Wood engraving is a relief printmaking technique, like linocut or potato-printing. It’s not the easiest technique to get the hang of, but it’s a very versatile medium, and because the wood used is resilient, it is possible to run off a nearly unlimited number of prints. This makes it the perfect medium for creating Christmas or greetings cards; once the block has been cut, it can be used year-on-year.
Before I begin, a disclaimer. Wood engraving is a complex process – far too complex to tackle in a single blog post. I will only cover the basics: what tools you will need; how to darken the block; how to use the tools; and how to print by hand. Interested readers might want to read the instructional manual “Wood Engraving & Linocutting” by Anne Hayward, which I reviewed for the Jackson’s Blog last year, or Simon Brett’s book, ‘Wood Engraving: How to Do It’. These books (or any of the manuals published in the early- or mid-Twentieth century) will give a fuller introduction than is possible here.
What is a wood engraving?
Wood engraving is a relief printmaking process, like linocutting or potato-printing. It is not a sculptural process.
Wood engravings are created when an artist uses engraving tools (also called ‘burins’) to make incisions on the surface of an endgrain woodblock. When the woodblock is inked with a roller, these recessed incisions do not receive ink. The image is then printed onto paper by hand or in a press. The incisions show up the colour of the paper in the final print (generally white, or off-white). Areas where the flat surface of the block has been left intact will show up the colour of the ink (generally black).
Endgrain woodblocks have been cut perpendicular to the direction of growth; they show rings rather than grain. This results in a dense, even surface which can hold fine detail.
What you will need to create your own wood engraving:
- A woodblock. Jackson’s stock two sizes of end-grain wood engraving blocks. They are made from Lemonwood, a slow-growing hardwood which is widely used by wood engravers. (It’s not the wood of a lemon tree).
- Some engraving tools. I will explain which tools below.
- Some black oil-based relief ink. Do not use water-based relief inks, because they will soak into your woodblock. This will open the grain and may cause the block to warp. Water-mixable oil-based inks such as Caligo Safewash are fine, but if you’re using a water-mixable oil-based ink, you should use a rag dipped in solvent to remove it from the woodblock, not water. Jackson’s also stock Speedball Professional Relief Inks, which are perfect.
- A solvent, to remove oil-based inks from the woodblock after you’ve finished printing. I use Turpentine (you won’t need much).
- A rag, to apply the solvent to the woodblock.
- A spoon, to burnish your print.
- A roller. You could use a linocut roller, though a PVC roller would be preferable.
- Some paper to plan your design on. Any fine art paper or cartridge paper will do.
- Some paper to print on. Nothing too rough or too thin; I used Arches Velin Printmaking Paper. (Thin paper is normally great for printing by hand, but in this case we need a paper which won’t just collapse when folded into a card and placed on a mantlepiece.)
A Short Guide to Wood Engraving Tools: Which Should I Buy First?
Wood engraving tools are properly called ‘burins’. They consist of a metal shank which is mounted on a wooden handle shaped like a mushroom. This stock is designed to fit in the engraver’s palm.
The most commonly-used tools are as follows (images are shown below):
- Lozenge Gravers have a shaft with a lozenge-shaped cross-section. They have a lozenge-shaped face and an extremely sharp tip. Because lozenge gravers are very sharp, wood engravers use them to create fine lines. The width of the line is dependent on the pressure used, and it is possible to create a flowing line which widens and contracts (though Square Gravers will create lines which vary in width more dramatically.) As well as line work, it is possible to produce short stabs which widen from a sharp point, or to lighten areas by stippling: repeatedly pecking at the wood with the tip of the tool, so that the surface bears a carpet of tiny incisions. Because of the shape of this tool, these incisions will look like scratches, not dots.
