Engraving on wood

Engraving on wood is said to have been practised by the Chinese as early as B.C. 1120. The precise date of its introduction into Europe is unknown. Some authorities state that a series of wood-cuts, illustrative of the career of Alexander the Great, was engraved by the two Cunio, in 1285. This story is, however, rather doubtful; and perhaps the origin of the art may be traced to the wooden blocks used by notaries for stamping monograms in the 13th century, and to the engraved playing cards which appeared in French about 1340. The earliest woodcut in existence represents St. Christopher with the infant Saviour, and is dated 1423.

Many block books exist of about the year 1430; but the art was not brought to great perfection till the commencement of the 16th century. Albert Durer (1471–1528); Lucas, of Leyden (1494–1533); Holbein, whose Dance of Death appeared at Lyons in 1538; Gerard Audran (1640–1703); Woollet (1735–1785); Thomas Bewick (1753–1828); Nesbit, born 1775; and Harvey, born in 1796, rank foremost among the old school of engravers; but the modern school, stimulated and encouraged by the growing taste of the public for finely illustrated books and periodicals, may be said to have completely surpassed all their predecessors (See Illustrated Books).

We cannot devote space sufficient to describe these various processes in full, but the following particulars may be useful.

The letter-press printer should learn to hold and use the graver and scorper, in order that he may be able to cut a simple block; take away lines that are superfluous; or alter a jobbing letter or two on an emergency. A few hours’ practice will enable him to do these with ease an expedition.

Wood-engraving and plate-engraving differ in the following particulars. In wood-engraving all the lines and work are left standing in relief; this is accomplished by cutting away the ground on both sides of every lines, so that in outlining a wood-block two cuts with the graver complete a line; in cavity engraving, such as copper-plate work, the reverse is the order of things, for there the black line is cut away and the ground left untouched, the actual engraving, with respect to lines, being done with one cut of the graver; but of course it has to be touched up where required, the same as a woodcut has occasionally has to be treated.

Blocks that have the subject either drawn or transferred on them should be perfectly type high—but if there be any variation it is much better that it should be under than over, because the block can be more readily underlaid to bring it to the right height than it can be brought up in the overlays.

Place the block upon the pad (q.v.), which must rest upon a work bench sufficiently high, that when the left hand is holding the block and the right hand is cuting it both elbows should be nearly on a level with the shoulders. Place the engraver (q.v.) in the right hand, with the handle fair against the bottom joint of the little finger, and the hand closed so as to grasp the handle; the blade of the graver must rest against the extended thumb in such a manner that the blade can slip easily to and fro, and yet act as a guide to the point of the tool; before commencing to work it is as well to practise holding and gliding the tool a few times; next proceed to cut a straight line holding the tool very nearly parallel with the face of the block, being careful not to slip the tool through any of the black lines or work; take but one journey, however large the block may be, until you arrive at a bar, at which go boldly up to, but not into, or the engraving may be seriously damaged.

When curved or irregular shaped lines have to be engraved, the right hand and tool, when in position, should not be allowed to move, but the block on the pad must be moved to the point of the tool by the left hand. If, for instance, a waved line were to be cut, the tool would have to be held steady and the block pushed up to it and waved to the desired pattern.

The reason a piece is sliced off the underside of the handle of the graver, is to allow the tool to work in the centre of a large block, to prevent the point of the tool digging into the block inside of sliding and cutting at the same time.

The wood-block being cut in rounds or slices, instead of planks, out of the tree, it is necessary, when large blocks are required, to have them made in sections and screwed or bolted together; the latter ode, although more expensive, is far superior, which any letter-press printer can verify, as they are not so apt to warp or dissever. In cutting, the wood leaves the tool in a crisp, pleasant way, owing to the block being prepared the end-way of the grain.

Beginners can hardly work too slowly or too deliberately at first, as by carefulness in this particular many self-taught have become first-rate engravers, while others, with the superior advantage of good masters, have never reached above mediocrity. Hold the block in the left hand in such a manner that the hand be kept below the surface of the block, as the tool is apt to slip over the block and stick into any opposing surface which it meets; so that should the left hand be above the surface of the block some pain and inconvenience may arise.

Scorpers (q.v.) are made both flat and found; the latter, however, are principally used in wood engraving, and are in sets of different widths, by which arrangement the space of blank wood between the lines, after outlining, may be taken away, in many instances, at once, by adapting the use of the scorper has to be held in the right hand in the same way as a graver, but has to be elevated, so that the tool may be slightly angular with the block, instead of nearly parallel, as recommended with respect to the graver, and instead of moving the block it must be fairly held in position until a change of position is necessary.

