Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia about woodblock printing. A stopgap until I publish my own version which I hope will be more informative.
Woodblock Printing as a technique for printing text, images, or patterns used widely throughout East Asia and originating in China in antiquity as a method of printing on textiles and later paper. As a method of printing on cloth, the earliest surviving examples from China date to before 220, and from Egypt to the 4th century. Ukiyo-e is the best-known type of Japanese woodblock art print. Most European uses of the technique on paper are covered by the term ‘woodcut’.
The technique of Wood Block Printing:
The woodblock is prepared as a relief matrix, which means the areas to show ‘white’ are cut away with a knife or chisel, leaving the characters or image to show in ‘black’ at the original surface level. The block was cut along the grain of the wood. It is only necessary to ink the block and bring it into firm and even contact with the paper or cloth to achieve an acceptable print. The content would of course print “in reverse” or mirror-image, a further complication when text was involved. The art of carving the woodcut is technically known as xylography, though the term is rarely used in English. For colour printing, multiple blocks are used, each for one colour, although overprinting two colours may produce further colours on the print. Multiple colours can be printed by keying the paper to a frame around the woodblocks.
Stamping in Wood Block Printing:
Used for many fabrics, and most early European woodcuts (1400-40) These were printed by putting the paper or fabric on a table or other flat surface with the block on top, and pressing or hammering the back of the block.
Rubbing in Wood Block Printing:
Apparently the most common for Far Eastern printing on paper at all times. Used for European woodcuts and block-books later in the fifteenth century, and very widely for cloth. The block goes face up on a table, with the paper or fabric on top. The back is rubbed with a “hard pad, a flat piece of wood, a burnisher, or a leather frotton”.
Printing in a press in Wood Block Printing:
Presses only seem to have been used in Asia in relatively recent times. Simple weighted presses may have been used in Europe, but firm evidence is lacking. Later, printing-presses were used (from about 1480). In addition, jia xie is a method for dyeing textiles (usually silk) using wood blocks invented in the 5th-6th centuries in China. An upper and a lower block is made, with carved out compartments opening to the back, fitted with plugs.
The cloth, usually folded a number of times, is inserted and clamped between the two blocks. By unplugging the different compartments and filling them with dyes of different colours, a multi-coloured pattern can be printed over quite a large area of folded cloth. The method is not strictly printing however, as the pattern is not caused by pressure against the block.
Development in Wood Block Printing:
The use of round “cylinder seals” for rolling an impress onto clay tablets goes back to early Mesopotamian civilization before 3,000 BCE, where they are the commonest works of art to survive, and feature complex and beautiful images.
In both China and Egypt, the use of small stamps for seals preceded the use of larger blocks. In Egypt, Europe, and India, the printing of cloth certainly preceded the printing of paper or papyrus; this was probably also the case in China.
The process is essentially the same in Europe special presentation impressions of prints were often printed on silk until at least the seventeenth century. The earliest wood block printed fragments to survive are from China and are of silk printed with flowers in three colours from the Han dynasty (before 220 CE). The earliest Egyptian printed cloth dates from the 4th century. But the dry conditions in Egypt are exceptionally good for preserving fabric compared to, for example, India. It is not clear if the Egyptian printing of cloth was learned from China, or elsewhere, or developed separately.
It is clear that the Chinese were the first by several centuries to use the process to print solid text, and equally that, much later, in Europe the printing of images on cloth developed into the printing of images on paper (woodcuts). It is also now established that the use in Europe of the same process to print substantial amounts of text together with images in block-books only came after the development of movable type in the 1450s.
In India the main importance of the technique has always been as a method of printing textiles, which has been a large industry for centuries. Large quantities of printed Indian silk and cotton were exported to Europe throughout the Modern Period. The three necessary components for wood block printing are the wood block, which carries the design cut in relief; dye or ink, which had been widely used in the ancient world; and either cloth or paper, which was first developed in China, around the 3rd or 2nd century BC. Wood block printing on papyrus seems never to have been practised, although it would be possible.
