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Wood engraving is a technique in printmaking and letterpress printing where the "matrix" worked by the artist is a block of wood. Functionally a variety of woodcut, it uses relief printing, where ink is applied to the face of the block and printed using relatively low pressure. By contrast, ordinary engraving, like an etching, has a metal plate as a matrix and is printed by the intaglio method, where the ink fills the "valleys". As a result, wood engravings deteriorated much less quickly than copper-plate engravings and had a distinctive white-on-black character.
The technique of wood engraving was developed at the end of the 18th century by Thomas Bewick, whose work differed from earlier woodcuts in two key ways. First, rather than using woodcarving tools such as knives, Bewick used an engraver's burin (graver). With this he was able to create very thin delicate lines, often having large dark areas in the composition. Second, wood engraving traditionally utilizes the end grain of wood, while in the older technique of woodcut the softer side grain is used. The increased hardness and durability that resulted allowed for more detailed images.
Wood-engraved blocks could be used on conventional printing presses, which were themselves making rapid mechanical improvements during the first quarter of the 19th century. The blocks were made the same height as, and composited alongside, the movable type within a page layout; as such, thousands of copies of such an illustrated page could be printed with almost no deterioration of the illustration blocks. The combination of this new method of making relief printing blocks and mechanized printing allowed for a rapid expansion of illustrations in throughout the 19th-century. Further, advances in stereotyping and electrotyping allowed wood-engravings to be reproduced into metal, where they could be mass produced for sale to printers.
By the mid-19th century, many wood engravings rivaled those of copperplate engravings. Wood engraving was used to great effect by 19th century artists such as Edward Calvert, and its heyday lasted until the early and mid 20th century when remarkable achievements were made by Eric Gill, Eric Ravilious and others. Though less widely used now, the technique is still prized in the early 21st century as a high-quality specialist technique of book illustration, and is promoted by the Society of Wood Engravers who hold an annual exhibition in London and other regional British venues.
In 15th and 16th-century Europe, woodcuts were a common technique in printmaking and printing, yet their use as an artistic medium began declining in the 17th century. They were still being made for basic printing press work such as newspapers or almanacs, which required simple blocks that printed in relief with the text, rather than the more elaborate intaglio forms which predominated in book illustrations and artistic printmaking at the time, yet had to be printed with separate plates and techniques.
The modern techniques of wood engraving developed at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, with the works of Englishman Thomas Bewick. Bewick generally made his engraving in harder woods, such as boxwood, than those which had been used in woodcuts, and he would engrave the end of a block instead of the side. Finding a woodcutting knife not suitable for working against the grain in harder woods, Bewick used a burin (or graver), an engraving tool the which has a V-shaped cutting tip. From the beginning of the nineteenth century Bewick's techniques gradually came into wider use, especially in Britain and the United States.
The technique was introduced into the United States by Dr. Alexander Anderson who, having been impressed by the works of Bewick, reverse engineered and imitated his technique—using metal until he learned that Bewick instead used wood. There it was further expanded upon by his students, Joseph Alexander Adams,
Growth of illustrated publications 
Besides its use for interpreting details of light and shade, the method found another use from the 1820s onwards as a means of reproducing freehand line drawings. This was in many ways an unnatural application, since the engravers were obliged to cut away almost all the surface of the block in order to leave printable the black lines of the artist's drawing; nonetheless, it became by far the most common use of wood engraving.
Examples include the cartoons of Punch magazine, the pictures in the Illustrated London News and Sir John Tenniel's illustrations to Lewis Carroll's works, the latter engraved by the firm of Dalziel Brothers. In the United States, wood-engraved publications also began to take hold, such as Harper's Weekly.
Frank Leslie, a British-born engraver who had headed the engraving department of the Illustrated London News, immigrated to the United States in 1848, where he developed a means to divide the labor for making wood engravings. A single design would be divided into a grid, with each engraver working on a square in the grid. The blocks were then assembled together to form a singular large image. This process formed the basis for his Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, which competed with Harper's in illustrating scenes from the American Civil War.
New techniques and technologies 
By the mid-19th century, the technique of electrotyping was developed, which enabled a wood engraving to be reproduced into metal. By this method, a single wood-engraving could be mass-produced for sale to printshops, and the original retained without wear.
Until 1860, artists working for engraving had to paint or draw directly on the surface of the block and the original artwork was actually destroyed by the engraver. In that year, however, the engraver Thomas Bolton invented a process for transferring a photograph onto the block.
At about the same time, French engravers developed a modified technique (partly a return to that of Bewick) in which cross-hatching (one set of parallel lines crossing another at an angle) was almost entirely eliminated; instead, all gradations of tone were rendered by white lines of varying thickness and closeness, sometimes broken into dots for the darkest areas. This technique can be seen in the engravings from Gustave Doré's drawings.