- Square Gravers have a shaft with a square cross-section. They have a diamond-shaped face and a sharp tip. They are particularly useful for cutting thin lines which swell dramatically. Because the width of the line is dependent on the pressure used, it is possible to create a flowing line which widens and contracts, or to make short stabs which widen from a sharp point. Square Gravers are also useful when lightening areas of a block by stippling: repeatedly pecking at the wood with the tip of the tool, so that the surface bears a carpet of tiny incisions. Because of the shape of this tool, these incisions will have slightly sharp edges; engravers wishing to stipple a surface with round dots would be better off using a small Round Scorper.
- Tint Tools are designed for cutting straight lines of a constant width. The trade engravers of the Nineteenth century referred to a series of parallel lines as a ‘tint’. They used tints to depict colour and form; by varying the width and spacing of the lines that made up their tints, they were able to attain a sophisticated range of mid-tones, between the white of the paper and the black of the ink. These tools are quite difficult to use well and cannot cut curved lines, so they wouldn’t be a good first purchase.
- Spitstickers have curved sides and a pointed tip. They are useful for drawing long, fluid lines which curve gracefully, and which taper away rather than terminating in a flat or round edge (like lines drawn with a scorper). Used lightly, a spitsticker will score a thin line; the line will swell if the tool is engaged further into the wood.
- Scorpers are useful for drawing bold lines or big dots, and for clearing away large areas of the block. They come in two varieties: Square and Round. Square Scorpers have a strait-sided shaft and a flat tip. They are used to cut a line of a constant width. Because the tip of the cutting face is completely flat, lines cut with this tool will begin and end abruptly, with a square edge. They will not swell or taper, like lines made with a spitsticker or a graver might; nor will they be rounded at the ends, like cuts made with a Round Scorper (which has a U-shaped tip).
Every engraver seems to have a different selection of three tools which they would recommend purchasing first. My basic toolkit would include a medium Round Scorper, a fine Square Graver and a medium Spitsticker. If you think you will want to work in fine detail, perhaps replace the Medium Spitsticker with a Fine Spitsticker.
Darkening Your Woodblock
Before you begin engraving, you will need to darken your woodblock so that you can see the cuts as you make them.
I am going to use Indian Ink for this purpose. Ideally, you would avoid putting water-based ink on the surface of a woodblock, but it takes a long time for oil paint or printing ink to dry and Indian Ink is easier to use and clean away. Jackson’s Indian Ink comes in small bottles and works as well as any I have used for this purpose.
Do not use dyes such as Dr Ph Martin’s Watercolour Ink to darken your woodblock. Instead of drying on the surface, they will sink down into the wood, staining it. If this happens then your cuts won’t show up. (You can rub talc into the cuts as you go, but that’s a messy and imperfect solution).
- Take a mop, hake or flat brush – I used a Raven Mop Brush – and dip it into the Indian Ink. You don’t need it to be heavily loaded with ink, so brush the excess onto the lip of the bottle.
- Work methodically from the top of the woodblock down towards you. Try to achieve even coverage without flooding the block with ink.
- Carry on until the surface of the woodblock is an even black. Don’t work too slowly, or the ink will have dried in certain areas before you are finished.
Designing and Cutting Wood Engravings
Ideally, when designing a wood engraving, you will want to make sure your design has a mixture of light areas (where the surface of the block has largely been cleared), dark areas (where it’s been left untouched) and mid-tones. Mid-tones can be achieved in a number of ways. Many engravers use thinly-spaced parallel lines of different widths to indicate flat surfaces; the thicker the lines, the lighter the tone. Another option is to cover the area in stippled dots; the more dots, and the larger the dots, the lighter the area.
For my card, I decided to engrave a Christmas cactus in a decorated pot. If you are planning a figurative engraving, try to make sure that you note how and where the light falls on your 3-dimensional object. In order to give the viewer a sense of the 3D nature of your subject (if that’s what you want), you will need to indicate lighter or darker areas, as well as the patterns and textures of the surface. In my case, I had a pattern of white curlicues running round the dark pot; these were engraved with a lozenge graver, and I took care to deepen the line in places where the pattern would catch the light. I also stippled these areas to bring them forward into the light a bit.