Because the Chinese has a character set running into the thousands, wood block printing suits it better than movable type to the extent that characters only need to be created as they occur in the text. Although the Chinese had invented a form of movable type with baked clay in the 11th century, and metal movable type was introduced in Korea in the 13th century, wood blocks continued to be preferred owing to the formidable challenges of typesetting Chinese text with its 40,000 or more characters. Also, the objective of printing in the East may have been more focused on standardization of ritual text (such as the Buddhist canon Tripitaka, requiring 130,000 woodblocks), and the purity of validated woodblocks could be maintained for centuries.
When there was a need for the reproduction of a text, the original block could simply be brought out again, while moveable type necessitated error-prone composition of distinct “editions”. In China, Korea, and Japan, the state involved itself in printing at a relatively early stage; initially only the government had the resources to finance the carving of the blocks for long works. The difference between East Asian wood block printing and the Western printing press had major implications for the development of book culture and book markets in East Asia and Europe.
Early Books in Wood Block Printing:
Woodblock printing in China is strongly associated with Buddhism, which encouraged the spread of charms and sutras. In the Tang Dynasty, a Chinese writer named Fenzhi first mentioned in his book “Yuan Xian San Ji” that the woodblock was used to print Buddhist scriptures during the Zhenguan years (627~649 AD). The oldest known Chinese surviving printed work is a woodblock-printed Buddhist scripture of Wu Zetian period (684~705 AD); discovered in Turfan, Xinjiang province, China in 1906, it is now stored in a calligraphy museum in Tokyo, Japan.
A wood block print of the Dharani sutra dated between 704 and 751 AD was found at Bulguksa, South Korea in 1966. Its Buddhist text was printed on a mulberry paper scroll 8 cm wide and 630 cm long in the early Korean Kingdom of Unified Silla. Another version of the Dharani sutra, printed in Japan around 770 AD, is also frequently cited as an example of early printing. One million copies of the sutra, along with other prayers, were ordered to be produced by Empress Shotoku. As each copy was then stored in a tiny wooden pagoda, the copies are together known as the Hyakumanto Darani.
The world’s earliest dated (868 AD) printed book is a Chinese scroll about sixteen feet long and containing the text of the Diamond Sutra. It was found in 1907 by the archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein in Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, and is now in the British Museum. The book displays a great maturity of design and layout and speaks of a considerable ancestry for woodblock printing. The colophon, at the inner end, reads: Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong [i.e. 11th May, CE 868 ].
Wood block printing in Eurasia:
The technique is found through East and Central Asia, and in the Byzantine world for cloth, and by 1000 AD examples of woodblock printing on paper appear in Islamic Egypt. Printing onto cloth had spread much earlier, and was common in Europe by 1300. Wood block printing on paper of images only began in Europe around 1400, almost as soon as paper became available, and the print in woodcut, later joined by engraving, quickly became an important cultural tradition for popular religious works, as well as playing cards and other uses. Many early Chinese examples, such as the Diamond Sutra contain images, mostly Buddhist, that are often elaborate. Later, some notable artists designed woodblock images for books, but the separate artistic print did not develop in China as it did in Europe and Japan. Apart from devotional images, mainly Buddhist, few “single-leaf” Chinese prints were made until the nineteenth century.
Block-books in fifteenth century Europe:
Block-books, where both text and images are cut on blocks, appeared in Europe in the 1460s as a cheaper alternative to books printed by movable type. A woodcut is an image, perhaps with a title, cut in a single block and used as a book illustration with adjacent text printed using movable type. The only example of the blockbook form that contains no images is the school textbook Latin grammar of Donatus. The most famous block-books are the Speculum Humanae Salvationis and the Ars moriendi, though in this the images and text are on different pages, but all block-cut. The Biblia pauperum, a Biblical picture-book, was the next most common title, and the great majority of block-books were popular devotional works. All block-books are fairly short at less than fifty pages.
