"Well at least this is how I do it"
A personal approach by Andy English
Including photographs of some parts of the process.
Please note that a new, more highly illustrated, version of this section is being constructed on my new website: www.andyenglish.com
Wood engravings are a form of relief printmaking. They start as a block of wood that would make a solid shape if printed. Areas of wood are cut away to leave the final image. Two other common types of relief printmaking are the woodcut and linoprint. It is a very old form of printmaking and you can read something of its history in this page of the Wood Engravers Network site. Now where do we start?
Almost all engravings will start with a drawing. Mine often start with sketchbook drawings and it is a good idea to have some kind of reference to work from. Some people will do this very carefully and others, like myself, will plan the main elements and then have the freedom to develop other ideas as they go along.
The main thing to remember is that the image you cut on the block is the reverse of the final print. This is very important for architectural and similar subjects which must appear the right way round in the print, but you don't always have to worry about it. I often make my preparatory drawings on film so that I can look at them from both sides. Other drawings are photocopied onto acetate so that I can work from the reverse side. Now you need to get a block. All materials mentioned on this page can be purchased here.
The wood engraving block is cut across the end grain of the block. In this they differ from the side grain blocks made for woodcuts. The depth of the block is normally "type high" and links wood-engraving to its history of illustration, when blocks and type would have been set together to print a page.
The traditional wood used for wood engraving is boxwood (Buxus sempervirens). Alternatives are lemonwood or "degame", named after its colour rather than being the tree of the lemon, holly or pear. The wood has to be capable of coping with the finely detailed work of some engravers. I enjoy using boxwood and have a few branches in my studio to make my own blocks from time to time. I normally use lemonwood.
Preparing the Block for Engraving
Different engravers definitely have their own preferences here. Some draw in ink on the natural wood surface of the block . Others cover the block in a grey watercolour wash and draw on this in pencil. I prefer to darken the surface of the block by wiping it with a piece of soft cloth dipped in fountain pen ink, usually "Quink" black ink. This is left to dry thoroughly and then I use pencil to make marks on the block.
Sometimes I square up the block to transfer the drawing accurately. Occasionally I use tracing film to place the main elements of the design and then add the rest freehand; often I will work freehand throughout. I never make very detailed marks on the block - just the minimum. I find that this helps me make a more lively engraving. Now we need some tools.
The Engraving Tools
Wood Engraving tool developed from metal engraving tools. I use about a dozen different tools in all, but for most of my work I stick to four or five favourites. They have wonderful names. These vary from place to place but this is what I call them:
The SPITSTICKER is my main drawing tool, especially for curved lines. I have two widths, narrow and medium. I also use them for stippling - making small round marks.
The SCORPER cuts straight lines and is good for clearing out areas of white. I use three different widths of these to vary the texture of my cuts.
The TINT TOOL is good for cutting thin parallel lines.
The LOZENGE GRAVER cuts lines on varying width.
The MULTIPLE TOOL cuts several parallel lines at once. I have one but do not use it much at the moment.
A typical spitsticker looks like this:
The mushroom shaped handle sits neatly into the palm of the hand and the 'blade' is held between thumb and forefinger. The tool is held at a very low angle to the block when the cut is made. It is very easy for the tool to slip and make a mistaken mark that is nearly impossible to deal with so part of the 'free' hand (which is actually holding the block) can be used as a 'stop' to prevent this.
The block is usually rested on a sandbag - a leather bag stuffed with sand. I made my own but I find that a thick book can work nearly as well. When engraving curves, it is the block that is rotated as the tool pushes forwards.
There is nothing 'sketchy' about the engraving process. It is important that each mark is a deliberate and considered cut. I normally try to make sure that I make a variety of cuts - lines, stipples, cross-hatching etc. - to give varied textures in the print. As with many forms of art, it is difficult to know exactly when to stop. It is best to finish sooner rather than later - you can always go back and engrave more but you can't go back if you have cut too much! Click here to see an engraved block ready for printing.
You can also click here to see a sequence of photographs of a block being engraved and prepared for printing.
Inking the Block and taking a Proof
Having started with a number of small and rather unsatisfactory rollers (or brayers) I bought a more substantial one and it made a considerable difference. It has a brass frame, a wooden handle and a 64mm treothene roller. It is a delight to look at, handle and use. I use a black linseed oil-based ink which I spread across a glass slab. This is then rolled out thinly until it has a velvety look - "like a mole's tummy". At this point, the roller moves across the ink with a very faint hiss.
I take the loaded roller and roll ink onto the block from several directions. A lot of this is trial and error and you have to experiment to get it right. Too much ink clogs up the fine lines and not enough ink gives an unsatisfactory print. I then take a piece of thin paper and place it over the block. I take a smooth wooden tool and "burnish" the back of the paper - that is I carefully but firmly rub it until the design has been transferred to the paper. The sheet is carefully pulled from the block and the print is seen for the first time. This can be a moment of elation or despair! Careful examination of this print will help you plan any more engraving that is needed.
Burnishing a print in the way described above requires a thin and strong paper. I use a variety of Japanese papers for this. My paper of choice for the Vandercook proof press is a very smooth paper made by Zerkall. I do like a nice thick paper for printing in the platen press and I use a smooth but heavy Somerset watercolour paper. This is very much a question of personal preference and it is a good idea to keep trying new papers. I try to buy a single sheet of something new to me every time I go to my supplier.
In the past, my larger prints were burnished by hand and the smaller ones are printed in a small Victorian platen press that somebody was selling by the side of the road about five years ago! More recently, I have recently bought a Vandercook No. 01 Proof Press and I have seen a great improvement in the quality of my prints. I use this press for almost all of my work.
This is my guarantee that the collector is buying a limited edition print. I check each print and, if I am satisfied with its quality, I use a sharp pencil to sign it, write the title and number it below the image. I normally print an edition of 100 prints. In addition, I make 10 artist's proofs. I can sell these, give them to friends or give them to be sold in aid of charity. When the edition is complete, one is supposed to deface the block so that it cannot be used again. I cannot bring myself to do this and just set the block aside in my archives.
If you have any questions about wood engraving, I will be happy to try to answer them. You must be patient, however, as I am a very very busy person. Contact me here.