Wood engraving

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Thomas Bewick. Barn Owl (Tyto alba) in History of British Birds. 1797-1804. Bewick Thomas Barn Owl Tyto alba.png
Thomas Bewick. Barn Owl ( Tyto alba ) in History of British Birds . 1797–1804.
Leather-covered sandbag, wood blocks and tools (burins), used in wood engraving Wood Engraving Equipment.jpg
Leather-covered sandbag, wood blocks and tools (burins), used in wood engraving

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.


Thomas Bewick developed the wood engraving technique in Great Britain at the end of the 18th century. [1] His work differed from earlier woodcuts in two key ways. First, rather than using woodcarving tools such as knives, Bewick used an engraver's burin (graver). With this, he could create thin delicate lines, often creating large dark areas in the composition. Second, wood engraving traditionally uses the wood's end grain—while the older technique used the softer side grain. The resulting increased hardness and durability facilitated more detailed images.

Wood-engraved blocks could be used on conventional printing presses, which were going through rapid mechanical improvements during the first quarter of the 19th century. The blocks were made the same height as, and composited alongside, movable type in page layouts—so printers could produce thousands of copies of illustrated pages with almost no deterioration. The combination of this new wood engraving method and mechanized printing drove a rapid expansion of illustrations in the 19th century. Further, advances in stereotype let wood-engravings be reproduced onto metal, where they could be mass-produced for sale to printers.

By the mid-19th century, many wood engravings rivaled copperplate engravings. [2] Wood engraving was used to great effect by 19th-century artists such as Edward Calvert, and its heyday lasted until the early and mid-20th century when remarkable achievements were made by Eric Gill, Eric Ravilious, Tirzah Garwood and others. Though less used now, the technique is still prized in the early 21st century as a high-quality specialist technique of book illustration, and is promoted, for example, by the Society of Wood Engravers, who hold an annual exhibition in London and other British venues.


This is a large wood-engraving on an 1883 cover of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. Such news prints were composed of multiple component blocks, combined to form a single image, so as to divide the work among a number of engravers. 1883 Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper Brooklyn Bridge New York City.jpg
This is a large wood-engraving on an 1883 cover of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper . Such news prints were composed of multiple component blocks, combined to form a single image, so as to divide the work among a number of engravers.

In 15th- and 16th-century Europe, woodcuts were a common technique in printmaking and printing, yet their use as an artistic medium began to decline in the 17th century. They were still made for basic printing press work such as newspapers or almanacs. These required simple blocks that printed in relief with the text—rather than the elaborate intaglio forms in book illustrations and artistic printmaking at the time, in which type and illustrations were printed with separate plates and techniques.

The beginnings of modern wood engraving techniques developed at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, with the works of Englishman Thomas Bewick. Bewick generally engraved harder woods, such as boxwood, rather than the woods used in woodcuts, and he engraved the ends of blocks instead of the side. [2] Finding a woodcutting knife not suitable for working against the grain in harder woods, Bewick used a burin (or graver), an engraving tool with a V-shaped cutting tip. [2] As Thomas Balston explains, Bewick abandoned the attempts of previous wood-engravers 'to imitate the black lines of copper engravings. Though not, as frequently asserted, the inventor of wood-engraving, he was the first to recognise that, as the incisions made by the graver on the wood block printed white, the right use of the medium was to base his designs as much as possible on white lines and areas, and so he became the first to use his graver as a drawing instrument and to employ the medium as an original art.‘ [3] From the beginning of the nineteenth century Bewick's techniques gradually came into wider use, especially in Britain and the United States.

Alexander Anderson introduced the technique to the United States. Bewick's work impressed him, so he reverse engineered and imitated Bewick's technique—using metal until he learned that Bewick used wood. [4] There it was further expanded upon by his students, Joseph Alexander Adams.

