In the late eighteenth century, English
engraver Thomas Bewick discovered
that very fine detail could be achieved in engravings that were printed from a
block cut across the grain of a hardwood such as box. A woodcut refers to
blocks cut with a knife on the plank side;wood engraving refers to a block cut
across the grain.
Only relatively small blocks can be made by cutting across the grain, due to
the natural sizes of trees. For larger works such as the wood engravings in
Harpers Weekly where double-page illustrations were approximately
14 x 20, small blocks were joined together with tongue and groove fittings
and glued in place. The wood was planed to a height of slightly less than one
inch in order to fit properly into a press. The surface was then scraped and
polished so that the joining would not be visible on the print.
Next the artist drew with soft pencil or ink directly onto the smooth wood
surface. In order for the print to read correctly, the drawing had to be made in
reverse. After the picture was completed, a copper engraving tool was used to
scoop away areas that were to appear white on the illustration or cartoon. After
that was completed, the block was fastened into the press, inked, and printed.
Wood engraving was very popular for book and magazine illustrations
during much of the nineteenth century. Photochemical reproduction replaced
engraved woodblocks in commercial printing around 1880.