Steel engraving

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Detail of the image below; click to enlarge further BEP-(Multiple)-Landing of Columbus (Vanderlyn) (detail cropped out).jpg
Detail of the image below; click to enlarge further

Steel engraving is a technique for printing illustrations based on steel instead of copper. It has been rarely used in artistic printmaking, although it was much used for reproductions in the 19th century. Steel engraving was introduced in 1792 by Jacob Perkins (1766–1849), an American inventor, for banknote printing. When Perkins moved to London in 1818, the technique was adapted in 1820 by Charles Warren and especially by Charles Heath (1785–1848) for Thomas Campbell's Pleasures of Hope, which contained the first published plates engraved on steel. [1] The new technique only partially replaced the other commercial techniques of that time such as wood engraving, copper engraving and later lithography.


Landing of Columbus, engraved by the BEP based on Vanderlyn's 1847 painting. This vignette was used as the back of the Series 1875 $5 National Bank Note. BEP-(Multiple)-Landing of Columbus (Vanderlyn).jpg
Landing of Columbus, engraved by the BEP based on Vanderlyn's 1847 painting. This vignette was used as the back of the Series 1875 $5 National Bank Note.


Baptism of Pocahontas, engraved by Charles Burt for the BEP based on Chapman's 1840 painting. This vignette was used as the back of the Series 1875 $20 National Bank Note. BEP-BURT-Baptism of Pocahontas (Chapman).jpg
Baptism of Pocahontas, engraved by Charles Burt for the BEP based on Chapman's 1840 painting. This vignette was used as the back of the Series 1875 $20 National Bank Note.

Confusingly, the printmaking technique used in steel engravings is, after the earliest years in the 1820s, normally a combination of etching and true engraving, with etching becoming dominant in later examples, after the technique became popular again in the 1830s. Engraving is done with a burin, which is a small bar of hardened steel with a sharp point. It is pushed along the plate to produce thin furrowed lines, leaving "burr" or strips of waste metal to the side. This is followed by the use of a scraper to remove any burs, since they would be an impediment during the subsequent inking process. Steel plates are very hard for this technique, which is normally used on softer copper plates. So steel engraving also used etching, where acid creates the lines in the plates in the pattern made by selectively removing a thin coating of acid-resistant ground by tools. This is much less effort. As well as etching needles, the etched part of steel engravings made great use of roulettes, small wheels mounted in handles which have regular sharp projections which produce broken lines of dots and dashes when rolled across the plate. Roulettes of different types were used together with the burin and needle to create densely packed marks which appear as tonal to the eye, and allow a great variety of textures and effects. True burin engraving was generally used to finish the etched image. [2]

First a broad, general outline is made on the plate before starting the detailed image. Engraving will produce a printed reverse or mirror image of the image on the plate. Sometimes engravers looked at the object, usually another image such as a drawing, that they were engraving through a mirror so that the image was naturally reversed and they would be less likely to engrave the image incorrectly. [3]

Steel plates can be case hardened to ensure that they can print thousands of times with little wear. The copper plates used in traditional engraving and etching, which are softer and so much easier to work cannot be case hardened but can be steel-faced or nickel-plated by electroplating to increase the number of impressions that could be printed. From about 1860 the steel-facing of copper plates became widely used, and such prints tend also to be called steel engravings. It can be very difficult to distinguish between engravings on steel and steel-faced copper, other than by date. [4] The most reliable way of distinguishing between unfaced copper engraving and steel or steel-faced engraving is the "lightness and delicacy of the pale lines" in the latter. The hardness of the plate surface made it possible to print a good number of impressions without the metal of the plate wearing the lines out under the pressure of repeated intaglio printing, which would have happened with unfaced copper. So "A shimmering pale grey became for the first time a possibility in line engraving, and it is this that provides the most recognizable characteristic of steel beside the heavier and warmer mood of copper". [5]

19th century

Trinity College, Cambridge; View from St John's College Old Bridge, c. 1840. steel engraving was much used for decorative topographical prints such as this, by John Le Keux. LeKeux - Cambridge, c1840 - Trinity 08, View from St John's College Old Bridge - memorialsofcambr01wriguoft 0096.jpg
Trinity College, Cambridge; View from St John's College Old Bridge, c. 1840. steel engraving was much used for decorative topographical prints such as this, by John Le Keux.

Until around 1820 copper plates were the common medium used for engraving. Copper, being a soft metal, was easy to carve or engrave and the plates could be used to strike a few hundred copies before the image began to severely deteriorate from wear. Engravers then reworked a worn plate by retracing the previous engraving to sharpen the image again. Another advantage to using copper is that it is a soft metal and can be corrected or updated with a reasonable amount of effort. For this reason, copper plates were the preferred medium of printing for mapmakers, who needed to alter their maps whenever land was newly discovered, claimed, or changed hands.