Growth of illustrated publications

Besides interpreting details of light and shade, from the 1820s onwards, engravers used the method to reproduce freehand line drawings. This was, in many ways an unnatural application, since engravers had to cut away almost all the surface of the block to produce the printable lines of the artist's drawing. Nonetheless, it became the most common use of wood engraving.

Examples include the cartoons of Punch magazine, the pictures in the Illustrated London News and Sir John Tenniel's illustrations to Lewis Carroll's works, the latter engraved by the firm of Dalziel Brothers. In the United States, wood-engraved publications also began to take hold, such as Harper's Weekly .

Frank Leslie, a British-born engraver who had headed the engraving department of the Illustrated London News, immigrated to the United States in 1848, where he developed a means to divide the labor for making wood engravings. A single design was divided into a grid, and each engraver worked on a square. The blocks were then assembled into a single image. This process formed the basis for his Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper , which competed with Harper's in illustrating scenes from the American Civil War.

New techniques and technologies

The modified technique in the wood-engraving Crucifixion of Jesus designed by Gustave Dore. Gustave Dore - Crucifixion of Jesus.jpg
The modified technique in the wood-engraving Crucifixion of Jesus designed by Gustave Doré.

By the mid-19th century, electrotyping was developed, which could reproduce a wood engraving on metal. [5] By this method, a single wood-engraving could be mass-produced for sale to printshops, and the original retained without wear.

Until 1860, artists working for engraving had to paint or draw directly on the surface of the woodblock and the original artwork was actually destroyed by the engraver. In 1860, however, the engraver Thomas Bolton invented a process for transferring a photograph onto the block.

At about the same time, French engravers developed a modified technique (partly a return to that of Bewick) in which cross-hatching (one set of parallel lines crossing another at an angle) was almost entirely eliminated. Instead, all tonal gradations were rendered by white lines of varying thickness and closeness, sometimes broken into dots for the darkest areas. This technique appears in wood-engravings after Gustave Doré.

Towards the end of the 19th century, a combination of Bolton's 'photo on wood' process and the increased technical virtuosity initiated by the French school gave wood engraving a new application as a means of reproducing drawings in water-colour wash (as opposed to line drawings) and actual photographs. This is exemplified in illustrations in The Strand Magazine during the 1890s. With the new century, improvements in the half-tone process rendered this kind of reproductive engraving obsolete. In a less sophisticated form, it survived in advertisements and trade catalogues until about 1930. With this change, wood engraving was left free to develop as a creative form in its own right, a movement prefigured in the late 1800s by such artists as Joseph Crawhall II and the Beggarstaff Brothers.

Timothy Cole was a traditional wood engraver, executing copies from museum paintings on commission from magazines such as The Century Magazine .


Bewick block 01.jpg
This original wood block by Thomas Bewick is made to type height so it could be used in a letterpress.
Bewick block 02.jpg
The block shown from above. Notice the circular area marking damaged and repaired wood on the left next to the figure of a man.
Bewick block 03.jpg
A print made from the block. The repaired circular area is visible on the right between the man and the dog.

Wood engraving blocks are typically made of boxwood or other hardwoods such as lemonwood or cherry. They are expensive to purchase because end-grain wood must be a section through the trunk or large bough of a tree. Some modern wood engravers use substitutes made of PVC or resin, mounted on MDF, which produce similarly detailed results of a slightly different character.

The block is manipulated on a "sandbag" (a sand-filled circular leather cushion). This helps the engraver produce curved or undulating lines with minimal manipulation of the cutting tool.

Wood engravers use a range of specialized tools. The lozenge graver is similar to the burin used by copper engravers of Bewick's day, and comes in different sizes. Various sizes of V-shaped graver are used for hatching. Other, more flexible, tools include the spitsticker, for fine undulating lines; the round scorper for curved textures; and the flat scorper for clearing larger areas.

Wood engraving is generally a black-and-white technique. However, a handful of wood engravers also work in colour, using three or four blocks of primary colours—in a way parallel to the four-colour process in modern printing. To do this, the printmaker must register the blocks (make sure they print in exactly the same place on the page). Recently, engravers have begun to use lasers to engrave wood.

