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.
The most common materials used when antique prints were made were wood, copper and steel:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 !
Engraving was a very time consuming and skillful technique, eventually superceded by more economical lithography and photogravure.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:
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.