The woodblock printing process directly evolved from cylinder seal technology, an ancient technique that was developed as far back as 3500 BCE for imprinting characters or scenes in clay tablet. The earliest examples of flat-surfaced reliefs being imprinted on parchment with ink date from 220 AD and were found in the Far East and originating in China. Today, most people will not encounter traditional wood engravings in their daily lives but all around us exist text and images that are created through processes that have evolved from the this technique.
So how is this ancient printing process performed? Well, the technology is actually similar to the rubber stamp and ink pad that may be sitting on your desk except the techniques used to make the rubber stamp evolved from a later technique called woodcutting. The difference between woodcutting and wood engraving lies in the cuts that are used; woodcuts using the end grain of the wood and wood engravings cutting along the grain. There are a number of materials and tools required for wood engraving including:
There are a number of woods that can be used for engraving the reliefs, these include mainly hardwoods such as mahogany, poplar, ash, birch and apple. That being said, soft woods are able to be used if they are of superior quality, consistent thickness, even flatness, and free of voids, knots and impurities. These traits will ensure that the artist will not run into any problems during his engraving but it will also ensure that the wood will hold up against damage that may be cause by the weight of the press. Remember that in this process the wood is engraved along the grain as opposed to the woodcut technique which uses the end-grain.
Once the wood is selected and processed correctly into the right size and cut, the artist can commence his engraving. First he will make a blueprint of his work either directly on the wood itself with a pencil and ink or onto a transferable paper medium which is then pressed against the engraving area. When this is complete the artist can begin his relief engraving, removing the negative space to leave behind the positive impression. He does this using marking knives, gouges, v-tools and line-tools. Generally it is much easier to engrave end-grains than it is to engrave along the grain therefore you will generally see woodcut prints with more ornate details and workings.
After the desired image is engraved into the wood an ink ball is used to apply the ink, this tool would have originally be made with stuffed leather and would be applied through a dabbing motion. Today it is more common to use contemporary ink rollers called brayers made of rubber or sponge to apply the ink. The inks that are used now come in a range of colours where before printers were restricted to pigments of black and red. The type of ink used today is titled “relief ink” and is usually a safe-wash linseed oil based medium that will dry very slowly to allow time before the pressing process.
When the ink is fully applied the artist might choose to take a proof with a lesser quality paper to check for any changes that might have to be made. After the quality of the craving and colouring is confirmed a high-quality paper is used to transfer the image. This paper is chosen for its consistency, absorbency, pH balance, thickness, colour and other qualities. Depending on the amount of ink used as well as the depth of the relief, type of ink used, type of paper used and size of print, the paper might be able to be pressed against the engraving with a baren or a spoon. If not, the printer might opt to use plywood and a series of sandbags to weigh down the paper, or, use a sandwich-like vice technique.Finally, after drying the image is ready to be cropped, glossed to the artist’s discretion.
Written by: Nathan Paul Hansen
Nathan is a freelance writer specializing in art business. He has a BA in Art History from Concordia University and is currently working towards his MA in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art.