Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Woodcuts & Wood engravings

Both woodcuts and wood engravings entail creating a relief image on a block of wood by cutting away the parts that are not to hold ink. The design is usually drawn directly onto the block and then all other parts are cut away. In a woodcut (illustrated below on left)the image is cut from the block parallel to the grain using a knife or a pointed tool called a graver. In a wood engraving (illustrated below on right) the image is cut using a graver on the end of the grain.

Because these processes print in relief, they can be printed on the same press as typeface. Because of this, early on wood cuts were often used to illustrate books. In the nineteenth century, wood engravings were used to illustrate newspapers such as Harper's Weekly.

Woodcuts were introduced to Europe in the early fifteenth century (the earliest European woodcut is the “Brussels Madonna” of 1418), but were executed in the Orient as early as the ninth century. The use of woodcuts was spread by the inventions of moveable type and of the printing press in the 1450s. Wood engraving was developed in England in the early eighteenth century, firmly established in Europe by Thomas Bewick at the end of that century, and popularized in America during the Civil War.


  1. Hi, I am trying to decide whether or not to acquire an engraving that has been offered to me. The print is dated 1887 which corresponds with the time period the engravers were in business (the engravers names are noted on the print). Prior to 1887 as far back as 1877 the same engraving was used for the cover of the book it is advertising. The large 1887 engraving is almost identical to the small book cover except for a couple of minor differences. My question is, was there a way to "enlarge" an engraving / print in the late 1880's without creating a completely new engraving from scratch? The seller seems to think that the engraving / poster may not have been created until the early 1900's partially because of the subtle differences in it and the book it advertised. My thought was that if they had to create a new larger engraving (in 1887) in order to print the larger poster the slight differences may have occurred then. If someone wanted to enlarge the book cover in the early 1900's couldn't they just print a copy via some other method without creating a completely new engraving? If so I think that would have eliminated the slight differences in the two engravings. I hope this makes sense.
    thank you,

  2. Sounds very interesting. There were ways to enlarge prints in the 1880s, but why would there then be differences in the images? They certainly could have made a new engraving, though remember if it is a woodcut/ wood engraving there is a limit to how large it could be. The wood blocks and printing presses had a limit to size... Without seeing it I cannot say anything really helpful, but it does sound interesting.