Cutting, Engraving, and Printing Wood and Linoleum Blocks
( Originally Published 1937 )
WOODCUTS, wood engravings and linoleum blocks all have this in common: they are "relief printing," which means they are printed from their highest surfaces, as distinguished from etchings and steel or copper engravings. These are "intaglio printing" or printed from the hollows. In case there is someone who is not clear about the manner in which a wood-block is printed, I suggest the consideration of the rubber stamp, which is surely familiar to everyone.
In a happy marriage there is yielding on one side to balance resistance on the other. So in good printing it is necessary to have yielding coupled with resistance. With the rubber stamp it is the stamp that yields: with letter-press printing it is the paper.
The first wood-blocks were methods of reproducing an outline drawing. This was subsequently developed to include shading, the method always being to draw on the block with ink and have the formschneider cut away all the wood around the lines, so that when the block was inked only the lines would print.
All this time with few exceptions the engraver had been an interpreter rather than a creator. One has only to see some of his magnificent interpretations to realize that he did rise to great heights in his field—and one has only to compare his best work with modern half-tone reproductions to see what a characterless substitute we are content to accept in our commerchanical civilization, where the saving of a few dollars is prized above all else.
A distinct change took place in the art when Thomas Bewick came on the scene in the later part of the 18th century. One of the first to design and cut his own blocks, he is also given credit for first exploiting the "white line," a perfectly natural innovation for one who was not the interpreter of other men's work. The white line is the mark left by the single stroke of the graver: an artist drawing directly on a block with a graver uses a white line on a black ground. To produce a black line on the block requires an indirect method.
Notwithstanding the impact of Bewick's originality, wood-engraving continued to develop as an interpretive art, becoming ever more minute in its stipplings and hatchings, and tending to compete with copper-engraving, instead of holding to its characteristic boldness.
Arts are subject to the same laws of organic growth as other living things and seldom remain at a level after they have reached the full flower of their development. Thus it seems inevitable that the art of wood-engraving (interpretive) should have decayed and died after reaching the limit of its possibilities, even if the process of photo-engraving had not been invented just at this time.
When the technique of photo-engraving became established as a practical method of reproduction, publishers—continuing to employ artists to make drawings—had the drawings reproduced by the newer, cheaper methods, and discontinued the employment of wood-engravers. Thus with dozens of engravers out of work, and no prospect of re-employment, no apprentices were taken on and the art waned.
Just when everyone thought it was dead for good, wood-engraving suddenly showed signs of life. A few artists found it an ideal medium for a terse, poetic, forceful style of original expression, having little to do with its previous interpretive role. And that brings us to modern wood-engraving.
The great glory and strength of modern work is in the fact that it is a creative art, in many cases cut directly on the block. Now, it is a well known truth about art of all kinds that its expression should be direct, simple and above all not overworked. One achieves freshness by stopping as soon as one has said enough. When one has said enough on a block, only a little of it may be cut away. The resulting proof then has in it much more black than white. This is unfortunate where the design is intended to be printed as an illustration along with type, for the overpowering weight of the black, ill balances with the greyish tone of the letterpress. A thoughtful illustrator will bear this in mind and try to design his blocks so they will balance the type on the same page.
Preparing the Design
The preparations are the same for cutting the three types of blocks: the linoleum-block, the wood-block cut on the plank, and the wood-engraving. Make several alternative studies of your composition with black on white paper, or with white on black paper. I prefer the latter combination, because working with a white line on black is exactly what will be done when the block is cut. These little studies should show only the proportions and the disposition of tones. Select the best design, and where much detail is to be worked out, make a full-size drawing in India ink, the size of the block. Stick it face down care-fully with shellac to your block, when it is dry rub the paper off gently with a wet finger, stopping when the lines are exposed.
Or you may first paint your block with India ink, and sketch the design with white water-color. If there is black-line work in it and an excess of white over black, draw on the clean block with pen, brush, and India ink. Whatever the method, the shading strokes should not be drawn, but worked out directly as you cut.
Cutting the Blocks
Linoleum is well adapted to large-scale or bold work, but not to fineness of detail; nor does it offer that resistance so challenging in the engraving of box-wood. It may be purchased ready mounted, "type high (11/12"), so that it may be used in a press with type. Or you can glue it yourself onto five-ply veneer and squeeze it in a press over night.
Linoleum is cut with a knife, narrow gouges (veiners), V-chisels (parting tools), and wide gouges for clearing backgrounds. Your problem is simply to remove to a sufficient depth all the areas you do not wish to print. Large areas must be excavated deeper than the narrow ones; else they will take ink and print. It is easy to see the result of your cutting in white linoleum. The cuts in brown linoleum show best if rubbed with white chalk or zinc oxide. Use the veiners and parting tools as if they were pencils or brushes, lightening dark areas where necessary by hatchings of white lines, and softening the darks into the lights by strokes of the parting tool.
