Printing 19th century wood engravings

Work has begun on printing the collection of 19th century wood engraving blocks loaned to me about a year and a half back. I’ve already taken proofs of the blocks, and will illustrate results in this blog as they come up.

I started out with the first block I proofed, a large engraving of a mouse or, more likely, a rat — an unlikely subject, but brilliantly executed, the engraver has defined every hair!


Unlike the initial proof, I spent over two hours on make-ready for this print. Make-ready is the preparation work designed to create a clean and even print. In letterpress plates, forms, block cuts and illustrations should be, in a perfect world, all even, all 0.918 inch thick. Alas, the world is not perfect, so if falls to the printer to make it so, if he or she cares about the quality of his/her work.

Early proofs identify areas of the print that are light. These areas are highlighted and very thin tissue is cut in the shape, and applied to a master sheet which will eventually underlay the sheet proceeding through the press, hopefully correcting the unevenness of impression. Make sense? Probably not.  Here’s my workspace for the make-ready on Ratty:


And here’s the end result, after about half a dozen applications of tissue on the underlay:


I know, it doesn’t look like much, but in the end, Ratty printed beautifully thanks to this corrective measure.

I can’t always be so smug. Today I printed the large ‘Willow’ block. The 150 years that have passed since this block was first cut have not been kind. It’s a composite of six small blocks, and each of the six parts printed differently, and the sections have shrunk ever so slightly leaving gaps that no skill of my own could repair.

Here’s an early proof to show you what I mean:


The make-ready on this block took close to four hours, and I printed the run, although I’m less than thrilled with the results. I increased impression to compensate for some areas that required just massive build-up, but that ended up causing loss of fine detail in areas around the edge of the block after adding more ink to the press to better define the interior. It’s like trying to capture quicksilver!

Here’s the Willow make-ready:


And the final print:


I may buy paper again and take another stab at this one. The make-ready is done, it’s just trying to balance the ink and the impression to maximize the details, and let me say, this block has details, baby. I spent an hour on proofs, lost in the lines, trying to find out why there were so much white in the middle, even though I had lines printing solid. I now realize that it was all the device of a highly skilled artist, now dead for over a hundred years, who cleared white space from the block to create the illusion of the sun-dappled willow fronds hanging from the tree. Okay… impressed! I don’t know what the wood engraver thought of his work, or if he gave it any thought at all, but it is fine work which deserves to be printed properly. So I’ll leave it fallow a bit and revisit it again next week.

Of all the 16 blocks in the collection, ‘The Willows’ is in the worst condition; I don’t expect make-ready on the rest to be so difficult.

He says, tempting the fates….

Explore posts in the same categories: Block Printing, Uncategorized, Wood Engraving

3 Comments on “Printing 19th century wood engravings”

  1. Hi Larry

    Hard to imagine spending 4 hours of makeready. On a really bad day I’ll sometimes do an hour or so, but by the end of that I’m swearing like a sailor and half blind from looking through the magnifying glass. If I don’t seem to be near to getting a decent impression by that point, my instinct is usually just to scrap the whole thing, clean up the press, and try again in a couple of days.

  2. […] (the making of them has been dealt with earlier). They printed very well, and without much of the anguish I had from the blocks in Graven Images. Granted the latter were 130 year old or more. I found the […]

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