How To Engrave

One of the best modern books on wood engraving is Wood Engraving How To Do It by Simon Brett (available from Simon Brett). What follows here is a simple guide to getting started, which will hopefully give you an appetite to take the medium where someone like Simon can lead you.

Tools and Equipment

You can start with few tools, and I would suggest the following three to get going: Medium Spitsticker, Small Round Scorper and Medium Round Scorper. You will also need:

  • Small fine grade sharpening stone, such as Arkansas, or extra fine diamond card.
  • Leather sandbag as a support for manipulating the block when engraving.
  • Endgrain wood engraving block.
  • Black oil based relief printing ink.
  • Ink roller. The best are brass framed with synthetic rollers, but a cheaper steel framed rubber roller will suffice to get you started. Make sure that the rubber is not old and hardened.
  • Burnisher for printing without a press, assuming you don’t have access to a platen type press such as an Albion.
  • Thin printmaking paper. Japanese tissues are good, though it is best to choose one with very a smooth surface (some have a slightly fibrous, hairy surface which make the printing of fine detail and solid blacks difficult). Avoid thicker papers for burnishing.
  • White spirit or similar for cleaning blocks and roller.

Preparing the Block

There are many ways to do this, but here I will give you one easy, reliable method. As sparingly as you can, brush black pen ink across the surface of your block to achieve an even tone. Take care not to soak the wood or you will open up the endgrain fibres. An alternative to brushing is to wipe the ink over the block with a paper or cloth pad. Perfect density of tone is not crucial, but not soaking the block is!

When dry firmly rub the surface with a paper towel in order to burnish away the slight nap caused by the application of water based ink.

Drawing

Start with a simple subject and work out matters of form and tonal values well before thinking about transfering this to your block. Engraving on wood is an unforgiving medium and mistakes can not usually be rectified, so ‘think twice, engrave once’. Make your drawing the same size as the block you intend to use then place over it a sheet of layout paper(or similar thin, semi transparent paper) and trace the outlines of the drawing. Then fix onto your block a piece of coloured carbon paper (Transtrace for example. Red or blue works well) over which you then fix your outline drawing. Trace the outlines through the carbon paper with a very hard, sharp pencil (4H or harder) and take care not to apply too much pressure for fear of bruising the wood – the thinner your paper, the less pressure will be required to get a crisp drawing transferred to the wood. Remove both layers of paper and you will have a clear line drawing on your darkened block. You can give it a very light spray with fixative in order to preserve the drawing throughout the engraving process, but take care not to overdo the amount.

Holding The Tools

The usual way to hold an engraving tool is best learnt by looking at the photograph. Some engravers lead with the forefinger, others with the thumb, but the handle always nestles in the palm with the little finger tucked away in the groove of the handle. Tool length is determined by the amount of steel extending beyond the leading finger. There are no rules for this, but something in the region of half an inch (12mm) is good. Tools are often too long and need to be shortened for good control – see Services page.

Engraving

The most common error with first time engravers is to hold the tool at too steep an angle which results in the tool very quickly embedding in the wood and coming to an abrupt halt. Begin by laying the tool flat on the block and slowly lift and push across the wood until the tool bites and you begin engraving. Certain tools allow for a swell in line thickness which is controlled by the angle at which the tool is held. Controlling this line variation is a fundamental skill which you will achieve with practice until it becomes as natural as handwriting. If you have never engraved before, it will be useful to do the excercises shown here:

Spitsticker

This tool is the one most engravers use most frequently as it allows for fluid drawing. On a small block engrave a series of wavy, parallel lines taking care to make the lines fluid and of even width. Use the sandbag to manipulate the block and you will find that your curves are smooth.

Graver

The graver is capable of producing lines which have great character, with line swell from fine to broad (a) and back to fine again (b). Short and long lines with these characteristics are also possible.

Scorper

Scorpers are available in round and square edge and in a variety of widths. The large sizes are mostly used for clearing areas to create white. Use a medium round scorper to engrave a series of parallel lines. Note how the line begins and ends in a round edge.

Create stippling by either jabbing the scorper into the wood, or by raising the angle of the tool and rotating the block on the sandbag create perfect dots. Similarly, engrave parallel lines with the square scorper and note that the lines begin and end with a square edge. Large square scorpers are very often used to clear large areas as well as corners.

Other Tools

  • Tint Tool. Some engravers use tint tools in an array of widths. These were developed for use in trade engraving to create areas of tone (or ‘tint’) by skillfully combining different width tools and juxtapostion of lines. To make the most of this tool you will need a number of sizes.
  • Bullsticker. An interesting tool with an oval cross section, something like a large spitsticker. Because of the oval section this tool gives a line with much swell and the ability to draw in the manner of the spitsticker.
  • Multiple Tool. A tool which engraves multiple lines in one stroke. These tools come in a complex variey of widths and lines per inch. The results are apt to be either mechanical or flashy, though some engravers employ them with flare. They are expensive, but you may want to add one or two to your collection in due course.

Printing

Beginning engravers will often not have access to an appropriate printing press, so will need to learn the simple, but effective, art of burnishing. The equipment for printing by this method is very modest and the results are highly satisfactory.

Equipment.

Roller, burnisher, ink, inking slab, paper (see above).

I suggest using black relief printing ink from a tube rather than a pot since ink in pots is apt to dry up more quickly unless used regularly. Always use oil, not water, based ink. Squeeze out a small amount on the inking slab and roll out thinly and evenly until the ink surface resembles fine velvet. Use less than you think you will need and add more if necessary. Pass the roller across the block with light, even pressure and hold up to the light to ensure that the entire surface is inked.

Carefully lay you paper on the block and take great care not to move the paper once on the block. This is best achieved by pressing down on the centre of the block with a finger. Take your burnisher and firmly rub the paper moving slowly across the block, taking extra care at the edges where there is a tendency to slip and tear the paper. Because the paper is either transparent or semi transparent the engraved image will emerge through the paper allowing you to see areas that you have missed or that need extra burnishing. When you are satisfied that burnishing is complete, slowly lift the paper from one corner until detached from the block.

Always clean the roller and slab after printing, using either white spirit or vegetable oil.

Printing with a platen press is the method favoured by engravers fortunate enough to have a cast iron press such an Albion or Columbian. It is beyond the scope of this site to cover this subject, but there are many books available to give guidance, one of the best modern books being Simon Brett’s How To Engrave.