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Engravings on Wood

As the method of printing engravings on wood, here described, applies to what is termed fine printing, it may be as well in the outset to define what is meant by this expression, in its application to this subject.

Fine printing, in this point of view, is the art of obtaining impressions from an engraving on wood, of the surface and the surface only, so as to produce the effect which the artist intended, in the highest state of perfection.

There is a material difference between an engraving on wood and one on copper: the first is engraved in relief, that is, the lines are left standing, and the part which in the impression is to appear white is cut away or, technically, blocked out; the lines of the engraving on copper, on the contrary, are cut in the metal, and the part that is to be white in the impression is left untouched in the metal by the engraver.

There is also a material difference in the manner of obtaining impressions: those from an engraving on wood are produced by coating the surface of the lines with ink by beating it with balls or passing a roller over it, and then, with a piece of paper upon it, submitting it to pressure between two parallel plane surfaces, or by a cylinder rolling over it. An engraving on copper is smeared over the whole face with ink, which is worked into the lines; the surplus ink is then wiped off the surface of the plate, on which a piece of paper is laid to receive the impression, and these are passed between two cylinders, which, press the paper into the engraved lines by a violent squeeze.

It will easily be perceived by this slight description that the two processes are completely distinct from each other, although the effect produced is nearly the same.

I will now proceed to describe the process of producing impressions from engravings on wood in a superior manner.

After putting a block on the press, the workman ought to be very gentle in the pull for the first impression, to prevent an accident, which has frequently occurred from thoughtlessness in this particular, by making the pull too hard, and crushing some of the lines; by avoiding this he will be safe, and can proportion his pull to the subject. He should also examine, previous to pulling, that there be nothing on the block — no pins that he may have for his tympan sheet, nor any needle with which he may have been taking out a pick. — Such accidents have happened, and caused great trouble to the engraver, as well as loss of time and disappointment; besides entailing a character of carelessness on the printer.

In imposing a single block, where the press is large at which it is to be worked, it will be in danger of springing out of the chase while beating, from the quantity of furniture about it: it is a good remedy to impose it in a job chase, and to impose this chase again in a larger one; this will cause it to lie flatter on the press, and firmer in the beating, as the small chase can be locked up tight in the large one, without having too much furniture, and the large one can be secured firmly on the press by quoins and the corner irons.

Neither the pressure nor the impression in an engraving on wood should be uniformly equal: if they be, the effect that is intended to be produced by the artist will fail; and instead of light, middle tint, and shade, an impression will be produced that possesses none of them in perfection; some parts will be too hard and black, and other parts have neither pressure nor colour enough, with obscurity and roughness, and without any of the mildness of the middle tint, which ought to pervade great part of an engraving, and on which the eye reposes after viewing the strong lights and the deep shades.

To produce the desired effect, great nicety and patience are required in the pressman; a single thickness of thin India paper, which is the paper I would always recommend to be used as overlays for engravings, is frequently required over very small parts, with the edges of it scraped down, for it is advisable that the overlay should never be cut at the edges, but, even where great delicacy of shape is not required, that it should be torn into the form wanted, which reduces the thickness of the edges, and causes the additional pressure to blend with the surrounding parts.

Particular parts of the impression will frequently come up much too strong, and other parts too weak, it will then be necessary to take out from between the tympans a thickness of paper, and add an additional tympan sheet, cutting away those parts that come off too hard, and scraping down the edges; scraping away half the thickness of a tympan sheet in small parts that require to be a little lightened will improve the impression.

The light parts require little pressure, but the depths should be brought up so as to produce a full and firm impression.

If a block be hollow on the surface, underlaying the hollow part will bring it up better than overlaying it, at least so much that it shall only require a thickness or two of paper as overlays. If a block be too low, it is advisable to underlay it, for the purpose of raising it to the proper height, in preference to making use of overlays, for they act in some measure as blankets, being pressed into the interstices, and rendering the lines thicker than in the engraving.

It will be necessary sometimes, when the surface of the block is very uneven, to tear away parts of the paper in the tympan, to equalise the impression where it is too hard.

The pressman will find it convenient to pull a few impressions while he is making ready, on soiled or damaged India paper, for out of these he can cut overlays to the precise shape and size that is wanted, as he will constantly find it necessary to do so in instances where great accuracy is required in overlaying particular portions; and in these instances he cannot well do without a sharp penknife and a pair of good small scissars. A fine sharp bodkin and a needle or two, to take out picks, are also needful; but he should be particularly careful in so using them as that he do no injury. The best way to avoid this is to draw the bodkin or needle point cautiously in the direction of the lines.

Engravings that are in the vignette form require great attention to keep the edges light and clear, and in general it is necessary to scrape away one or two thicknesses of paper, in order to lighten the impression and keep it clean; for the edges being irregular, and parts, such as small branches of trees, leaves, &c. straggling, for the purpose of giving freedom to the design, they are subject to come off too hard, and are liable to picks, which give great trouble, and are difficult to be kept clear of. Bearers letter-high placed round the block, if they can be applied without the balls touching them, will be found advantageous; if they cannot, pieces of reglet, pasted on the frisket in the usual way, and taking a bearing on the furniture, must be substituted, but the high bearer is to be preferred where it can be adopted; these bearers equalise the pressure on the surface of the engraving, and protect the edges from the severity of the pull, which is always injurious to the delicacy of the external lines. They also render the subject more manageable, by enabling the pressman to add to, or diminish, the pressure on particular parts, so as to produce the desired effect.

When great delicacy of impression is demanded in a vignette, it will be found beneficial, after the engraving is beat with ink, to take a small ball without ink, and beat the extremities: this will not only take away any superfluity of ink, but will be a means of preventing picks, and give to the edges lightness and softness, particularly where distances are represented.

