What is wood engraving?
Wood engraving is a relief process similar to lino-cutting but cut with very fine tools working on densely fibred end grain boxwood which has been polished to a glass-like finish allowing fine detail to be rendered. Hence the term “engraving” as distinct from wood “cut” which is done on the side grain or plank of the wood with chisels or other large tools.
However boxwood, often nowadays, is replaced by a synthetic resin or plastic substitute. No matter if a modern substitute for wood is used the technique, and resulting character of the medium, is essentially the same so that, unless it is stated, it is almost impossible to tell from looking at a print which material is used. The term “wood engraving” therefore refers to the technique rather than the material.
The technique involves cutting in the negative so that the cuts will appear white and what is left of the uncut surface will appear black as the ink is transferred from the surface of the block to the paper. The essential beauty of the medium rests in the artist’s ingenuity to duplicate shades of grey with a great variety of cuts, always aiming to make a clear crisp image where all parts of the design can be clearly seen against each other. The process itself is simple. The complexity lies in planning ahead to make a lively and coherent image.
Printing is done painstakingly one print at a time, to ensure these subtle tones “read” as well as retaining rich velvety blacks. The finished block is charged with a thin layer of ink. Pressure is applied to transfer the image on the inked block to a piece of paper laid on top of it. This is done sometimes by simply burnishing on the reverse of the paper with a spoon, or, with larger prints an albion or similar platen press is needed.