How Antique Prints Were Engraved In Europe
A description of how an antique print was made with engraving
In printing, to engrave means to carve a pattern in a printing plate.
The earliest known European engraving is from 1446. Since then, the process has evolved, but the basics remain the same.
The basic process is to engrave the image on a metal plate, apply ink to it, wipe it so the ink only remains in the engraved lines, then press it onto paper to produce a print of the image.
Depending on the number and thickness of the engraving lines, an artist can make highly detailed images or images with a sketchy quality,
The images below are an engraving from 1693 by Pietro Santi Bartoli, and a portion of it magnified fifty times. Notice the variation in thickness and angle of lines - this engraver was an exceptional artist and craftsman.
- European Antique Print
- Copper engraving of Roman Frieze
- By Pietro Santi Bartoli (1693)
- Magnified X 50
- The work of a master engraver
- Notice the variation in lines
The basic engraving process:
1. Choose the material for the printing plate
The most common materials used were made were wood, copper and steel.
2. Cut the image into the printing plate
The engraved lines are carved with an engraving tool called a burin. This is a chisel with a sharp V-shaped end. The engraver pushes its point into the plate and guides it along, carving out a groove.
- Engraving tools
Engraved lines are pointed at each end. This is caused by the burin being pushed 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.
2. Apply ink to the plate
Ink is spread onto the plate, then the plate is wiped clean leaving only the ink held in the engraved lines. Most ink goes into the deepest lines.
3. Press the printing plate onto paper
The plate is laid on the printing press. Damp 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.
4. Hand color the engraving if desired
Colored engravings were virtually always colored by hand with water colors.