Wood engraving is a form of relief printmaking. Cutting away areas of the block produces areas that will not print. The flat raised relief areas are inked with a brayer (rubber roller) and pressure is applied to transfer ink to paper, creating a mirror image impression of the block. An engraved wood block shows the tactile and sculptural nature of the relief carving.
The engraving process involves the use of burins, composed of a steel blade set into a mushroom-shaped handle that sits in the palm of the hand. Varied tints and effects are achieved by using a variety of tools. Any mark upon the surface produces an area that does not print, also called a white line. Any wood removed from around a line, leaves a standing black line. The white spaces are cleared with a chisel-like tool called a scorper.
Wood engravings utilize the end grain of wood, cut from logs, in slabs, the same thickness as metal type, which is 0.918 of an inch. Endgrain is best illustrated by imagining a cut tree trunk, where the tree’s growth rings are visible. Dense, hard woods with tightly packed grain, like boxwood, are ideal for wood engraving. While boxwood is the traditional end grain used in the process, Maple, Lemonwood, Pear, Holly, Castillo, Maracaibo, and Hornbeam (iron wood) work well too. Although some would argue that a single piece of wood is the most stable to work with, it is common for blocks to be pieced together, as the most flawless parts of the wood can be used.
Wood’s gradually rising price and rigorous processing requirements have led artists to seek out alternative materials to engrave. Artists are using several brand name materials such as Corian and Mystera (counter top materials,) Resingrave (a resin composite material,) and some plastics like HIPS (high impact polystyrene), plexiglass and Sintra.
Before electricity, a typical engraver’s set up included a lamp flame concentrated by a water-filled globe directed onto the wood block. The work is slow and exacting.