Wood engraving once common art

The 1800s witnessed new methods of reproducing illustrations in print.

In the mid- and late-1800s, an energetic wood-engraver put in long hours every week to labor at producing an illustration the size of a newspaper page. By 1900, that same size plate could be made in an hour.

During the last quarter of 1800 this process of wood-engraving was at its zenith, and was the only practical way of reproducing pictures to be used for printing books, magazines and newspapers.

There were other methods of printing illustrations such as etchings and lithographs, but the majority couldn’t be used for ordinary books or newspapers due to the paper quality. The wood-engraving was the most important method as it was the oldest tried-and-true form of reproducing pictures.

Beginnings unknown.

Wood-engraving’s history is lost – no records indicate where and when it began. The earliest examples available parallel movable type’s beginnings but perhaps it predated Gutenberg’s invention by centuries.

However, the invention of movable type stimulated the development of wood-engraving.

Wood-engraving for printing blocks is actually the same as wood carving and metal-chasing – certain portions are removed, leaving portions that are higher, or in relief.

Somehow it was discovered that the raised surface could be impressed upon a medium, thereby leaving a print.

When I worked at Harris Printing Company, a situation developed that required a rather simple plate. Mr. Harris knew of my previous wood carving and asked me to cut away the unneeded surfaces of a large, linoleum-covered wooden square, using gouges his father had employed. The end result was the needed plate. It printed the desired job well and filled the order.

For years, a woodcut representing a picture of Saint Christopher dated 1423 was considered the oldest woodcut in a museum. Undoubtedly, others older have now been located.

On these woodcuts little attempt is made to reproduce highlights and shadows, the illustration merely an outline similar to coloring book pictures.

As advancements followed, rather good attempts were made to represent highlights and shadows of various values by using fine and closer lines, similar to steel and copper halftones of later years.

Around 1450, another wood-engraving termed “crible” came into use. In this method the background, instead of being cut away, was left type high (the height of the printing surface) The various tones were made by punching holes in the surface of the block.

By this method, holes punched close represented the lights, holes further apart the shadows. This effect is similar to some pen art. This process was slower than the relief carved block and soon was discontinued.

By 1500, further improvements in wood-engraving were made in pictures of Albrecht Durer. He was so skillful that his works rivaled the steel or copper engravings of later years.

By 1887, photographic-process reproduction came into use and from then on, wood-engraving declined and finally disappeared as a reproduction method.

Vestiges of wood-engraving linger in a few older print shops in the form of wooden type.

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