A History of Print Making

Prints, like most human achievements, have passed through many stages of development, resulting in a variety of styles and methods of reproduction. Early prints were made from wood blocks, followed by copper, and later steel plates. The quality of engraving naturally was dependent upon the skill of the engraver, and to a lesser extent, the artistic merit of the picture being reproduced. The fact that a print is old makes it interesting, but not necessarily an item worthy of being included in a collection.

More often than not, prints were produced by an engraver from paintings or drawings by well known artists, but this was not an invariable rule. There are many beautiful examples of prints where both the painting and engraving were both executed by the artist.

The majority of prints available to the collector will be those of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and it will greatly assist and increase our appreciation of prints if first we learn something about the techniques employed in print making.

Wood Block

The wood engraver first prepared a suitable block of wood of the appropriate size, by smoothing both faces flat. The design was then drawn on the block with ink or brush, and with the aid of a knife or graver, the engraver proceeded to remove all the wood not marked in ink to a depth of about 1/16 inch or more, leaving the drawn design standing in relief.

To produce the print, an ink-coated roller was rubbed over the block, so that only the raised design accepted a coat of ink. The paper was then laid on the block and manually rubbed on the back, thus transferring the impression in reverse.

Later woodcuts were made by actually incising the design into the wood with a graver. After inking the block face had to be cleaned to leave the ink in the engraved channels only. This method required greater pressure to transfer a good impression onto paper.

Early wood blocks were made from relatively thin wood, pear, apple, lime, and other soft woods being the most commonly used. Later blocks were made of boxwood, and thicker in section.

Because the wood blocks did not wear particularly well, it was not possible to obtain very many high quality impressions, and as the life of the block was very limited, so were the total number of good impressions obtained from any single block.

Line Engraving

The block consisted of a sheet of copper, thick enough to be rigid when taking impressions (1/8 inch approximately) and flat. The outline of the subject to be produced was first traced on the copper, then with a burin or graver, which was a triangular tool with a handle that fits snugly into the palm of the hand, the engraver guided this tool with forefinger and thumb along the traced outline, at the same time varying the pressure to cut a groove of varying depths into the metal, forming either a coarse or fine line on the finished impression.

Until about 1820 copper was invariably the metal used for line engravings, although occasionally brass, zinc, iron and even silver were used. From 1820 onwards copper slowly lost its popularity in favor of steel. Steel, being a harder metal yielded a greater number of impressions before deterioration of the image.


The engraver first prepared a copper plate with a thin film of wax ground, then with a needle or similar pointed tool, he proceeded to draw the subject on the wax with sufficient pressure to expose the bare metal underneath. The next step was to protect the back and edges of the plate with a suitable acid resistant medium, then the plate was completely immersed in acid which bit into the areas exposed in the wax. When the lines requiring light treatment had been ‘bitten’ to the required depth, the plate was removed, and those areas covered with an acid resistant varnish to prevent any further action by the acid. The plate was then returned to the acid so that lines required to be darker could be etched deeper. Repetitive treatments of ‘stopping off’ and re-etching resulted in the graduation of lines from the very delicate to the strong and bold.

When the etching stage was completed, the plate was washed, and both varnish and wax removed, leaving a beautifully clean etched plate ready for the first impression to be taken.


The engraver first polished the copper sheet on the face to be engraved, then with a piece of chalk he marked a series of parallel lines across this face, about ¾ inch apart. The first stage of engraving was executed with a chisel-like tool, with a curved edge, one side of which was grooved, shaped, and sharpened to form a series of cutting points, or dots. Placing this tool between the first two chalk lines, he rocked it back and forth, and at the same time moved it slowly across the plate, this formed a band of dotted indentations in the metal. He then proceeded to treat the next chalk-marked band in the same way, and so on, down the plate until the whole plate had been covered. The same operation was then repeated vertically over the plate, then diagonally at varying angles until the whole surface .of the plate was roughened evenly. This was known as ‘laying the ground’ and if an impression were taken from it at this stage, the result would be a perfectly black surface. The next operation required the outline of the design to be drawn on the roughened surface, then with a very sharp scraping knife, the engraver proceeded to develop the design by carefully scraping away more or less of the roughened surface to produce the variety of graduated tones from very light to black.

