Woodcuts / Wood engravings

Relief printing from wood was invented in China around the ninth century and from then it gradually spread through the Islamic world and by about the thirteenth century reached Europe. The earliest technique was the woodcut. This was done using a soft wood plank such as beech or sycamore. The image was drawn onto the wood surface and then a sharp knife was used to cut away the the areas between the lines. Chisels were used to cut away larger unwanted areas. Once completed, what is left is a pattern of lines standing out in relief - rather like a rubber stamp. Ink is then applied to the surface of the lines using a 'dabber' or roller.

Wood-engraving is a form of woodcut developed in the eighteenth century but differs in several ways. Wood-engraving was carried out using the end-grain of a hard wood, usually boxwood (the combination of hard wood and end-grain meant that much finer detail was possible than could be achieved with a woodcut). The wood blocks were no more than 5 or 6 inches square (nothing larger could be obtained from the box tree). Larger images could only be made by binding two or more blocks together. The surface of the prepared block was given a wash of white and then the image to be engraved was drawn, in reverse, on the block using a simple lead pencil. The image was then engraved using a graver or burin similar to those used for copper or steel engraving. An instrument called a tint-tool was used for engraving close parallel lines for unmodulated areas such as clear sky or calm water. 

With the advent of copper and steel engraving printing from wood largely fell into disuse. However, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) is creditied with re-introducing the technique of wood engraving around the beginning of the nineteenth century and this method of printing really came into its own during the Victorian era when it was considered ideal for newspapers and periodicals. The reason being that the woodblocks could be incorporated with the letterpress so that text and image could be printed together on the same machine. The Illustrated London News is probably the best known example.