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Excerpt from Interpretive Wood-Engraving

February 13, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Interpretive Wood-Engraving: The Story of the Society of American Wood-Engravers  by William H. Brandt reveals a wonderful history of the lost art of interpretive wood-engraving. It provides a history of the Society of American Wood-Engravers and profiles many leading personalities of American wood-engraving. Take a look at this excerpt from the book that reveals the skill and craftsmanship required of wood-engraving.

 Members of the Society of American Wood-Engravers made many of the first-rate wood-engravings that appeared in Harper’s and The Century magazines. In his text for the Society’s 1887 portfolio, New York Sun publisher and art connoisseur William Laffan claimed that American wood-engravings had become so fine and delicate, and displayed such subtle tints, that Europeans could not print them. Nevertheless, Harper’s and The Century printed them regularly and printed them well.

American pressmen, led by New York printer Theodore DeVinne, overcame the difficulties of printing these beautiful and delicate illustrations by a remarkable combination of judgment, ingenuity, and diligence. They invented many improvements in presses, paper, and ink.

The difficulties of printing first-rate wood-engravings arose from several causes. First, it was necessary to apply greatly different amounts of pressure to different parts of the engravings. Second, edition sizes of these popular magazines had increased to more than a hundred thousand per monthly issue. And, finally adequate presses, paper, and ink did not exist.

Everything about the printing had to be brought up to higher standards. Fortunately, the main ingredients necessary—determination and skill—were present in good measure. Further, Americans did not feel limited by traditions and customs. The following pages discuss how advances in technology and procedures allowed American pressmen to successfully print the excellent American wood-engravings for Harper’s and The Century magazines.

Several preliminary steps were necessary: proofing, electrotyping, overlaying, and making ready. Then, using the improvements invented by Americans in presses, paper, and ink, American pressmen made high-quality impressions in quantity.


As the engraver worked, he would—from time to time—put ink on a part or all of a block, lay paper over it, and rub it with a burnisher, spoon, or finger to see what his work might look like when printed. This procedure helped the engraver visualize the product of his patient labors, which would be printed in reverse. Adding to the difficulty, he worked on a wood block, which was cut with white lines rather than black lines as were etchings or metal engravings, and thus lacked contract with which to see the engraved design.

When they were satisfied with a block, many prominent engravers would have the final proofs made by John (J.C.) Bauer of New York City. Bauer ran a professional proofing shop and made proofs with hand presses on tissue-thin Japanese paper. “Japan,” as the engravers called it, became available after about 1870 and was much admired by wood-engravers because on this substrate even their most delicate tints showed up clearly. It was thin but strong, and so light in weight that a breath would life it. Japan tissue was often mounted on stiffer paper, usually by tacking the corners with a tiny bit of adhesive, such as bum Arabic.

Bauer made as many such proofs as the engraver ordered. These proofs, many of them signed in pencil, might go to collectors or museums or to other engravers. Kingsley complained that so many of these proofs were picked up by fellow engravers that sometimes there were hardly any proofs left for the engraver himself.

These Japan proofs cost the wood-engraver one dollar per proof for printing and were used to present a finished illustration to the art director of the intended magazine. The wood-engravings were then electrotyped, after which the magazine’s own printing department would make proofs. These new proofs were compared to the engraver’s proofs on Japan and were used in preparing overlays for production printing.


Although wood-engraved illustrations were called “wood engravings,” for much of the second half of the nineteenth century they were—except for the proofs—generally printed from electrotyped plates. Illustrations in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and Harper’s Weekly newspaper were printed from electrotypes during the Civil War. The Century and Scribner’s used electrotypes from the 1870s on. The high-quality illustrations in The Aldine were also from electrotypes.

After proofing showed a wood-engraved block to be satisfactory—and the art director had accepted and paid for the illustration—the block would be locked into an iron frame called a “chase,” along with the appropriate type.

The electrotypist poured melted beeswax into a shallow pan and, before it fully solidified, would add a uniform layer of graphite (known as black lead). He also put graphite onto the surface of the block and the type. The chase would then be pressed with great force against the graphite-coated beeswax so as to leave a precise impression on the wax. The graphite, acting as a lubricant, facilitated separation of the block and type from the wax, yet its more important role was to provide an electrically conductive surface, and sometimes more graphite would be added to the surface of the wax after it had been removed from the chase.