If a straight gutter has to be cut away, the process will be as follows:—Place the block, if a small one, in the centre of the pad, and commence cutting away at the extreme left-hand side of the block, working from where you commenced. Bring the tool gradually back to the extreme right, cutting or chipping only a small piece of wood away at a time. This is the only practicable method of working, for whereas the graver works from right to left, the scorper works reversely; the graver cuts a clear line right away through; the scorper chips a little bit at a time with a backward movement. In clearing away the superfluous wood round the edges adopt the same principle: cut from the work, finishing at the edge of the block. Where large open spaces have to be cut away the scorper should take a channel the full length of such space, from end to end, then begin again close at the side of the first channel, and produce another, and so on till the whole has been gone over; then, with the flat scorper, go over the rough ground, and smooth to a sightly appearance.

The flat scorper is used to lower the surface of different parts of a block—the edges of skies, for instance,—as flat impressions would probably give the appearance of dots at the ends of the lines, or not allow so graduated a tinting—going off, as it were, to nothing. It is also used were light effects are wished for in certain parts of a block, and the engraver has not sufficient confidence in the pressman’s artistic capabilities; but this is not advisable, except in very exceptional cases.

When a woodcut left on the press all night has become warped, lay it upon its face on the imposing stone, with a few thicknesses of damp paper underneath it, and place over it a planer, flat side downwards, with a weight upon it; in the course of a few ho[u]rs the block will be restored to its original flatness. This plan is preferable to steeping the block in water, as the steeping swells the lines of the engraving, and, consequently, affects the impression. To preserve the original effect of the cut as it came from the hands of the artist, the block should never be wet with water; and when it has been worked in a forme with types it should be taken out before the forme is washed. to prevent warping during the dinner-hour or night, turn the tympan down upon the forme, run the carriage in, and pulling the bar-handle home, fasten it so that it will remain in this position during the interim.

A fine engraving on wood should never be brushed over with ley: the best method is to wipe the ink off with a fine sponge damped with spirits of turpentine; and, if it gets foul at working, clean it with a soft brush and spirits of turpentine; then wipe the surface dry and pull two or three impressions on dry waste paper. Spirits of turpentine take off the ink quicker, and affect the wood less than any other article. The facility with which the block is again brought to a working state more than compensates for the trifling additional expense incurred.

When a few proofs only are wanted from a small engraving good impressions may be obtained with little trouble on dry India paper with about six thicknesses of the same paper laid over it, and pulled without the tympan; if proofs are wanted from large ones it will be found advantageous to put the India paper for a few moments into the middle of a heap of damp paper. Further-particulars concerning woodcuts and printing them will be found under the title of Presswork (q.v.).

Engraving on stone is such in use for presentations of jewellery, furniture, maps, plans, and architectural drawings. Choose a stone free from veins, chalk marks, or any superficial inaccuracies; place it horizontally on a table, and cover it with a very thin solution of gum and acid, a little colouring matter being mixed with it, to enable the artist to clearly see the progress he makes; this coating effectually preserves the stone from imbibing greasy substances; nevertheless the smallest possible quantity of the solution must only be applied, or the point will not readily penetrate through the coating of gum to the stone.

To engrave on stone, it will be necessary to obtain a fine point or a diamond—a needle point, fixed in a handle and held like a pencil and used to scratch the subject into the stone, which is a different procedure to plate-engraving or etching. The engraver should have at hand a hare’s foot, to brush away the dust scratched out of the stone, as by blowing away with the mouth, risk is incurred by spittle-spray. It is necessary to make deep scratches to produce a firm and clear line; a light and clear line of uniform depth should be maintained throughout.

When the engraving is done, rub oil into the lines made by the etching point, and let it stand an hour; wipe off the superfluous oil and wash off the gum; the stone will then be ready for work. No moisture must, on any account, be suffered to touch the stone during the etching process.

Proofs may be taken during the progress of the engraving for the artist’s guidance; but before recommencing, re-cover the stone with the coloured preparation, and treat as before-mentioned. To make any alterations, remove by pumice stone, and pass over a solution of acid; then make the alteration.

The printing of engravings from stone is executed as follows:—After the engraving is prepared, wash the stone with a damp rag, then put a few drops of turpentine on to the inking slab, and, with the rubber, mix the ink and turps; after which, rub the stone well with the inky turps, acting in place of a roller for inking the subject; then with a second clean, damp cloth wipe the stone over, till clean; then lay on the paper, on which place a thin, clean backing sheet; next, a fine printer’s blanket; then a thin millboard; lastly, put down the tympan, and pull through the lithographic press; the operation is then completed.

The rubber is made by getting a block of wood, about 3½in × 5in., and about 3in. thick; this is covered with a few alternate layers of coarse blanketing and fine flannel, letting the last and outside layer, which is used next in the stone, be the finest.

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