which milled the blocks to type high , which was also used to resurface blocks ie, remove the engraved face, prior to then sanding and final hand finishing/polishing. if you have a good bandsaw (looks like you have) with a good sharp blade and a sliding guide just like the one you have in your photo above but swivelled round you know what I mean! try it on a small piece of boxwood to see how it cuts watch your fingers though .Use a wider blade if you have one to keep a straighter cut.

  7. Hello Paul, yes that’s a shame but it’s still very cool that you made blocks for TN Lawrence.

    I’ve already experimented with slicing off a thin veneer from a finished boxwood block and gluing it to either a hardwood or plywood substrate. The latter doesn’t work very well unless it’s very good quality plywood like Baltic Birch, etc. Otherwise the plies tend to split apart over time, even if the block is balanced with a veneer on both sides. Hardwood option yields better results for smaller blocks.

    The backing down machine you mention must have been like a router set at the correct depth?

  8. I’m about to harvest some very old apple and pear trees with the hope of getting some reasonable engraving blocks out of them. Have any of you had any experience with apple & pear engraving blocks? Any tips or tricks I should know about?
    Any advice much appreciated!

  9. Luckily I have lots of boxwood to use so I haven’t had to look to far for a alternative. A friend did give me a nice chunk of apple wood from his orchard which I’ve been meanings to try out. So, unfortunately I have no advice to give except that I’m sure it will give a nice crisp line since the annular rings are pretty tight on those slow growing trees.

  10. Hi john,
    not spoken to you for a while these computers are not my thing, modern society dictates we must use them,” the advance of machines and men eh!”
    I have been busy trying to get my block making venture off the ground.
    I have had for about the last ten years a large amount of lemonwood sections I bought with the intention of going into production on a small scale to supply wood engravers .I have written in the past to such engravers and did make some blocks for an artist but he has since stopped due to illness in the family a few years ago now.
    I just cant seem to get my foot in the door so to speak all I need are a couple of wood engravers like yourself to use some of my blocks.
    It seems a very snobbish attitude in this country if your’e not a name nobody wants to know even though my name was known to them as a block maker. It’s probably becoming the same the world over.
    I know you make your own blocks along with your many other talents I was listening to your music very impressive I thought! I too play guitar not so much these days though.
    I wouldn’t think you would need any blocks making but I would be most grateful If I could send you a sample block for your thoughts and may be to pass on my details to other printmakers if you thougt they were good enough for sale.
    Regarding the backing down machine you mentioned the last time we spoke the key ingridient to the finished block has been puzzling me for years how to get them to type high, I have now found a way. To date it is still working which is why I can start to produce blocks.
    The backing down machine at Lawrences was a horizontal spinning wheel with two cutters pointed lozenge shape set at about 45 degrees a flat bed where the block was clamped in, as the wheel spun the bed would engage when the capstan was locked on and move in under the wheel on a worm gear. I used to set the cutters with an old 10p piece the diameter being 23.5mm.
    Hope to hear from you soon.
    regards paul.

  11. Hi Paul,

    I’d be honoured to try out one of your blocks. I think you’ll provide an exellent service to wood engravers everywhere.

    I can’t say I’m that good at making my own blocks but the challenge does interest me. You know how hard it is to make a perfectly flat type high block.

    I’m happy to offer any support that I can.

    Best,
    John

  12. Hi john,
    That would be great ,this is the most encouragement I have had many thanks.
    If you could give me an address to send the parcel to then it will be winging its way to you.

    regards,
    Paul.

  13. Hi john ,
    just thinking obviously you don’t know me and if it was me I wouldn’t want to give out my address over the internet;is there a p.o .box/mail box I don’t know the term you would use over there that I can send to.

    Paul.

  14. Hi Paul,

    Everything is laid bare on the internet, the days of personal privacy have long since been abandoned. Anyway, I wish I had something to hide, but I don’t, since I wear my heart on my sleeve as it is.