During the 1820s steel began to replace copper as the preferred medium of commercial publishers for illustration, but still rivaled by wood engraving and later lithography. Steel engraving produced plates with sharper, harder, more distinct lines. Also, the harder steel plates produced much longer wearing dies that could strike thousands of copies before they would need any repair or refurbishing engraving. The hardness of steel also allowed for much finer detail than would have been possible with copper, which would have quickly deteriorated under the resulting stress. As the nineteenth century began to close, devices such as the ruling machine made even greater detail possible, allowing for more exact parallel lines in very close proximity. Commercial etching techniques also gradually replaced steel engraving.

All the illustrations in the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1911 are steel engravings.[ citation needed ]

Steel engraving is still done today, but to a much lesser extent. Today, most printing is done using computerized stencils instead of a steel plate to transfer ink. An exception is currency, which is still printed using steel dies, since each bill then has a character and feel that is very difficult for counterfeiters to duplicate. An engraved plate causes the ink to be slightly raised and the paper to be slightly depressed, which produces a different haptic sensation than does paper printed by a stencil ink transfer process.

Mechanical tools

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, new tools made engraving much easier and more exact. The ruling machine created parallel straight or wavy lines very close together, usually for use with etching. [6] Another of these tools is the geometric lathe. The lathe is used to engrave images on plates, which are in turn engraved on rolls for such uses as printing banknotes. Another of these tools is the engraving machine. This machine uses a master template to lightly engrave a duplicate image which can be then engraved by hand or etched with acid. The machine also makes possible the reduction or enlargement of the letter for the duplicate image.

See also


  1. Charles Heath ,
  2. Griffiths, 39; Gascoigne, 13a-b
  3. Griffiths, 152
  4. Gascoigne, 55 f, g
  5. Gascoigne, 55 h
  6. Griffiths, 152

Related Research Articles

Etching Intaglio printmaking technique

Etching is traditionally the process of using strong acid or mordant to cut into the unprotected parts of a metal surface to create a design in intaglio (incised) in the metal. In modern manufacturing, other chemicals may be used on other types of material. As a method of printmaking, it is, along with engraving, the most important technique for old master prints, and remains in wide use today. In a number of modern variants such as microfabrication etching and photochemical milling it is a crucial technique in much modern technology, including circuit boards.

Printmaking The process of creating artworks by printing, normally on paper

Printmaking is the process of creating artworks by printing, normally on paper. Printmaking normally covers only the process of creating prints that have an element of originality, rather than just being a photographic reproduction of a painting. Except in the case of monotyping, the process is capable of producing multiples of the same piece, which is called a print. Each print produced is considered an "original" work of art, and is correctly referred to as an "impression", not a "copy". Often impressions vary considerably, whether intentionally or not. The images on most prints are created for that purpose, perhaps with a preparatory study such as a drawing. A print that copies another work of art, especially a painting, is known as a "reproductive print".

Engraving Incising designs by cutting into a surface

Engraving is the practice of incising a design onto a hard, usually flat surface by cutting grooves into it with a burin. The result may be a decorated object in itself, as when silver, gold, steel, or glass are engraved, or may provide an intaglio printing plate, of copper or another metal, for printing images on paper as prints or illustrations; these images are also called "engravings". Engraving is one of the oldest and most important techniques in printmaking. Wood engraving is a form of relief printing and is not covered in this article.


Monotyping is a type of printmaking made by drawing or painting on a smooth, non-absorbent surface. The surface, or matrix, was historically a copper etching plate, but in contemporary work it can vary from zinc or glass to acrylic glass. The image is then transferred onto a sheet of paper by pressing the two together, usually using a printing-press. Monotypes can also be created by inking an entire surface and then, using brushes or rags, removing ink to create a subtractive image, e.g. creating lights from a field of opaque colour. The inks used may be oil based or water based. With oil based inks, the paper may be dry, in which case the image has more contrast, or the paper may be damp, in which case the image has a 10 percent greater range of tones.

Drypoint Intaglio printmaking technique

Drypoint is a printmaking technique of the intaglio family, in which an image is incised into a plate with a hard-pointed "needle" of sharp metal or diamond point. In principle, the method is practically identical to engraving. The difference is in the use of tools, and that the raised ridge along the furrow is not scraped or filed away as in engraving. Traditionally the plate was copper, but now acetate, zinc, or plexiglas are also commonly used. Like etching, drypoint is easier to master than engraving for an artist trained in drawing because the technique of using the needle is closer to using a pencil than the engraver's burin.

Aquatint Tonal printmaking technique

Aquatint is an intaglio printmaking technique, a variant of etching that produces areas of tone rather than lines. For this reason it has mostly been used in conjunction with etching, to give both lines and shaded tone. It has also been used historically to print in colour, both by printing with multiple plates in different colours, and by making monochrome prints that were then hand-coloured with watercolour.

