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Wood engraving – letterpress commons

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Wood engraving lends itself especially well to highly detailed images with a wide range of textures. The dense material of the finest boxwood engraving blocks will support the cutting of almost hair-thin line work.

wood bowl carving tools


Direct Drawing

The simplest method of preparing an image on the block is to draw directly on the wood surface with pencil or fine-tipped marking pen, bearing in mind the resulting image will be reversed when printed. When using pencil a spray fixative should be used over the image. When using a pen be careful to find a suitable pen that will not rub off while engraving.

tools to carve wood


Burnishing or Transferring the Image

The simplest method of transfer is to draw the image to size using a medium lead pencil using a sheet of high-quality vellum tracing paper. The sheet can then be turned drawing-side down onto the surface of the block and fixed into position with masking tape. The pencilled image as seen through the tracing paper can then be burnished with a burnishing tool or a bone folder to transfer the pencilled lines onto the surface of the block. Care must be used to not apply too much pressure so as to damage the block, but enough pressure applied to transfer the pencilled lines. If the sheet is allowed to remain taped to one side of the block, the sheet can be lifted to check for progress, and re-attached when needed. After the image is transferred it can be re-drawn using a fine- tipped marker or can be fixed using a spray fixative.

carving wood tools


Materials required for the next method are carbon paper or graphite transfer paper, and a copy of the image reversed for printing, sized for the block to be used. The carbon paper or graphite paper is sandwiched, face down, between the drawing and the wood surface and a ballpoint pen or other stylus is used to trace the drawing. The resulting pressure will transfer a copy in carbon or graphite to the surface. Too much pressure can cause undesirable denting of the block.В The drawing to be traced should be reversed rather than right reading. The resulting line transfer should be re-drawn with a marking pen or fixed with a spray fixative to prevent it from wiping off during carving.

wood etching tool


The toner transfer method is technically complicated, but yields very fidelitous results, important if the image has a high level of detail. This technique of image transfer to the block requires the use of a heated transfer tool, a photocopy and mineral spirits.This method should only be used in a properly ventilated and fire safe environment. The transfer tool is hot enough to cause severe burns and must be kept under observation during use. Mineral spirits are flammable and should be stored and applied in an area away from the area where the transfer tool is set up to be used for the procedure.

Materials needed:

Heat transfer tool not greater than 18w capacity. These are available widely in stores selling wood carving tools and most craft stores. Higher wattage tools will scorch the wood immediately and cannot be used.

Odorless Mineral Spirits

Photocopy made on a non-fusing oil or dry toner type copier of the ‘right reading’ and properly sized image for the intended block. The fresher the copy the easier the toner will transfer.

Steps: Photocopy is placed face down, aligned properly and secured to the block with tape.

Plug in the transfer tool and allow to heat up to operating temperature. (5-10 min)

A cotton ball, cotton makeup applicator or clean cloth is wetted with a small amount of odorless mineral spirits and rubbed over the entire image area of the photocopy until the paper is just wetted enough to be translucent, no liquid is apparent.

Fully heated transfer tool is worked over the paper surface in the image area. wisps of pale smoke may rise from the surface, keep the tool firmly and flatly pressed to the surface and constantly moving, paper should dry, become opaque again and stiffen as you work, this is a good indication you have heated the area adequately. If the paper begins to discolor you have overheated that area.

Continue working until the image is completely transferred.

Warnings: Synthetic material should definitely be tested for suitably on a piece of test or scrap to find out if the material can withstand the high heat. Even the material withstands heat acceptably pausing in one area too long may cause scorching, keep tool in constant motion. Tool will cool during the image transfer process; working methodically in small areas with occasional pauses to allow the tool to recover proper operating temperature will give the best results.

Once the image has been transferred, staining the block with a thin application of a contrasting transparent ink color (red, blue etc,) rubbed into the surface will help to delineate worked and unworked areas and the block is engraved. This is especially important in wood engraving as the fine lines and detail can be difficult to see while working. A fine chalk or talc can be used while engraving to see the contrasting lines, but must be completely removed before proofing.

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