The Art of Wood Engravings
From Tree to Printed Page

The art of wood engraving was in its height in quality from the early 1800's until about the 1880's. During this time period, this method was the only way to illustrate a book or newspaper. Printing technology hadn't been developed to reproduce actual photographs on an inexpensive, mass produced basis. Most illustrations in books, magazines, or newspapers during this time was the result of a wood engraving. (Steel engravings came into being at the end of this time period.) This article will deal with just how wood engravings were made -- from tree to printing press. The wood used to make an engraving had to be carefully selected. The best wood for this purpose came from a Box tree (not to be confused with a Box Elder tree). English Box wood is the best as well as African. Many also used American Box which grew in Ohio, Indiana, and Northern Kentucky. This wood was especially suited for fine line carving in that it was soft enough that small splinters wouldn't break off in the process.

In addition to being limited to using Box wood, the individual logs had to be carefully selected. As many are aware, a tree trunk has rings that correspond to the age of the tree. These rings may be unevenly spaced due to climate changes from season to season. To work best for engravings, it was important that these rings be as evenly spaced as possible -- uneven spaces meant unequal ink penetration from ring to ring when the engraving was printed. This would leave the appearance of too much ink in one spot and not enough in another.

A uniform color of yellow from the outside rim to the interior was also critical. Uneven coloring meant unequal hardness or softness of the wood itself. This made it difficult, if not impossible, to make a uniformly engraved line.

As you can see, selecting the exact piece to make the best engraving was an art in itself.

There is another important factor in the use of Box wood for engravings. Box trees only grow to a mature height of about 15 feet with the trunk reaching a maximum of 6 inches or so. The trunk, being the largest portion, was used for making engravings. The trunk was cut into individual blocks for carving. Even using trunk portion, one slice wasn't large enough to do an engraving larger than 5 inches square. To make a larger engraving, several pieces were banded together -- much like a checkerboard. This iron band was looped around the outside edge and tightened to hold them together. (Close examination of some engravings will reveal some checker boarding and one can see the individual blocks.) After the blocks were bound together the surface was sanded to make it smooth and uniform in height.

There were many additional elements to consider before the block was ready to draw and engrave on. Keep in mind that in those days electricity was nonexistent. Thus, large lamps such as kerosene were used for light. This in itself created two problems. (1) Since an engraving would take dozens upon dozens of hours to complete, and the lamp needed to be very close to the wood, the heat from a single lamp could shrink or warp the block. (2) The light given off from one of the lamps would be extremely bright and glaring at close range. To solve these two problems, a globe filled with water was placed between the lamp and the engraving block. The water not only provided somewhere else for the heat to go, but it also helped diffuse the light cast by the lamp. To help protect the eyes from the light at such a close range, a visor was worn by the engraver.

Since the moisture from an engravers' breath could also affect the block of wood, a face mask was used to cover their mouth when working at close range. With these preparations completed, the engraver now had one more step to perform before the wood was ready to draw on.

Before drawing on the wood, it had to be coated with India ink. This was so that as the engraver made the grooves into the wood, the original yellowish color showed where the thin slice of wood had been removed. This, of course, provided a means to see how the print would actually look when printed. At this stage the wood was ready to drawn upon.

When the engraver drew on the wood they would only make a basic outline of each figure or item in the drawing. Fine line details like eyes, mouth, fingers, or textures were left out at this stage. These drawings had to be done backwards to how the artist wanted it to appear in print. For example, if the tradesman wanted a certain figure on the right side on the finished engraving, the artist had to draw and engrave it on the left side of the original. (Any printing plate or engravers block appears backwards to the eye.)

After finishing the basic drawing, the artist would hand rub a special mixture into the wood. This mixture was brick-bath. This was made from bricks that had been ground down into a fine powder. The purpose for this rubbing was that by doing so the pencil marks would shine in the light and become more visible. Also, the mixture helped to provide a shield which protected the wood from any perspiration on the engravers hands.

The last stage was to remove the iron hoop that held the blocks together. This was so that more than one engraver could work on the engraving at the same time. Some engravers specialized in people, some in water texture, others in sky, and so forth. At this point the wood was ready to begin engraving or carving upon.

As complicated as engravings were to make, there were only four basic types of engraving tools needed. The names of these tools were gravers, tint-tools, gouges, and flat chisels. Each came in various sizes.

The graver was used to make outlines or to separate figures from one another. They were used for all delicate carving except where a series of parallel lines were going to be used. Parallel lines were called "tints".

Tint-tools were chiefly used to cut parallel lines which enabled the engraver to show a tint or shade of gray. The difference between the cut that a graver made and one that a tint-tool made was in the shape of the grove. A graver cut a V shaped line while the tint-tool carved a grove that was equal in width at the top and bottom. It was this difference that made the lines appear as shades of gray rather than a series of lines. The closer together the lines were, the darker the tint appeared.

Some examples of the use of the tint-tool are as follows: Equally spaced cuts were made to represent clear skies or calm water. To show shadowing of an object, the lines follow the curve of the figure or object.

A gouger was used to remove larger areas that the engraver wanted to be white (or unprinted). One example of this technique was an engraving that was not "framed" on the page -- that is no border.

The last stage was to reunite the individual blocks of wood in the iron hoop and tighten. If any text was to be used (such as the tile of the work). In many cases, the engravings were not signed since so many people worked on it. Exceptions were those done entirely be one engraver -- such as Thomas Nast, Winslow Homer, and Frederick Remington.