The electrotypist then put the wax impression into a bath of copper sulfate in acid, and attached appropriate electrodes, one to the graphite-coated wax and the other to a plate of copper. An electrical current deposited copper atoms from the copper plate onto the graphite-coated wax replica, and after a few hours, the result was a think copper shell that was a precise atom-by-atom replica of the type and the wood-engraving.

Steam or hot water was used to remove the wax from the thin copper shell, which would then be reinforced with type metal—usually an alloy of lead, antimony, and tin—so as to make it strong enough for printing. Because the type alloy would not bond to the copper, a layer of tinfoil was melted onto the copper shell; the melted type metal was then bonded to the tin.

The copper replica of the wood-engraving thus reinforced could withstand the pressures exerted by the printing press. DeVinne said that such an electrotype could produce as many as one hundred thousand impressions. In an 1887 article, “Great American Industries: A Printed Book,” Richard R. Bowker estimated that five hundred thousand could be printed without diminishing the quality of the image.

Overlays and Making Ready

The printing of type was a relatively straightforward process. Pieces of type were of a uniform height, and an even overall pressure would produce a high-quality impression. But printing the wood-engraved illustrations was not so straightforward. Different areas of an image might need to receive quite different amounts of pressure to be well printed. This is how Theodore DeVinne explained it:

“Suppose A B C D to be separate hand stamps engraved on wood. If the surface of the stamped marked D were inked, the moderate pressure of ten pounds would transfer these thin lines to paper. C, having more lines, and offering more resistance, would call for a pressure of twenty pounds or more to insure a good print. B is still blacker, and resists much more, requiring say fifty pounds to force it fairly. A, which is entirely black, could not be smoothly printed with a pressure of less than one hundred pounds—perhaps more.”

During printing, the steel cylinder of a press was covered by a sheet of very smooth, tough, flexible material called a cylinder sheet. Thin pieces of paper could be pasted to the cylinder sheet in order to increase the pressure exerted on the paper as it passed between the cylinder and the inked electrotype. These pieces of paper had to be cut to size and affixed in exactly the right place in order to achieve the desired effect. The blacker an image area was, the more thicknesses of paper were required, with six begin the functional maximum; more delicate areas of an image would require fewer or none at all.

In DeVinne’s example above, each of the squares would require a different level of pressure in order to print correctly—one thickness of paper above block D, two thicknesses above block C, three above block B, and four above block A. If they were being printed as a single illustration, the press operator would cut a rectangle of paper that would fit across all four squares; then a smaller rectangle to fit across squares A, B, and C; a yet smaller rectangle for just squares A and B; and a square of paper for square A. He would paste these layers of paper together and then affix them to the cylinder sheet so that, when the cylinder rotated, the added layers of paper would align precisely above their respective blocks.

Both the individual pieces of paper and the combined assembly of all the pieces of paper needed to achieve differential pressures over an entire image were called “overlays.” To construct an overlay, the pressman would first run off several flat prints of the illustration. Then he would carefully make cut-outs and paste them together on top of one another, creating a shallow relief in paper, which, when properly attached to the cylinder sheet, produced greater pressure on darker areas and lesser pressure on lighter areas.

Making an overlay for a complex image required a painstaking and tedious procedure, first to construct the overlay and then to place it in exactly the right position on the cylinder sheet of the press. After the overlay was attached to the cylinder sheet, the electrotype would be inked and a proof pulled; the proof would indicate to the pressman whether the overlay was satisfactory or whether it needed more or fewer layers of appear in any given area. This process of proofing, creating the overlay, attaching it to the cylinder sheet, and proofing again—and then repeating the entire process until the pressures were precisely adjusted—was called “making ready.” It typically required an experienced pressman and his assistant thirty to fifty hours to make ready for printing a sheet of electrotyped wood-engravings, but there was no way to shortcut this painstaking procedure.

Can you imagine going through that process more than once? Click here to view more on Interpretive Wood-Engraving.

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