What Is An Engraving ?

Posted by Fine Rare Prints 04/02/2015 4 Comment(s) Antique Print Tips,

An engraving is a print that was made using an engraved printing plate.

In printing, to engrave means to carve a pattern in a printing plate.
The earliest known dated engraving is from 1446, so the technique is at least 560 years old.
The basic process is to engrave the image on a metal plate, apply ink to the plate, wipe it so the ink only remains in the engraved lines, then press it onto paper to produce a print of the image.

Using engraving, an artist can make either highly detailed images or images with a sketchy quality, depending on the number and thickness of the engraving lines.

The images below are an engraving from 1693 by Pietro Santi Bartoli, and a portion of it magnified fifty times. Notice the variation in thickness and angle of lines - this engraver was an exceptional artist and craftsman.


Example of an engraving


Engraving has several variations, but the essence of it is as follows:


1. Choose the material for the printing plate

The most common materials used when antique prints were made were wood, copper and steel:

  • Wood engraving was more common in the early days of printing - the 15th and 16th centuries.
  • Copper engraving was probably the most popular method of printing antique prints from approximately 1600 to 1850. Copper was good to work with as it was relatively soft and did not rust. However, as it was soft, the printing plates wore out relatively quickly as each time the plate was used the engraved lines would become less sharp. 
  • Steel engraving became very popular from 1850 onwards. Steel is a lot harder than copper so the printing plates lasted a longer. Also, the engraved lines could be closer together than on a copper plate. It is easy to identify a steel engraving as the lines are so fine and close together.

2. Cut the image into the printing plate

In an engraving, each image is made up of hundreds of engraved lines. The engraved lines are carved with an engraving tool called a burin. The burin is a very fine chisel with a sharp V-shaped section. The engraver holds the burin almost parallel with the plate then pushes its point into the plate and carefully guides it along, carving out a groove. This is what engraving tools look like:

Engraving tools
Engraved lines tend to be pointed at each end. This is caused by the burin being pushed down into the plate at the beginning of the line, and pulled up at the end of the line. This helps us distinguish engravings from etchings.


3. Apply ink to the plate

Ink is spread onto the plate, then the plate is carefully wiped clean leaving only the ink held in the engraved lines. Most ink goes into the deepest lines.


4. Press the printing plate onto paper

The plate is laid on the printing press. Dampened paper is laid over the plate, and padding is laid on top of the paper. The rollers on the press force the paper onto the engraved plate, printing the image onto the paper.


5. Hand color the engraving if desired

Colored engravings were virtually always colored by hand with water colors. This is an art and itself and will be the subject of another article when we have time to write it !


Is engraving used to make art nowadays?

Engraving was a very time consuming and skillful technique, eventually superceded by more economical lithography and photogravure. Nowadays, the technique of engraving is undergoing something of a revival thanks to amazing computer controlled laser engraving machines which have become affordable for the small business market.

If you are interested in engraved antique prints, we highly recommend:

Pantologia by John Good. These copper plate engravings are about 200 years oldAncient Rome by Pietro Santi Bartoli. These copper plate engravings are over 300 years old

Engraving Review
www.engraving-review.com has lots of information about antique print engraving, Japanese Ukiyo-e engraving and the latest engraving techniques such as laser engraving.

4 Comment(s)

Ian Johanson:
13/01/2016, 12:38:26 PM, www.ajcmetal.com.au

I recently went to an exhibit that the history department at my school library did where they had engraving plates on display. I can't remember how old the plates were, but it baffles me how intricate the engravings were. I am curious though, why is it that lines can be engraved closer on steel than on copper. I wouldn't think it should make a difference.

Peter McConnell:
11/05/2016, 12:21:06 AM

Hi Ian, Steel is much harder than copper. This meant finer engraved lines could be used on steel and they could be closer together. If such fine lines had been used on copper they would have become worn out sooner, resulting in blurred or missing lines. A similar everyday example is that old copper coins get quite smooth over the years in comparison to steel based ones.

26/02/2016, 12:37:31 PM

Hi,I hope you could help me with a little insight here. i just won an auction item that i am completely satisfied with. but i want to understand it more. here is a link to it:https://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/43527007_andreas-cellarius-astrological-chart-of-the-universewas this item made in 1661 by Andreas Cellarius or is it a copy of his work - when was it made? do you think it was valued appropriately - too high or low??Thank you so much, Angela

Fine Rare Prints:
23/05/2016, 01:04:13 AM

Hi Angela, That looks pretty good. I've sent you an email. If you'd like us to take a detailed look please click Customer Service in top menu and select Appraisals for more details. All the best Peter

judy wilson:
18/05/2016, 02:51:26 PM

It's interesting to learn some of the history behind engravings. I didn't know that the earliest known dated engraving is from 1446. It's easy to see how people have been perfecting the art of engraving since it's over 560 years old. Thanks for sharing this!

Fine Rare Prints:
23/05/2016, 06:40:08 PM

Thanks Judy :-)

jacqueline best:
24/05/2016, 02:04:31 PM

Hello.I have I believe an old engraving on laid paper. Artist name is illegible. The title is The George Inn Salisbury. It as deep plate impressions. Corner of plate in impression is 1 fluer de li in a square.But i cannot tell what era. When a flashlight is put to the engraved image. There are tons or hundreds speckled of silver within the image. What would that be? It is a hand watercolored engraved image.

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