7.2.4 Engraving

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In the course of the Guild’s history, several graphic artists and craftsmen, especially Philip Hagreen and Edward Holloway have used various techniques of printmaking, especially wood engraving, woodcuts and etching. This article tries to offer a brief guide as to what these involved.

Wood engraving

Wood engraving is at once the simplest and forms of printmaking. The print is made, first, by engraving the reversed design or picture to be printed into the mirror-smooth surface of a block of endgrain wood. Boxwood is best, though cheaper alternatives such as lemonwood and synthetic materials are now frequently used.

Secondly, the block is rolled up with ink (on its top surface) and printed onto paper. The cuts that were made into the wood therefore come out as white, the remaining top surface which gets inked, as black; the artist is, in effect, drawing with light – with a white mark as opposed to the black mark that comes from a pencil, brush or pen. Most wood engravings tend to be closely worked and relatively small because the tools used are finely pointed. Because the finesse of wood engraving produces a particularly rich tonal range, wood engravings are usually, but by no means exclusively, black and white. Wood engravings appear both as prints and in books. In galleries, as artists’ exhibition prints, taken by the artists themselves from the woodblocks, they are customarily ‘editioned’ prints, as expressed by the ‘fraction’ written on the print near the artist’s signature. 10/75 means the 10th print in an edition of 75.

In books, they may also be original prints. ‘Fine print books’, limited editions made to the highest standards with traditional hot-metal type, are often illustrated with wood engravings. Since these are also printed direct from the woodblock, which can be set alongside the type in this sort of printing, they too are original prints.

Eric Gill, David Jones, Philip Hagreen and Edgar Holloway all used this technique. It often lay behind the illustrations produced by the St Dominic’s Press.


Woodcutting is a technique similar to wood engraving, but cut along the wood grain rather than in the end-grain. The result is that woodcuts are more solid and more suitable from printing within books. Philip Hagreen concentrated of this technique for high-quality publications for St Dominic’s Press.


Like wood engraving, but using linoleum. Disapproved of by the Guild.


Etching is an printmaking process in which lines or areas are incised using acid into a metal plate in order to hold the ink. In etching, the plate can be made of iron, copper, or zinc. Edgar Holloway used this technique prior to his Guild days and returned to it in 1970.To prepare the plate for etching, it is first polished to remove all scratches and imperfections from the surface. When the surface is completely smooth, it is covered evenly with a layer of acid-resistant varnish or wax, which is called the ground.

Using a blunt stylus called an etching needle, the printmaker gently scratches away parts of the ground following the design, thereby exposing the metal beneath. Once the entire design has been drawn into the ground, acid is poured over the plate or the plate is dipped in acid. The acid eats into the metal only in the exposed areas creating recesses that can retain ink. The depth and width of these recesses is determined by the length of time the plate is exposed to the acid: a longer exposure will cause deeper and wider recesses, which hold more ink and will thus print darker lines on paper. This process can be used to create a nuanced tonal palette. To create darker tones, certain areas can be bathed in acid several times, while lighter areas are protected from further acid bite by covering them with ground. Once the plate has been satisfactorily bitten by the acid, the printmaker removes the ground with a solvent.

After the ground is removed, the plate is ready for inking. In an intaglio process, the ink is retained in the incised lines. A cloth ball, cardboard tab, or equivalent material is used to gently spread ink across the whole face of the plate; the same material is used to remove most of the excess ink from the surface. The plate is further cleaned using a tarlatan rag (heavily starched cheesecloth). As a last measure, printmakers often use the sides of their hand to wipe away the last bits of ink. In certain cases, a printmaker can choose not to clean the plate entirely, but to leave a thin layer of ink on the plate to create tone.

Once the surface of the plate is wiped clean to a satisfactory level, the plate is placed on the bed of a rolling printing press, with the ink side up. Although some early intaglio prints appear to have been produced by simply pressing the paper against the plate with one’s hands, in most cases the pressure required to force the paper into the finely cut lines entailed the use of a special press equipped with rollers. Before the plate is moved through the press, it is covered with a sheet of dampened paper and then printing blankets, often made of felt, to soften the pressure on the metal plate.

Once printed onto its paper support, the etching’s design appears in reverse of the original on the plate. The pressure of the press not only forces the ink onto the damp paper, but also produces an outline of the outer edges of the metal plate in the paper, known as a plate mark.


This is an involved process, not used by any member of the Guild, but for completeness, is mentioned here.

Lithography is a printmaking process in which a design is drawn onto a flat stone (or prepared metal plate, usually zinc or aluminum) and affixed by means of a chemical reaction. First, the design for the lithograph is drawn directly onto a polished slab of limestone using an oil-based lithographic crayon or ink. Once the design is complete, the stone is ready to be processed or etched. A layer of powdered rosin is rubbed onto the stone, followed by a layer of powdered talc. 

Gum arabic, or a combination of gum arabic with a mild acid solution, is then brushed onto the stone. The chemical reaction between the solution and the stone fixes the greasy image that is drawn with the oil-based lithographic crayon. At the same time, the solution ensures that the blank areas of the stone will absorb water and repel printing ink. The original drawing is then wiped away with a solvent, known as lithotine, which leaves a ghost-like trace of the image on the stone. To provide a base for inking, a layer of asphaltum is then buffed onto the entire surface of the stone and allowed to dry.

Before the stone is ready for inking, it is dampened with water, which is absorbed only in the blank areas. Ink is then applied to the stone with a roller. The oil-based ink adheres to the greasy area of the image and is repelled by the damp parts of the stone. The dampening and inking of the stone is repeated until the entire image is thoroughly inked.

The stone is placed with the image facing up on a flatbed lithographic press, and a damp sheet of paper is laid on top.

The stone and paper are covered with a board, also called a tympan, and sometimes several sheets of newsprint as padding for the press. A flatbed press is equipped with a pressure bar. This bar, which usually approximates the size of the image, is lowered onto the tympan and the stone, and is dragged across the greased surface as it passes through the press. The bar guarantees a smooth and even application of pressure across the surface of the stone. Once the stone has been run through the press, the resulting impression on paper displays a reverse image of the original composition drawn onto the stone.

In order to make a multicolor lithograph, additional stones or matrices must be used for each desired color. The same sheet of paper is run through the press repeatedly to add each color, and care must be taken to precisely register, or align, the stone each time.