Stipple Engraving

The copper plate was first given a wax ground, and treated in much the same way as for etchings, but instead of drawing lines into the wax, the design was first outlined by pricking dots into the wax. The darker passages were then filled in either by larger, or by more closely grouped dots. The plate was then immersed in acid to bite the dots into the plate. After this treatment, the wax ground was cleaned off and the engraver proceeded to re-enter most of the dots with a ‘stipple graver’, to emphasize, and develop the final design. Stipple engravings therefore, are really a combination of the etching, dry point and graver work.

Aquatint Engravings

There were two basic grounds used to produce plates for aquatints; the dust and the spirit ground, but whichever ground is used the technique is the same.

The cleaned copper plate was evenly coated with a film of finely powdered resin, the various methods used to scatter the resin were to place the plate in a rotating box, by a revolving fan inside the box, or by blowing with a pair of bellows. The plate was then heated to just melt the resin. Spirit grounds were applied on a carefully cleaned plate by covering the plate with a solution comprising resin and spirits of wine. With the evaporation of the spirit, the resin dried, and in so doing, contracted, leaving the resin adhering to the plate in fine particles, which exposed the raw metal around the particles.

When the etching acid was applied over the resin ground, it bit into the minute exposed areas, but its action was inhibited where covered by the tiny particles of resin. The graduation of tone necessary to express form were obtained by successive applications of acid and by stopping off areas with acid resistant varnish. When a definite or well-defined line was required it was added by the etching needle, which removed the resin.


Lithographs were not produced by any method associated with engraving, but they rank among the best of some of the antique prints. Lithographic prints were produced from a special kind of limestone to which a granulated surface had been added by rubbing the printing surface with a similar piece of stone. This action naturally flattened the surface also. The design was then drawn on the stone, in reverse, with a greasy pencil and the stone treated with a weak acid. Before applying the ink with a roller the stone was first wetted, and because oil and water do not readily mix, the ink only adhered to the greasy drawn design. It was only necessary to lay a piece of damp paper on the stone and press to obtain the final impression.

An alternative method was sometimes practiced by first drawing the design with a greasy pencil on a special transfer paper; this was subsequently pressed onto the prepared surface of the stone and the paper removed, leaving the drawn image. Impressions obtained by this method were generally not quite as crisp as those obtained by direct drawing.

Color Prints

The majority of old engravings were hand colored with watercolors, but these must not be confused with engravings ‘printed in color’. Stipple engravings printed in color were produced from a stipple engraved plate, and the various colored inks rubbed into the required areas by the printer, excess ink was removed from the plate surface, leaving the tiny pockets of the engraving filled with ink. The subsequent impression resulted in a beautiful colored print, composed of tiny colored dots on a white background. Depth of color tone, or shading, was achieved by the proximity or size of the color dots.

Color prints were produced very early in the history of prints by the Chinese, using various wood blocks to produce the individual colors, but the process used by Jacob Christopher Le Blon very early in the 18th century had a similar basis to present day techniques. His process involved making mezzotint plates for each color, so graduated in texture that they reproduced the required proportions of red, yellow and blue. A fourth plate was used for the addition of black. The plates were inked with their appropriate color, and printed on the paper, one impression on top of the other, registration of each plate being of considerable importance.

Other color prints were produced during the eighteenth century from separate color plates engraved in stipple and aquatint. 1834 saw the beginning of the Baxter oil prints. These were produced from engraved steel plates, the first block engraved became the master, and the sub-sequent color plates were prepared by transfers made from this master. The various colors used were mixed by hand to the required tint; plates inked, and print produced by printing one color impression upon another in accurate register. Later Baxter used a combination of wood blocks and steel plates.