Steve Bartrick Antique Prints & Maps

Information - Printing Methods

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Line engraving has a very long history. Developed during the fifteenth century, engraving was at first traditionally regarded as a branch of the goldsmith's art. During the latter 15th century and into the 16th century the art of engraving was developed to a very high degree by the Italian school, often by artists who turned their hands to engraving. Rapidly following them the Nuremburg school in Germany (Martin Schongauer, Durer, Van Mechens) took engraving to new heights of technical perfection. After this time the art of engraving gradually spread throughout Europe, England had resident engravers and the start of a school by around 1600.

The Technique -

Most plates that are classed as engraved start out by having parts of the main design etched first. (See Etching.) Etching gives a greater freedom and ease in laying down bold areas of design, the finishing and detail then being added by pure engraving.

The engraver used a burin (illustration above), or graver, which was a prism shaped bar of steel with a sharp point and wooden handle. This was pushed across the surface of the plate away from the artist, the palm was used to push the burin and it was guided by the thumb and forefinger. The action of engraving produced thin strips of waste metal and left thin furrows in the plate's surface, to take the ink. Any burr left on the edge of the engraved lines was removed with a 'scraper'.

To the left is an image of part of a copper plate, click on the image to see a much closer view. Marks left by the burin can be seen in the wider lines.

This is the image produced by the same area of the plate. As can be seen the image is reversed, the engraver always had to reverse left and right when working, occasionally letters can be seen on engravings the wrong way around due to a lapse of concentration on the engraver's part.


The illustration to the left, dating from 1805, shows the engraver working at a table with the image propped in such a way that he can view it in a mirror, thereby reversing the image.

Up to about 1820 the metal plate used was copper. A copper plate could be used several hundred times to produce a print, by which time the image quality would have deteriorated due to wear of the soft metal. Reworking of the plate would then be necessary by the engraver to improve the quality.

Copper, being a soft metal, was easier to engrave than steel allowing the artist more freedom in the effects that could be produced. Also, being soft, the engraved lines were not as fine or hard edged as possible with steel. These two effects tended to allow a richer, warmer feel to good copper engraved prints when compared to those printed from steel plates.

Another advantage of copper was that to make alterations to plates, such as updating maps, possible to accomplish. The plate could be heated and beaten out flat in the area to be changed, this would then be polished smooth and re-engraved.

Illustrated to the left is a fine copper engraved print by T. Bonnor, dating from 1771 (the subject is Bibury in Gloucestershire). Although much reduced in size it can still be seen that the print has a 'rich' warm feel. The area within the black rectangle is shown below at about 2x magnification, note the soft appearance of the hay ridges in the field to the right.

For greater detail this link shows a close up of an area of the hay field about 2 cms square. The tree and hedges were probably etched first, the further detail and the hay field being engraved.


Sometimes quite serious defects could occur early in the life of a copper plate, as with John Speed's map of Warwickshire - the heavy engraved lines around the town plan of Warwick on the top left of the map caused the plate to crack early in it's life, eventually causing that part of the plate to become completely detached.

Steel Engraving -

During the 1820's steel replaced copper for many types of plate. Steel gives a much harder wearing plate, that could be used for thousands of impressions before signs of wear appeared. Steel also allowed much finer detail to be engraved, which would quickly have worn on a copper plate. However, the task of engraving became much more difficult due to the change in metal, necessitating changes in methods and finer, harder, tools.

At first the great advantage of steel seemed as if it were about to give a new lease of life to line engraving. There was a new impetus given to book illustrations, the much greater number of impressions possible from a steel plate reduced to cost of producing illustrated books, therefore opening up new markets to publishers at a time when there was a steady increase in potential customers.

The 1820s - 1840s was the last great age for line engraving, with many superb works of art being produced by now almost forgotten engravers. Steel allowed line engraving to be pushed to extreme limits, with prints being produced in which it is only possible to distinguish the individual lines with a magnifying glass.

To the left is an engraving after Birket Foster showing Heidelberg. The actual print is only about 16 x 11 cms, click here to see progressive enlargements of part of the print showing the detail down to a very small area. 1- about actual size, 2 - some of the buildings enlarged, 3 - one building greatly enlarged, this area is about 1 cm wide on the actual print.

Books illustrated with plates after artists such as J.M.W. Turner and engraved by highly skilled master craftsmen such as Henry LeKeux abounded. There were topographical and 'picturesque' publications such as Finden's Ports and Harbours of Great Britain, annuals containing prints of all types of subject, chosen for their attractiveness, volumes reproducing famous paintings, portraits such as those found in Lodge's Portraits of the Illustrious Personages of Great Britain etc.

Often these heavily illustrated works were produced in parts, sold weekly or monthly, each containing a few plates with some letterpress, these parts could then be bound as the finished volumes when complete.

By the mid nineteenth century distinct techniques had become almost 'de rigour' for engraving various parts of a plate - the sky, flesh tones, trees, water, fabrics, metal etc. Plates were no longer engraved by one but by several people who specialised in various techniques. This led to a gradual deterioration in the artistic worth of the prints produced, engraving became more of a manufacture than an art.

Some of the task of engraving on steel was eased by inventions such as the ruling machine, originally developed in the late eighteenth century, which could be used to engrave large numbers of close parallel lines, mainly used for such areas as sky, as seen to the left.

Later in the nineteenth century the technique was developed to deposit a very thin coating of steel on a copper plate, this made it even easier to produce 'steel' engravings and accelerated the decline in quality.

How to distinguish between copper and steel engravings - Look at the date of publication (if shown), if it's before 1821 it will be copper, if after 1830 almost certainly steel. If it is undated, or between these dates, one can still usually tell from the style of engraving. With copper engravings areas of parallel lines are further apart, the lines look heavier and the impression has an overall softer, warmer feel. Steel engravings have an almost silvery feel, the parallel and cross-hatched lines are much closer together and sharper, see illustrations above.