The tool should be held in the palm of the right hand like a graver, the left assisting by pressing back and down on the blade with the first and second fingers. This should be mastered before much cutting is attempted or irreparable damage may result from a sudden slip of the tool. The knife is sometimes used for trimming the edges of dark masses,: being easier to use for this than other tools. If you don't possess other tools you can do a whole block with a knife, but it will take longer and give you less freedom of stroke.
Wood-blocks are cut from smooth boards of maple, gumwood, pear, apple, cherry, etc., for finer work; and pine, basswood, poplar, etc., for bolder, open styles. These softer woods will not stand the pressure of the press as well as the hardwoods, but are suitable for printing textiles by hand. For the latter purpose you should use thicker wood, especially if the block is wide, for the wet dye thickenings are likely to warp a thin board. Chestnut is good for this purpose.
Practically all I said about the cutting of linoleum applies also to cutting wood on the plank. You will, however, need to take greater care with wood because of the grain. Keep your tools very sharp. Use a knife and flat chisel more and the veiners less, especially for outlining. Use the wide gouges or spoon chisels to clear away the backgrounds.
This is done with gravers instead of knives or gouges. The wood is always end-grain. The graver, held in the palm of the hand, is pushed along, taking care to rest the thumb firmly against the edge of the block, to assist in controlling the tool, and to prevent slipping. When working in the middle press firmly downward on the block with the right thumb to steady the hand. If you do not take these precautions the tool is sure to slip and go skating across the block, leaving in its wake a clean white line you can not get rid of.
It is easier to work with an engravers' pad. The left hand holds the block and, moves it against the tool, the right hand always remaining in the most natural position for holding and using the tool. Occasionally you may need to work under a glass, but suffer no more of this eyestrain than you have to. Provide support for it at the correct height above your work, and look through it with your best eye, keeping the other open but not focused.
To see the effect rub a little fine white powder (zinc oxide) into the cuts. A better scheme is to match the color of your block with the powder or chalk, so that the new cuts show up in the same value. The matching chalk can be scraped over the block with the bottom edge of the graver every little while.
Proving and Printing the Blocks
Spread a small quantity of printers' ink on a piece of plate glass or polished stone. Then take your dauber or brayer and daub or roll the ink until it is evenly distributed over the face of the slab. Carefully brush all chalk and chips from the block, ink it by rolling the brayer gently back and forth over it, or daubing it until it is evenly covered. On a smooth board place two or three sheets of blotting paper, and on this lay the paper to be printed. Then carefully drop the block on the paper. Slide the board under press until the block is just centered below the screw. Then screw down tight if you are using the old-fashioned letter press. A clothes wringer, or much bet ter, an etching press, or printers' proof press may also be used.
You can also use the burnishing method. Have the inked block face up on the table, lay your paper gently on it and, holding the paper firmly in place with the fingers of the left hand, rub it with the bowl of a silver spoon. Rub strongly from the middle toward the sides, until the design shows through all over. Before you lift the paper off completely, pull up one corner to see if the impression is good. If it is pale and grey in spots, replace it and continue rubbing.
Now look at your proof. Some parts are darker than you expected. Others may be too pale. First note which faults are due to printing and which to the block itself. Also note what work you have to do to complete the design. If you wish to prove it again the same day, don't wash it with gasoline, go on cutting regardless of the ink marks on your fingers. It is easier to see your work this way than if you rub the ink off. If you do, the hollows get stained with ink instead of showing light. Should you need to retouch a stained block, fill up the lines again with the light colored chalk. Prove the block when it is retouched. Try to correct faults in the printing and inking until the impression is perfect. If one end prints darker than the other, put the light end nearer to the screw of the press. If the middle is light and the side dark, pad up the middle of the board on which you print, by pasting small pieces of paper on the board under the light spots, building them up so as to give more pressure to them in the printing. Wash the block, slab, and brayer with gasoline at the day's end, leaving everything clean. Hang the brayer up.
If you are printing on rough hand-made papers it is somethimes necessary to dampen them and pile them between sheets of blotting paper to have them soft enough to take an impression. The Japanese papers are admirable for printing wood-blocks.
If you wish to make your own tools see page 145.
Blocks for Engraving
For printing in a press with type it is simplest to buy the blocks ready-made, especially if they are of boxwood. You can, however, cut them quite neatly with a fine circular saw. See that the timber is dressed quite true on four sides, and set the fence at 11/12". These blocks should require only a light dressing with fine sandpaper or the scraper. The latter is bet-ter, because the sandpaper may leave little bits of grit in the surface and these rub off the fine edge of the graver. However, if you do use sandpaper, take a new sheet No. 1–0 and lay it on your slab, perfectly smooth, and holding the sheet face up, rub the block on it in a steady circular motion. Take great care not to rock the block or to let the paper roll up, or the block will not be flat when you are finished.
For woods, boxwood is best, then pear. Rock maple is good for engraving on a bolder scale, but is too soft for fine detail.
When you have your fine blocks printed at last, take care of your prints, and do not exhibit them without the protection of mattes. If the unmounted prints are handled they will soon be spoiled.