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Engraving: Wood, Copper, Steel

Line engraving developed from the goldsmith’s art and is a process of considerable antiquity. With the invention of the Guttenberg Printing Press in the 1450’s the initial primitive relief-woodblocks were replaced with the intricacy of engraving into wood, then the more durable metal, copper. Wood remained a primary material into the late 1800’s as it was the most easily procurable material which could be planed off and re-engraved until it was too thin and only good for the kindling.  In our past much could be repurposed. The Italian master engravers were celebrated proficients of the 1500's but a German, Albrecht Durer, has matched their fame.

Before 1820 a plate, generally copper, was used and a design cut into it by a “burin”, or “graver. The lines then became a receptacle for the ink applied to the block in readiness for printing. This engraved process is known as Intaglio. The paper was laid on the block and pressure applied through a printing press to push the paper into the grooves to create a black and white image. A Metal plate engraving was a laborious, highly trained process. The term "platemark" refers to the impression left by the size of the smaller metal plate from whence the image was taken. The paper was traditonally dampened to enable it to be pressed into the grooves to take up the ink. This made the paper more malleable, hence the tell tail impression of the "Platemark".

After the 1820’s a harder metal was sought due to the increased demands being made on the printing presses, hence demand for durability of the printers surface. This increase in demand was a direct consequence of the Industrial Revolution  creating a more affluent middle merchant class.  Inventing more efficient printing technology was essential to keep with demand. The result was the introduction of the harder metal, Steel. Wood and copper were intrinsically soft and could not sustain the repeated pressure that the new demand. Steel was harder, however the engravers skill changed also as it demanded a more detailed approach.  

 


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