Engraving for Dante's Paradise (Paradiso) by Dore Gustave Dore XIV.jpg
Engraving for Dante's Paradise (Paradiso) by Doré
Don Quijote engraving by Paul Gustave Louis Christophe Dore Paul Gustave Louis Christophe Dore III.jpg
Don Quijote engraving by Paul Gustave Louis Christophe Doré
Another Don Quijote engraving by Dore, who preferred to work with wood engravings. Paul Gustave Louis Christophe Dore V.jpg
Another Don Quijote engraving by Doré, who preferred to work with wood engravings.

Notable wood engravers

See also

Related Research Articles

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.

Woodcut Relief printing technique

Woodcut is a relief printing technique in printmaking. An artist carves an image into the surface of a block of wood—typically with gouges—leaving the printing parts level with the surface while removing the non-printing parts. Areas that the artist cuts away carry no ink, while characters or images at surface level carry the ink to produce the print. The block is cut along the wood grain. The surface is covered with ink by rolling over the surface with an ink-covered roller (brayer), leaving ink upon the flat surface but not in the non-printing areas.

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.

Thomas Bewick English engraver and natural history author (1753–1828)

Thomas Bewick was an English wood-engraver and natural history author. Early in his career he took on all kinds of work such as engraving cutlery, making the wood blocks for advertisements, and illustrating children's books. He gradually turned to illustrating, writing and publishing his own books, gaining an adult audience for the fine illustrations in A History of Quadrupeds.

Gwendolen Mary "Gwen" Raverat, was an English wood engraver who was a founder member of the Society of Wood Engravers. Her memoir Period Piece was published in 1952.

Society of Wood Engravers

The Society of Wood Engravers (SWE) is a UK-based artists’ exhibiting society, formed in 1920, one of its founder-members being Eric Gill. It was originally restricted to artist-engravers printing with oil-based inks in a press, distinct from the separate discipline of woodcuts. Today, its support extends to other forms of relief printmaking, and awards honorary membership to collectors and enthusiasts.

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.

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.

Steel engraving

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. The new technique only partially replaced the other commercial techniques of that time such as wood engraving, copper engraving and later lithography.

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.

Edmund Evans British wood engraver and printer

Edmund Evans was an English wood-engraver and colour printer during the Victorian era. Evans specialized in full-colour printing, which, in part because of his work, became popular in the mid-19th century. He employed and collaborated with illustrators such as Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway and Richard Doyle to produce what are now considered to be classic children's books. Although little is known about his life, he wrote a short autobiography before his death in 1905 in which he described his life as a printer in Victorian London.

Noel Rooke (1881–1953) was a British wood-engraver and artist. His ideas and teaching made a major contribution to the revival of British wood-engraving in the twentieth century.

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.

E. M. O'R. Dickey was a wood engraver who was active at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was a founder member of the Society of Wood Engravers.

<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.

The multiple lining tool is a burin chisel used in engraving with multiple cutting blades for making parallel lines to create a hatching effect.

James Bostock (painter) British painter

James Bostock was a British painter. His work was part of the painting event in the art competition at the 1948 Summer Olympics.


  1. "Thomas Bewick 1753 - 1828". Tate Online. Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  2. 1 2 3 Richter, Emil Heinrich (1914). Prints : a brief review of their technique and history. Boston: Houghton. pp. 114–115, 118–119.
  3. Thomas Balston, English Wood-Engraving, 1900-1950 (London: Art & Technics, 1951), p. 4.
  4. Fuller, Sarah E. (1867). A Manual of Instruction in the Art of Wood Engraving. Boston: J. Watson. pp. 6–9.
  5. Emerson, William Andrew (1876). Practical Instruction in the Art of Wood Engraving. East Douglass, Mass.: C.J. Batcheller. pp. 51–52.


Hamerton, Philip; Spielmann, Marion (1911). "Wood Engraving"  . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica . 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 798–801.