If the extremities are engraved much lighter than the central parts, underlays should be pasted on the middle of the block, which will give a firmer impression to those central parts of the subject: it would save trouble to cause the block to be a little rounded on the face, as it would give facility in obtaining a good impression.

When highly finished engravings on wood are worked separately, woollen cloth, however fine, should never be used for blankets, as it causes too much impression; two thicknesses of stoutish hard smooth paper, in lieu of it, between the tympans is better; sometimes even a piece of glazed pasteboard is used inside the outer tympan. The parchments ought to be in good condition, stretched tight, of a smooth surface, thin, and of regular thickness, so as to enable the pressman to obtain an impression as nearly as possible from the surface only of the engraved lines.

It is indispensably necessary that the balls should be in the best order, the same as for the finest work; and the pressman should be very particular in taking ink, distributing his balls, and beating the block well, otherwise he will not obtain clear, uniform, good impressions. If the block be small, and it is worked by itself, he will find that he can take ink more uniformly in small quantities, by first taking ink with a pair of regular sized balls, and distributing, and then taking ink from them to work his cut with; and this more particularly if he be using a pair of small balls. For this work he ought always to have the best ink that can be procured.

A large wood cut left on the press stone all night is very apt to warp; when this happens, a good method to restore it to its original flatness is to lay it on its face upon the imposing stone, with a few thicknesses of damp paper underneath it, and to place the flat side of a planer upon it, and four or five octavo pages of tied up letter; in the course of a few hours the block will be restored to its original flatness. This method is preferable to steeping the block in water, which has been frequently practised; for the steeping swells the lines of the engraving, and consequently affects the impression to a much greater extent than this operation. For retaining the original effect, as it came from the hands of the artist, I would carefully prevent the block ever being wet with water, and, when it had been worked in a form with types, would take it out before the form was washed.

To prevent this warping during the dinner hour or the night, turn the tympan down upon the form, run the carriage in, and pulling the bar handle home, fasten it to the near cheek by the catch, where there is one, or else by a chain or rope, or by a stay to the bar from the off-cheek; in iron presses this way is efficacious.

However long a time boxwood may be kept in the log, it will always twist and warp when cut into slices for engraving, on account of fresh surfaces being exposed to the air: large blocks may be restored to their flatness by laying them on a plane surface, with the hollow side downward, without any weight on them, in the course of a night.

When only a few proofs are wanted from an engraving, good impressions may be obtained with little trouble on dry India paper, with about six thicknesses of the same sort of paper laid over it, and pulled without the tympan. This observation applies to small cuts, and those of a moderate size; if proofs are wanted from large ones, it will be found advantageous to put the India paper for a few minutes into a heap of damp paper.

A fine engraving on wood should never be brushed over with lye: the best method that I have found in practice, is to wipe the ink off with a piece of fine woollen cloth damped with spirits of turpentine; and if it should get foul in working, to clean it with a softish brush and spirits of turpentine. It will be found in practice that spirits of turpentine take off the ink quicker, and affect the wood less, than any other article used; and the facility with which the block is again brought into a working state, more than compensates for the trifling additional expense incurred, as nothing more is required than to wipe the surface dry, and to pull two or three impressions on dry waste paper.

The engravers always show an impression when the block is taken home to their employer; and this impression is taken in a manner, where the subject is not of a large size, such as to produce a superior effect to what a printer can with a press, when he has a number to do, which are generally worked in a form with types, and his price so low for printing, as not to enable him to do justice to the subjects. This causes great dissatisfaction to his employer, and he is unable to remedy the grievance; for the engraver's proof is obtained by means of a burnisher, with one thickness of paper in addition to that printed on, so that he can examine each part to bring it up where it is required, and leave the others as delicate as he pleases: he thus obtains an impression from the surface only, perfect in all its parts, with the best ink that can be procured; while the printer gives dissatisfaction, because he cannot, in the way of trade, perform impossibilities.

Papillon, in his work on Engraving on Wood, published in 1766, complains of a plan nearly similar being adopted by the French engravers, with which he finds great fault. The following is a translation of the passage: —

“Some engravers on wood have the knack of fabricating the proofs of their engravings far more delicately, and in a more flattering manner than they really ought to be; and this is the means they make use of — they first take off two or three, in order to adjust one of them to their fancy, and which they think will favour their imposition; having selected it, they only beat anew the parts of the block charged with shades and the deeper strokes, in such a manner, that the lighter ones, distances, &c. being only lightly covered with ink, in as far as not being touched in the new beating, they retain no more than what was left by the preceding impression; the result is, that the new proof comes off extremely delicate in those places, and appears pleasing to the eye; but when this block is printed in conjunction with letterpress, the impressions then appear in their natural state, and totally different from that which they presented on delivery of the work. The strokes are of one equal tint, hard, and devoid of softness, and the distances are often less delicate than the foregrounds. I shall risk little by saying that all the three Le Sueurs have made use of this trick.”

The pressman will find it an advantage, if it be necessary to do full justice to an engraving, to have a good impression from the engraver, and place it before him as a pattern, and then arrange the overlays, &c., till he produces a facsimile in effect; but the most valuable lesson will be when he can obtain the assistance of the artist at the press side, to direct him in making ready the cut, and I would advise him by no means to be impatient at the tediousness of the operation, as he will obtain more information how to produce a fine impression by this than by any other means. It will also instruct him how to meet the wishes of the draftsman and the engraver, with regard to effect, in a way superior to any other; and will, with care and attention, ultimately lead him to excellence in printing engravings on wood.

An assertion is now generally promulgated, that machine printing is superior to that of the press, even for engravings on wood, and thus misleading publishers and the public. When I come to speak of machines, and of presses, I will endeavour to show that it is incompatible with the principle of a machine that it can equal a press in producing fine work.

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