While in Europe movable metal type soon became cheap enough to replace woodblock printing for the reproduction of text, woodcuts remained a major way to reproduce images in illustrated works of early modern European printing. Most block-books before about 1480 were printed on only one side of the paper if they were printed by rubbing it would be difficult to print on both sides without damaging the first one to be printed. Many were printed with two pages per sheet, producing a book with opening of two printed pages, followed by openings with two blank pages (as earlier in China). The blank pages were then glued together to produce a book looking like a type-printed one. Where both sides of a sheet have been printed, it is presumed a printing-press was used.
Colour in Wood Block Printing:
The earliest woodblock printing known is in colour. Chinese silk from the Han Dynasty printed in three colours. On paper, European woodcut prints with coloured blocks were invented in Germany in 1508 and are known as chiaroscuro woodcuts. Colour is very common in Asian woodblock printing on paper; in China the first known example is a book on ink-cakes printed in 1606 and the technique reached its height in books on painting published in the seventeenth century.
Notable examples are the Treatise on the Paintings and Writings of the Ten Bamboo Studio of 1633, and the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual published in 1679 and 1701. In Japan, a multi-colour technique, called nishiki-e (“brocade pictures”), spread more widely, and was used for prints, from the 1760s on. Japanese woodcut became a major artistic form, although at the time it was accorded a much lower status than painting. In both Europe and Japan, book illustrations were normally printed in black ink only, and colour reserved for individual artistic prints. In China, the reverse was true, and colour printing was used mainly in books on art.
Wood block printing in Japan:
The earliest known wood block printing dates from 764-770, when an Empress commissioned one million small wooden pagodas containing short printed scrolls (typically 6 x 45 cm) to be distributed to temples. Apart from the production of Buddhist texts, which became widespread from the eleventh century in Japan, the process was only adopted in Japan for secular books surprisingly late, and a Chinese-Japanese dictionary of 1590 is the earliest known example.
Though the Jesuits operated a movable type printing-press in Nagasaki, printing equipment brought back by Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s army from Korea in 1593 had far greater influence on the development of the medium. Four years later, Tokugawa Ieyasu, even before becoming shogun, effected the creation of the first native movable type, using wooden type-pieces rather than metal. He oversaw the creation of 100,000 type-pieces, which were used to print a number of political and historical texts. An edition of the Confucian Analects was printed in 1598, using a Korean moveable type printing press, at the order of Emperor Go-Yozei.
This document is the oldest work of Japanese moveable type printing extant today. Despite the appeal of moveable type, however, it was soon decided that the running script style of Japanese writings would be better reproduced using woodblocks, and so woodblocks were once more adopted; by 1640 they were once again being used for nearly all purposes. It quickly gained popularity among artists of ukiyo-e, and was used to produce small, cheap, art prints as well as books. Japan began to see something of literary mass production.
The content of these books varied widely, including travel guides, advice manuals, kibyoshi (satirical novels), sharebon (books on urban culture), art books, and play scripts for the joruri (puppet) theatre. Often, within a certain genre, such as the joruri theatre scripts, a particular style of writing would come to be the standard for that genre; in other words, one person’s personal calligraphic style was adopted as the standard style for printing plays.
Further development of woodblock printing in East Asia:
In East Asia, wood block printing proved to be more enduring than in Europe, continuing well into the 19th century as the major form of printing texts, especially in China, even after the introduction of the European printing press. Jesuits stationed in China in the 16th and 17th centuries indeed preferred to use woodblocks for their own publishing projects, noting how inexpensive and convenient it was. Only with the introduction of more mechanized printing methods from the West in the 19th century did printing in East Asia move towards metal moveable type and the printing press.
On materials other than paper:
Block printing has also been extensively used for decorative purposes such as fabrics and wallpaper. This is easiest with repetitive patterns composed of one or a small number of motifs that are small to medium in size (due to the difficulty of carving and handling larger blocks). For a multicolour pattern, each colour element is carved as a separate block and individually inked and applied. Block printing was the standard method of producing wallpaper until the early twentieth century, and is still used by a few traditionalist firms. It also remains in use for making cloth, mostly in small artisanal settings, for example in India.
