An engraving is a print 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

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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.