It can be very difficult working out how to give a sense of the fall of light on an object as well as the texture or tone of the surface when you only have white and black at your disposal, but that’s the fun of the medium. If you need some inspiration, why not take a look at this elaborate advent-themed concertina by Mary Adshead and Stephen Bone, these more traditional designs by used by John Farleigh, and this piece made for the Redfern Press by Eric Ravilious.
A couple of helpful points to consider:
- Your drawing will be reversed when you print it, so draw (and write, if you’re including text) in reverse
- Designs composed of thin black lines with large areas of white are tiresome to engrave and can be difficult to print by hand
- Woodblock are expensive, so if you have a couple of designs, do think carefully about which one will fit your block better
Once you have finished designing your engraving, you will need to transfer it to your block. You can either do this by simply copying the reversed design straight onto the surface of the block, using any drawing implement which will show up on the blackened surface (a soft pencil normally works, though it can get smudged during the engraving process.) Another option is to place the drawing over the block and trace the design through using transfer paper or carbon paper. If you do decide to draw through your design, use a sharp pencil, but don’t press down too hard or you may damage the surface of your woodblock.
Once you have transferred your design, in reverse, onto your block, place it onto a stack of books. This is necessary because to cut a curved line, you will need to rotate the block with your free hand. Without a pile of books (or a leather sandbag, as shown in the photos) you will find it difficult to turn the block freely and will run the risk of burying an extremely sharp tool into your free hand.
Hold the tool as shown above and push it gently over the surface so that it begins to lift a curl of wood off the block. This will feel more natural with practice. You shouldn’t have to push down to get the tool to cut – you should only have to push it forward. However, do be aware that if the tool you are using is a spitsticker, a graver or a round scorper, it will cut a deeper line when engaged further into the surface of the block.
A couple of points to consider when cutting your engraving:
- Have a good long think before you make any cut; remember you can’t erase the marks
- You do not have to engrave your design deeply into the surface of the wood; cuts of less than a millimetre deep will show up nicely
- If you are clearing a large area of white, draw around the edge of the white area then use your largest tool to ‘scoop out’ the middle; this will take less time and is less arduous
Rolling Out Ink and Printing
Once you have finished cutting your design, you will need to roll out your relief ink on a glass or perspex slab.
Use a palette knife or some other implement to transfer a line of ink onto the slab. Only use a small amount of ink at first. Treat it like Marmite; you can always add more later if you need to.
Roll the ink into a square, lifting the roller between each stroke. The ink will be tacky and you should start to hear a hiss. If you can’t hear that then you may have used the wrong ink, or too much of it.
Roll the ink over your design, taking care not to let the roller slip or to smear it over the surface of the block. (This shouldn’t be too much trouble as the ink will make the roller very tacky.) Three or four passes with a lightly-inked roller should be enough for the first print, one or two between subsequent impressions.
Place your already-folded card firmly and decisively onto the block. The key thing is to place it vertically so as to avoid smudging. My technique is to place a thumb or finger on the inside of the card about where I want the centre of the design to be. I then press down through the paper onto the block.
Work over each area of your design with the spoon, pressing very firmly and passing each area several times. You should try to leave at least a thumb or finger in place at all times, pinning the paper to the raised area of the block, otherwise the movement of the spoon will cause the paper to move, wrecking your print.
Once you think you’re done, tilt your head and look at the paper in an oblique or raking light; you should be able to see the design on the inside of the card, lightly embossed. The effect will be easier to see with thin Japanese papers or dampened paper.
Tips for printing:
- If you are using a reasonably thick paper, you will get better results if you dampen it before printing. This allows the fibres to soften
- Always keep at least one finger in place, pinning the paper to the raised area of the block. You’ll have to move your finger from this area in order to burnish it properly
- Try not to slip off the edge of the block or to burnish areas of white; you’ll crush the surface of the card if you do this