Towards the end of the century, a combination of Bolton's 'photo on wood' process and the increased technical virtuosity initiated by the French school gave wood engraving a new application as a means of reproducing drawings in water-colour wash (as opposed to line drawings) and actual photographs. This is exemplified in the illustrations to The Strand Magazine during the 1890s. With the new century, improvements in the half-tone process rendered this kind of reproductive engraving obsolete, although in a less sophisticated form it survived in advertisements and trade catalogues until about 1930. With this change, wood engraving was left free to develop as a creative form in its own right, a movement prefigured in the late 1800s by such artists as Joseph Crawhall II and the Beggarstaff Brothers.
Wood engraving blocks are typically made of boxwood or other hardwoods such as lemonwood or cherry. They are expensive to purchase because end-grain wood must be a section through the trunk or large bough of a tree. Some modern wood engravers use substitutes made of PVC or resin, mounted on MDF, which produce similarly detailed results of a slightly different character.
The block is manipulated on a "sandbag" (a sand-filled circular leather cushion), enabling curved or undulating lines to be produced with minimal manipulation of the actual tool being used.
Wood engravers use a range of specialist tools. The lozenge graver is similar to the burin used by copper engravers of Bewick's day, and comes in different sizes; there are also various sizes of V-shaped graver used for hatching. Other more flexible tools include the spitsticker, which will produce fine undulating lines; the round scorper, which is excellent for textures involving curves; and the flat scorper which is useful for clearing larger areas.
Wood engraving is generally a black-and-white technique. However there are a handful of wood engravers who also work in colour, using three or four blocks of primary colours, a similar principle to the four-colour process in modern printing. To do this, the printmaker must register the blocks (have a system to make sure that they are all printed in exactly the same place on the page).
Recently, lasers have begun to be used for wood engraving.
Notable wood engravers 
- Joseph Alexander Adams
- Leonard Baskin
- Thomas Bewick
- Edward Calvert
- Vija Celmins
- Timothy Cole
- Arthur Comfort
- Rosemary Feit Covey
- Honoré Daumier
- John DePol
- Gustave Doré
- Nicolas Eekman
- Fritz Eichenberg
- Andy English
- William Biscombe Gardner
- Eric Gill
- Greta Hopkinson
- Barbara Howard, RCA
- Blair Hughes-Stanton
- Eduard Magnus Jakobson
- David Jones (poet)
- Rockwell Kent
- Paul Landacre
- John Lawrence
- Clare Leighton
- Frank Leslie
- William James Linton
- Iain Macnab
- Adolph Menzel
- Barry Moser
- John Nash (artist)
- Paul Nash (artist)
- Thomas Nast
- Agnes Miller Parker
- Garrick Palmer
- H.W. Peckwell (artist)
- Eric Ravilious
- Gwen Raverat
- Don Rico
- Gaylord Schanilec
- John Steins
- Reynolds Stone
- John Thompson
- Félix Vallotton
- Lynd Ward
- Alexander Weygers
- John Buckland Wright
See also 
- Flammarion engraving, a celebrated wood engraving.
- Richter, Emil Heinrich (1914). Prints : a brief review of their technique and history. Boston: Houghton. pp. 114–115, 118–119.
- Fuller, Sarah E. (1867). A Manual of Instruction in the Art of Wood Engraving. Boston: J. Watson. pp. 6–9.
- Emerson, William Andrew (1876). Practical Instruction in the Art of Wood Engraving. East Douglass, Mass.: C.J. Batcheller. pp. 51–52.
- Brett, Simon. An engravers globe( ) ISBN 1-901648-12-5
- Brett, Simon. Wood Engraving: How to do it (3rd ed. 2011 ) ISBN 1-901648-23-0; 1-901648-24-9 (hbk.)
- Simon Brett, Engravers: A Handbook for the Nineties (1987. Silent Books)
- Carrington, James B.. 'American Illustration and the Reproductive Arts', in Scribner's Magazine; ( July 1992), pp. 123–128.
- Garrett, Albert. British Wood Engraving of the 20th Century: A Personal View (1980)
- Garrett, Albert. A History of British Wood Engraving (1978)
- O'Donnell, Kevin E. "Book and Periodical Illustration [in America, 1820-1870." American History through Literature, 1820-1870. Ed. Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons (2006), 144-48.
- Pery, Jenny. A Being more Intense: the art of six wood engravers (2009. Oblong Creative, Wetherby, UK)
- Uglow, Jenny (2006). Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick. Faber and Faber.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Wood engravings|
- Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on wood engraving
- Wood Engravers Network
- Society of Wood Engravers