Relief printing Family of printing methods

Relief printing is a family of printing methods where a printing block, plate or matrix that has had ink applied to its surface, but not to any recessed areas, is brought into contact with paper. The areas of the printing plate with ink will leave ink on the paper, whereas the recessed areas of the printing plate will leave the paper ink-free. A printing press may not be needed, as the back of the paper can be rubbed or pressed by hand with a simple tool such as a brayer or roller.


Photogravure is an intaglio printmaking or photo-mechanical process whereby a copper plate is grained and then coated with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue which had been exposed to a film positive, and then etched, resulting in a high quality intaglio plate that can reproduce detailed continuous tones of a photograph.

Wood engraving printmaking technique

Wood engraving is a printmaking technique, in which an artist works an image or matrix of images into a block of wood. Functionally a variety of woodcut, it uses relief printing, where the artist applies ink to the face of the block and prints using relatively low pressure. By contrast, ordinary engraving, like etching, uses a metal plate for the matrix, and is printed by the intaglio method, where the ink fills the valleys, the removed areas. As a result, wood engravings deteriorate less quickly than copper-plate engravings, and have a distinctive white-on-black character.

Photoengraving is a process that uses a light-sensitive photoresist applied to the surface to be engraved to create a mask that shields some areas during a subsequent operation which etches, dissolves, or otherwise removes some or all of the material from the unshielded areas. Normally applied to metal, it can also be used on glass, plastic and other materials.

Intaglio (printmaking) Family of printing and printmaking techniques

Intaglio is the family of printing and printmaking techniques in which the image is incised into a surface and the incised line or sunken area holds the ink. It is the direct opposite of a relief print, where the parts of the matrix that make the image stand above the main surface.

Transfer printing

Transfer printing is a method of decorating pottery or other materials using an engraved copper or steel plate from which a monochrome print on paper is taken which is then transferred by pressing onto the ceramic piece. Pottery decorated using the technique is known as transferware or transfer ware.

Etching revival Art movement between 1850s and c. 1930

The etching revival was the re-emergence and invigoration of etching as an original form of printmaking during the period approximately from 1850 to 1930. The main centres were France, Britain and the United States, but other countries, such as the Netherlands, also participated. A strong collector's market developed, with the most sought-after artists achieving very high prices. This came to an abrupt end after the 1929 Wall Street crash wrecked what had become a very strong market among collectors, at a time when the typical style of the movement, still based on 19th-century developments, was becoming outdated.

Line engraving Engraved images printed on paper

Line engraving is a term for engraved images printed on paper to be used as prints or illustrations. The term is mainly used in connection with 18th or 19th century commercial illustrations for magazines and books or reproductions of paintings. It is not a technical term in printmaking, and can cover a variety of techniques, giving similar results.

Viscosity printing is a multi-color printmaking technique that incorporates principles of relief printing and intaglio printing. It was pioneered by Stanley William Hayter.

Old master print

An old master print is a work of art produced by a printing process within the Western tradition. The term remains current in the art trade, and there is no easy alternative in English to distinguish the works of "fine art" produced in printmaking from the vast range of decorative, utilitarian and popular prints that grew rapidly alongside the artistic print from the 15th century onwards. Fifteenth-century prints are sufficiently rare that they are classed as old master prints even if they are of crude or merely workmanlike artistic quality. A date of about 1830 is usually taken as marking the end of the period whose prints are covered by this term.

Roller printing on textiles

Roller printing, also called cylinder printing or machine printing, on fabrics is a textile printing process patented by Thomas Bell of Scotland in 1783 in an attempt to reduce the cost of the earlier copperplate printing. This method was used in Lancashire fabric mills to produce cotton dress fabrics from the 1790s, most often reproducing small monochrome patterns characterized by striped motifs and tiny dotted patterns called "machine grounds".

Stipple engraving

Stipple engraving is a technique used to create tone in an intaglio print by distributing a pattern of dots of various sizes and densities across the image. The pattern is created on the printing plate either in engraving by gouging out the dots with a burin, or through an etching process. Stippling was used as an adjunct to conventional line engraving and etching for over two centuries, before being developed as a distinct technique in the mid-18th century.

<i>À la poupée</i> Inking method in colour printmaking

À la poupée is a largely historic intaglio printmaking technique for making colour prints by applying different ink colours to a single printing plate using ball-shaped wads of cloth, one for each colour. The paper has just one run through the press, but the inking needs to be carefully re-done after each impression is printed. Each impression will usually vary at least slightly, and sometimes very significantly.

Surface tone

In printmaking, surface tone, or surface-tone, is produced by deliberately or accidentally not wiping all the ink off the surface of the printing plate, so that parts of the image have a light tone from the film of ink left. Tone in printmaking meaning areas of continuous colour, as opposed to the linear marks made by an engraved or drawn line. The technique can be used with all the intaglio printmaking techniques, of which the most important are engraving, etching, drypoint, mezzotint and aquatint. It requires individual attention on the press before each impression is printed, and is mostly used by artists who print their own plates, such as Rembrandt, "the first master of this art", who made great use of it.