Woodblock printing on textiles:
Wood block printing on textiles is the process of printing patterns on textiles, usually of linen, cotton or silk, by means of incised wooden blocks. It is the earliest, simplest and slowest of all methods of textile printing. Block printing by hand is a slow process it is, however, capable of yielding highly artistic results, some of which are unobtainable by any other method. Printing patterns on textiles is so closely related in its ornamental effects to other different methods of similar intention, such as by painting and by processes of dyeing and weaving, that it is almost impossible to determine from the picturesque indications afforded by ancient records and writings of pre-Christian, classical or even medieval times, how far, if at all, allusion is being made in them to this particular process. Hence its original invention must probably remain a matter of inference only.
As a process, the employment of which has been immensely developed and modified in Europe in the nineteenth century by machinery anti the adoption of stereotypes and engraved metal plates, it is doubtless traceable to a primeval use of blocks of stone, wood, etc., so cut or carved as to make impressions on surfaces of any material; and where the existence of these can be traced in ancient civilizations, e.g. of China, Egypt and Assyria, there is a probability that printing ornament upon textiles may have been practiced at a very early period.
Nevertheless, highly skilled as the Chinese are, and for ages have been, in ornamental weaving and other branches of textile art, there seem to be no direct evidences of their having resorted so extensively to printing for the decoration of textiles as peoples in the East Indies, those, for instance, of the Punjab and Bombay, from whose posterity 16th century European and especially Dutch merchants bought goods for Occidental trade in Indiennes or printed and painted calicoes.
As in the case of weaving and embroideries, specimens of printed stuffs have of recent years been obtained from disused cemeteries in Upper Egypt (Akhmim and elsewhere) and tell us of Egypto-Roman use of such things. A few of them are now lodged in European museums. For indications that earlier Egyptians, Greeks and Romans were likely to have been acquainted with the process, one has to rely upon less certain evidence. Of textiles painted by Egyptians there are many actual examples. Apart from these there are wall paintings, e.g., those of Beni Hassan–about 2100 B.C. in which are represented certain Afro-Asiatic people wearing costumes irregularly patterned with spots, stripes and zigzags, which may have been more readily stamped than embroidered or woven.
A rather more complicated and orderly pattern well suited to stamping occurs in a painting about 1320 BC, of Hathor and King Meneptha I. Herodotus, referring to the garments of inhabitants of the Caucasus, says that representations of various animals were dyed into them so as to be irremovable by washing. Pliny describes a very remarkable process employed in Egypt for the colouring of tissues. After pressing the material, which is white at first, they saturate it, not with colours, but with mordants that are calculated to absorb colour. He does not explain how this saturation is done. But as it is clearly for the purpose of obtaining a decorative effect, stamping or brushing the mordants into the material may be inferred.
When this was finished the cloth was plunged into a cauldron of boiling dye and removed the next moment fully coloured. It is a singular fact, too, that although the dye in the pan is of one uniform colour, the material when taken out of it is of various colours according to the nature of the mordants that have been respectively applied to it.
Egypto-Roman bits of printed stuffs from Akhrnim exhibit the use, some three hundred years later than the time of Pliny, of boldly cut blocks for stamping figure-subjects and patterns on to textilesAlmost concurrent with their discovery was that of a fragment of printed cotton at Arles in the grave of St Caesarius, who was bishop there about A.D. 542. Equal in archaeological value are similar fragments found in an ancient tomb at Quedlinburg. These, however, are of comparatively simple patterns. Museum specimens establish the fact that more important pattern printing on textiles had become a developed industry in parts of Europe towards the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century.
According to Forrer (Die Kunst des Zeugdrucks, 1898) medieval Rhenish monasteries were the cradles of the artistic craft of ornamental stamp or block cutting, although it is now recognised that some of the examples he relied on are modern forgeries. In rare monastic manuscripts earlier in date than the 13th century, initial letters (especially those that recurred frequently) were sometimes stamped from hand-cut blocks; and German deeds of the 14th century bear names of block cutters and textile stampers as those of witnesses.
