What Is An Engraving ?

Posted by Fine Rare Prints 04/02/2015 9 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 engraved pattern retains the ink used to print the image.

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 image below is an engraving from 1693 by Pietro Santi Bartoli magnified fifty times. Notice the variation in thickness and angle of lines - this engraver was an exceptional artist and craftsman.


Example of an engraving



If you have an antique print that you'd like to know more about read about our antique print appraisal service here.


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:


If you have an antique print that you'd like to know more about read about our antique print valuation and appraisal service here.


9 Comment(s)

Ian Johanson:
13/01/2016, 12:38:26 PM

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.

Fine Rare Prints:
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-universe was 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.

Fine Rare Prints:
30/05/2017, 05:52:02 PM

Hi Jacqueline, They might have used an iridescent water color to give it the shimmering look. These paints had little specks of metal or pearl in them. If it has deep plate impressions its likely to be old and a copper plate engraving. Kind regards

John Carston:
23/09/2016, 02:30:15 PM

I don't know a lot about the history of engraving but it's been interesting to learn a bit about the past uses and methods of engraving. I've known that metal is used for engraving but not wood. Is wood still used? what would be the advantage of using wood for engraving if so?

Fine Rare Prints:
30/05/2017, 05:54:17 PM

Hi John, Wood is still used for engraving by some artists these days. Its advantage is it is easier to cut the engraving lines in than metail is. The lines end up wider though, so wood engravings generally have a more simplistic look. Kind regards Fine Rare Prints

Bill Bickford:
02/11/2016, 08:20:34 PM

Hi: I have in my possession a set of 50 engraved prints done in the mid 1800's . The set is in a Binder labeled "The Gallery of British Art." Published by D. Appleton & Co. New York. I obtained this collection of prints at an estate sale from a Victorian Home here in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The family has been in the home since early 1800's. The set contained 50 engraved prints (size 11" x 15" on Thick White Stock. These had been in their attic for a long, long time. The condition of them is excellent but some have some moister spots on the edges. Each print has a separate sheet (same stock as Print) with a story about the subject of the painting it was copied from. Each painting has a title of the Painting along with each painter's name and also the name of the engraver. I have not yet had these appraised... but have an interested buyer. don't know what they are worth. Even the slip sheet between print and story are intact. The set was a series of prints that were sent once a week or month until all prints were exhausted. Each print was 50 cents per print. It is remarkable the details in these prints and the time frame it must have taken for the engravings to be made. If you have any ideas on the value of this set of prints...please let me know. Thanks, Bill Bickford

Fine Rare Prints:
30/05/2017, 05:56:22 PM, www.finerareprints.com

Hi Bill, Your engravings sound great - a nice size and likely to be interesting subject matter. We'd have to see some photos to help yo with value. Please go to http://www.finerareprints.com/valuation-of-antique-prints to find out more. All the best Fine Rare Prints

Ann Foster:
25/04/2018, 01:53:26 PM

I recently purchased an engraving from an estate sale. On the back it says circa 1839, original engraving Egypt The Rising of the Waters of the Nile; The tag is P525/1, 226 PG Old Prings;, SFS_ and a handwritten P525/1.

Fine Rare Prints:
29/08/2018, 06:42:13 PM

Sounds great Ann. Prints about Egypt have eduring popularity as it fascinates many people.

Dan Beauregard:
15/07/2018, 05:46:14 PM

Hello - I have a etching by Murray of Lichfield Cathedral in England. It was published by the Churchman Co of New York in 1904. It has a solid 3 inch oak frame that has acid free rag matting with a dust cover. I have owned this etching for about 35 to 40 yrs. I would like to sell this lovely etching and am looking to see what it is currently worth. T Thank you for time and hope to hear back from you. Dan Beauregard Franklin, Vt. 05457 802-285-6207

Fine Rare Prints:
29/08/2018, 06:39:06 PM

Hi Dan, we've sent you an email. Please see http://www.finerareprints.com/valuation-of-antique-prints

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