    My address is on the contact page;

    Box 192
    Dawson City
    Yukon, Canada
    Y0B 1G0

  15. Hi john,
    sorry not got back to you sooner. Iam glad you got the block .feel awfull that the block has reacted in such a way of course you can cut it into smaller pieces.I suppose it has had quite a journey and now residing in a different climate. It left here being in a temperature fluctuating between two or three degrees at night to about seven or eight in the day. I keep them in my small block built workshop with a dehumidifier continuosly on. The timber itself has been seasoned since feb ’04 .
    What temp’ are you at the moment?
    I know when I worked at Lawrences I did have a couple of occurences of the same thing happening when the blocks had been in the store cupboard for a long period, do you have any ideas how and why it could come apart on the glueline I use an epoxy resin used for boat construction its called” west systems”.

    Paul.

  16. Gentlemen
    I have followed your discussion on block-making with interest. I recently cut a boxwood log into slices on a bandsaw with a view to (eventually) making engraving blocks for my own use. I can see the problem is going to be how to produce blocks of completely uniform thickness. My bandsaw doesn’t cut absolutely straight. I find I can achieve one flat surface using a sharp block plane, but I imagine this will deform further during the drying process. I would appreciate any advice on getting both surfaces parallel. I couldn’t justify buying specialist machines, and I haven’t got room for them anyway. I used to know an architectural model-maker who made blocks of uniform thickness using an end-mill in a drill press, but the wood he used was french lime, which is quite soft.
    John, I like your idea of using a plywood substrate, as this gives stability and obviously allows thinner sections of valuable boxwood or lemonwood to be used. I don’t think professional blockmakers use this method, so I guess there must be a reason they don’t.
    For glueing up blocks, I’ve no experience of this, but I would think one possible problem with using West epoxy is that it produces a very hard glue-line, which offers more resistance to the engraving tool than the surrounding wood, and might even print as a line. Also, if I remember correctly, west requires minimum 16 degreesC to set. Would a better alternative be polyurethane glue? This is the stuff that looks like honey and goes foamy when set. It used to be sold in the UK as Balcotan but now goes under various names. I think it’s the same as Gorilla Glue. This is completely tolerant of damp air and low temperatures, and would make a much softer glue-line.
    For me, as I only want blocks for my own use, achieving a perfect surface is not as important as I imagine it was for commercial engravers.( I recently saw an exhibition of prints by Naum Gabo, some of which he had engraved on round blocks cut from a table leg!) However, I can see that a block of uniform thickness is essential, particularly if one is going to print on a press.
    Apologies for long-windedness!
    Best regards
    Ivor Jones

  17. Paul, I’m happy to say that the block you sent me has settled down and has returned to being perfectly flat on both axis. Unfortunately the glue line separation remains.

    Just the same, the finish is really beautiful and am looking forward to making something with the salvaged halves.

    Thanks again for your generosity!

  18. Hello Ivor,

    Welcome to the conversation!

    It seems block making is quite the challenge to get right. I’ve had some success with gluing a thin wafer of boxwood onto a hardwood substrate such as cherrywood. My experiments with regular plywood failed because of de-lamination problems over time. Only Baltic Birch plywood has worked thus far. I think the key is to balance the substrate with an equal boxwood layer on either surface. I’m not sure how well this would work with larger blocks.

    I’ve used epoxy and Cyanoacrylate adhesives with success, except the latter emits objectionable fumes. I’ve never tried Gorilla glue, although it sounds feasible.

    Now that I have a small letterpress I will have to ensure that everything is type high and perfectly flat whereas previously I either burnished by hand or ran things through the etching press where it doesn’t matter if the block height is exact.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your block making experiences. I’ll have to check out Naum Gabo’s engravings. His sculptural work looks great.

  19. hi john ,
    thanks for your reply good to know the block has regained its form still a shame about the separation. I hope you dont mind me sending you another block, I would like to, for my own piece of mind and that I promised you a complete workable block. If it fails again I will know they don’t like cold climes c’est la vie.
    You wont get it till the new year want to leave it glued a while before sending.

    Cheers
    Paul.

  20. Hi John ,
    Hope you are well thanks for the Christmas card I’ve put it with my other prints sent to me when I was at Lawrences.
    Sorry I haven’t been In contact been A bit lazy.
    As I said I will send you another Block but I am waiting until your humidity level is relitively the same as here; I’m pretty sure that was the problem with the last one I sent.

    All the best ,
    Paul.

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