Between the 11th and 14th centuries there was apparently in Germany no such weaving of rich ornamental stuffs as that carried on in Spain and Italy, but her competitive and commercial instincts led her to adapt her art of stamping to the decoration of coarse textiles, and thus to produce rather rough imitations of patterns woven in the Saracenic, Byzantine and Italian silks and brocades. Amongst the more ancient relics of Rhenish printed textiles are some of thin silken stuff, impressed with rude and simplified versions of such patterns in gold and silver foil. Of these, and of a considerable number of later variously dyed stout linens with patterns printed in dark tones or in black, specimens have been collected from reliquaries, tombs and old churches. From these several bits of evidence Dr. Forrer propounds an opinion that the printing of patterns on textiles as carried on in several Rhenish towns preceded that of printing on paper. He proceeds to show that from after the 14th century increasing luxury and prosperity promoted a freer use of woven and embroidered stuffs, in consequence of which textile printing fell into neglect, and it was not until three centuries later that it revived, very largely under the influence of trade importing into Europe quantities of Indian printed and painted calicoes. Augsburg, famous in the 17th century for its printing on linens, etc., supplied Alsace and Switzerland with many craftsmen in this process.
After the revocation of the edict of Nantes, French refugees took part in manufacturing of both painted and printed cloths in Holland, England and Switzerland; some few of the refugees were allowed back into France to do the same in Normandy: manufacturers were also set up in Paris, Marseilles, Nantes and Angers; but there was still greater activity at Geneva, Neuchtel, Zurich, St Gall and Basel.
The first textile printing works in Great Britain are said to have been begun towards the end of the 17th century by a Frenchman on the banks of the Thames near Richmond, and soon afterward a more considerable factory was established at Bromley Hall in Essex; many others were opened in Surrey early in the 18th century.
At Muihouse the enterprise of Koechlin, Schmatzer and Dollfus in 1746, as well as that of Oberkampf at Jouy, led to a still wider spread of the industry in Alsace. In almost every place in Europe where it was taken up and followed, it was met by local and national prohibitions or trade protective regulations and acts, which, however, were gradually overcome. Wood blocks for textile printing may be made of box, lime, holly, sycamore, plane or pear wood, the latter three being most generally employed. They vary in size considerably, but must always be between two and three inches thick, otherwise they are liable to warping, which is additionally guarded against by backing the wood chosen with two or more pieces of cheaper wood, such as deal or pine.
The several pieces or blocks are tongued and grooved to fit each other, and are then securely glued together, under pressure, into one solid block with the grain of each alternate piece running in a different direction. The block, being planed quite smooth and perfectly flat, next has the design drawn upon, or transferred to it. This latter is effected by rubbing off, upon its flat surface, a tracing in lampblack and oil, of the outlines of the masses of the design. The portions to be left in relief are then tinted, between their outlines, an ammoniacal carmine or magenta, for the purpose of distinguishing them from those portions that have to be cut away.
As a separate block is required for each distinct colour in the design, a separate tracing must be made of each and transferred (or put on as it a termed) to its own special block. Having thus received a tracing of the pattern the block is thoroughly damped and kept in this condition by being covered with wet cloths during the whole process of cutting. The blockcutter commences by carving out the wood around the heavier masses first, leaving the finer and more delicate work until the last so as to avoid any risk of injuring it during the cutting of the coarser parts. When large masses of colour occur in a pattern, the corresponding parts on the block are usually cut in outline, the object being filled in between the outlines with felt, which not only absorbs the colour better, but gives a much more even impression than it is possible to obtain with a large surface of wood.
When finished, the block presents the appearance of flat relief carving, the design standing out like letterpress type. Fine details are very difficult to cut in wood, and, even when successfully cut, wear down very rapidly or break off in printing. They are therefore almost invariably built up in strips of brass or copper, bent to shape and driven edgewise into the flat surface of the block. This method is known as coppering, and by its means many delicate little forms, such as stars, rosettes and fine spots can be printed, which would otherwise be quite impossible to produce by hand or machine block printing. Frequently, too, the process of coppering is used for the purpose of making a mold, from which an entire block can be made and duplicated as often as desired, by casting. In this case the metal strips are driven to a predetermined depth into the face of a piece of lime-wood cut across the grain, and, when the whole design is completed in this way, the block is placed, metal face downwards in a tray of molten type-metal or solder, which transmits sufficient heat to the inserted portions of the strips of copper to enable them to carbonize the wood immediately in contact with them and, at the same time, firmly attaches itself to the outstanding portions.
