A little bit about wood engraving

Many of you will probably know tiny details are really my thing, but what you might not know is that I'm also quite intrigued by the use of wood in relief printing. In my family we often joke about this obsession with wood, mostly because of my dad. He's been a carpenter for most of his life and every time we needed a piece of furniture or something needed to be fixed, he would want to make it himself, using any type of wood he had lying around. My mother once joked he'd make the glass in our window frames from wood if it was possible. I really didn't understand my dad's love for making things from wood, up until some time ago. Wood is of course a wonderful material, with it’s beautiful colours and textures. Working with it, shaping it until your satisfaction, is, well, kind of satisfying... 



The combination of achieving tiny details and using wood made me want to try wood engraving. This is a relief printing technique for which end grain wood is used as the material for the block. I bought a few pieces of wood and a small set of engraving tools, and got into it... After a few months of practice I decided to share some of it on my Instagram page. Many of you asked about the difference between wood and linoleum, and what I prefer to work with now. As I usually make linocuts, showing a piece of wood on my Instagram feed might imply I switched to cutting wood... But that is not the case! I did not simply switch materials, I also used a different technique, with a different set of tools.

Since wood engraving is a relief printing technique, just like linocut, it's not so strange people tend to confuse a few things. I think it actually starts with the term "woodcut". Some cut lino, others cut wood. You can use the same gouges and cutters for both, the technique is basically the same.

Woodcuts are cut on the plank of the wood, working along the grain. Beginners often use birch ply wood for this, since it's easy to work with and not too expensive. Difference between woodcut and linocut is of course the grain; linoleum doesn't have one. So with linoleum you don't have to take that into account while working, and therefore this material is a bit easier to work with. Wood however is more suitable for tiny, crisp details. It’s also more durable, you'll be able to make much more prints off it, especially when handburnishing paper or running it through an etching press. I can't tell much more about woodcut, because I actually never tried the technique! But I think it's important to mention something about it here, because that's where the confusion starts between woodcut and wood engraving.


image from woodblock.com about the difference
between wood cut and wood engraving


The word itself says it all: with wood engraving, you engrave the block, instead of cutting it. To be able to engrave an image, the surface must be dense and hard. Engrave thin marks on a soft wood and they just won't hold; it'll crumble away. Soft wood will also easily bruise, and these will show up as white marks in your print. Another big difference between woodcut and wood engraving: to be able to engrave, you'll need end grain wood. Carving on the plank won't work, the wood will be too soft along the grain. So, for wood engraving, you need an end grain piece of a hard type of wood. These two features make a suitable block for wood engraving quite expensive. The best wood for wood engraving is boxwood. A boxwood tree grows very slowly, hence the hardness and density of the wood. Boxwood is increasingly harder to come by and therefore very expensive.

A great alternative to boxwood is lemonwood (it's called this name because of the smell, it's not wood from a lemontree), which is quite hard as well and a bit less expensive.
American hard maple is softer than lemonwood, so is Holly, but in my opinion they're both great to work with as well. I've also tried a little piece of pearwood and was pleasantly surprised! It’s a bit softer than lemonwood, but still quite dense. I found it nicer to work with than hard maple.
These last three types of wood are less expensive than lemonwood, which is of course great when starting out and learning the technique.


Piece on the left is Boxwood, square piece on the right is Pearwood, 
and the square piece in the middle is Lemonwood.


The width of woodblocks for wood engraving is usually about 23mm. The surface of the blocks is extremely smooth, when you stroke it with the tip of your finger it's like running it across a glass surface. A little scratch or dent can show up on the final print, so you have be careful with it.


Engraving tools from E.C. Lyons


Upper one is an engraving tool (brand E.C. Lyons), the bottom one is a V-cut tool from Pfeil, which is used for linocuts and woodcuts


To be able to engrave a block, you'll need the right tools. While they may look a little bit like the Pfeil palmtools that are often used for making linocuts and woodcuts, they're quite different. These are no gouges, but engraving tools such as gravers, scorpers and spitstickers.


Scorpers, flat and round, in various widths


Scorpers come in two shapes: flat and round. They look a bit like mini chisels and are most used for clearing areas on the block, or with the smallest sizes, making strokes or dots.
Gravers come in two shapes as well: square and lozenge. These make sharp, thin lines and can also be used for strokes that vary in width, by changing the angle of the tool while working.


On the left is a V-cut tool, used for linocut and woodcuts. On the left a lozenge graver tool, used for wood engraving. These tools make similar marks on the block.


Three sizes of Spitsticker tools


Spitstickers are used for making linework, strokes and tiny details. It's my favourite tool of the bunch, since I love creating details. The spitstickers can also make strokes that vary in width, because of its shape.



Starting to engrave the wood is not too different from when you start with a gouge on linoleum: you hold the tip of the tool on the material and push the tool forward. The angle in which an engraving tool is held is different from holding a gouge though! The tool lies almost flat on the surface. Hold it up too high and the point will run into the wood and get stuck. The lines you carve don't need to get so deep, a small incision on the surface is enough to show up in the print.

The printing part is not too different from any other relief printing technique. You do need to use an oil based ink though! Water based inks will be absorbed by the block and will cause the grain to raise, which will ruin your engraving. Also, printing on textured papers is quite difficult. A highly detailed piece often looks best on a smooth type of paper anyway... I've had great results on Simili Japon paper.

Learning wood engraving is a lot tougher than learning linocut. I for one often slip and make dents with the belly of the tool, these marks show up white in the final print. The print of an engraving can turn up quite different from what you imagined it would be while working on it, some tiny details might not turn up or have a lot less contrast than you initially thought. When working on a linocut, I feel the impression you have of the finished block is not too different from the final print.

The reason why I wanted to learn wood engraving is because of the amount of detail you can achieve using this technique. One can create a lot of grey (by making a lot of thin white strokes) and the overall image can have a softer tone, not as bold black and white as in a linocut print. I've seen wood engraving prints that look like pencil drawings, which is really quite fascinating! I'm nowhere near skilled enough to accomplish something like that, I still have a lot to learn. I do really enjoy this technique and I'm sure I won't stop working on it any time soon...

Please note that this is not an instruction or tutorial on how to start wood engraving! If you’d really like to give this technique a try, I recommend reading about it first, or find a useful video online about how to get started.