When cold a slight tap with a hammer on the back of the lime wood block easily detaches the cake of the type-metal or alloy and along with it, of course, the strips of copper to which it is firmly soldered, leaving a matrix, or mold, in wood of the original design.
The casting is made in an alloy of low melting-point, anti, after cooling, is filed or ground until all its projections are of the same height and perfectly smooth, after which it is screwed on to a wooden support and is ready for printing. Similar molds are also made by burning out the lines of the pattern with a red-hot steel punch, capable of being raised or lowered at will, and under which the block is moved about by hand along the lines of the pattern.
In addition to the engraved block, a printing table and colour sieve are required. The table consists of a stout framework of wood or iron supporting a thick slab of stone varying in size according to the width of cloth to be printed. Over the stone table top a thick piece of woolen printers blanket is tightly stretched to supply the elasticity necessary to give the block every chance of making a good impression on the cloth. At one end, the table is provided with a couple of iron brackets to carry the roll of cloth to be printed and, at the other, a series of guide rollers, extending to the ceiling, are arranged for the purpose of suspending and drying the newly printed goods.
The colour sieve consists of a tub (known as the swimming tub) half filled with starch paste, On the surface of which floats a frame covered at the bottom with a tightly stretched piece Of mackintosh or oiled calico. On this the colour sieve proper, a frame similar to, the last but covered with fine woolen cloth, is placed, and forms when in position a sort of elastic colour trough over the bottom of which the colour is spread evenly with a brush. The printer commences by drawing a length of cloth, from the roll, over the table, and marks it with a piece of coloured chalk arid a ruler to indicate where the first impression of the block is to be applied. He then applies his block in two different directions to the colour on the sieve and finally presses it firmly and steadily on the cloth, ensuring a good impression by striking it smartly on the back with a wooden mallet.
The second impression is made in the same way, the printer taking care to see that it fits exactly to the first, a point which he can make sure of by means of the pins with which the blocks are provided at each corner and which are arranged in such a way that when those at the right side or at the top of the block fall upon those at the left side or the bottom of the previous impression the two printings join up exactly and continue the pattern without a break.
Each succeeding impression is made in precisely the same manner until the length of cloth on the table is fully printed. When this is done it is wound over the drying rollers, thus bringing forward a fresh length to be treated similarly. If the pattern contains several colours the cloth is usually first printed throughout with one, then dried, re-wound and printed with the second, the same operations being repeated until all the colours are printed. Many modifications of block printing have been tried from time to time, but of these only two tobying and rainbowing are of any practical value.
The object of tobey printing is to print the several colours of a multicolour pattern at one operation and for this purpose a block with the whole of the pattern cut upon it, and a specially constructed colour sieve are employed. The sieve consists of a thick block of wood, on one side of which a series of compartments are hollowed out, corresponding roughly in shape, size and position to the various objects cut on the block.
The tops of the dividing walls of these compartments are then coated with melted pitch, and a piece of fine woolen cloth is stretched over the whole and pressed well down on the pitch so as to adhere firmly to the top of each wall; finally a piece of string soaked in pitch is cemented over the woolen cloth along the lines of the dividing walls, and after boring a hole through the bottom of each compartment the sieve is ready for use.
In operation each compartment is filled with its special colour through a pipe connecting it with a colour box situated at the side of the sieve and a little above it, so as to exert just sufficient pressure on the colour to force it gently through the woolen cloth, but not enough to cause it to overflow its proper limits, formed by the pitch-soaked string boundary lines. The block is then carefully pressed on the sieve, and, as the different parts of its pattern fall on different parts of the sieve, each takes up a certain colour that it transfers to the cloth in the usual way.
By this method of tobying from two to six colours may be printed at one operation, but it is obvious that it is only applicable to patterns where the different coloured objects are placed at some small distance apart, and that, therefore, it is of but limited application.