Both of these techniques arrive at the same destination, a wooden block with the background carved away, leaving a raised image which can be inked and printed by letterpress along with the types making up the text.

Boxwood sample from Hobbit House Inc.

They differ in that wood engraving is done on the end grain of a block of wood (often boxwood) whereas a woodcut will be done on the more easily worked side grain. In this photo the end grain is seen on the right hand side.

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) is credited with the invention of wood engraving, and he certainly was a master of the craft, engraving fine lines which the end grain could hold in a way that the side grain couldn’t.

However, one has to recall the detail which Albrecht Dürer had been able to achieve in his woodcuts four hundred years earlier. Here for example is St. John devouring the book from Revelations X.9 “And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.” Dürer’s book is surely a bit more than a “little book” but he does manage to get lots of fine detail into this woodcut. One commentator claimed you could read the words on the pages. The Web Gallery of Art enables you to increase the size of its image to 200%, but even at that I can’t tell whether the words really are recognizable.

By the early years of the nineteenth century the technology of printing illustrations in books had advanced to quite sophisticated levels. The peak of excellence was offered by copperplate engraving, whereby a craftsman delicately gouged out little lines of metal from a smooth plate to allow the remaining image to be printed either as an intaglio or a relief print. The stability of the metal allowed for delicate lines, and marked a significant advance over the earlier method of woodcuts.

But do not assume that just because something is better it automatically takes over from all contenders. There was a hefty installed base of woodcut operators, and because copperplates cost more and required printing on a separate press they were thus only employed on deluxe projects. (Because these copperplates had to be printed on a different press and added in later to the text pages, they were known as “plates”, a term we still use in a rather debased sense, sometimes even using it to designate just a full page halftone.)

One cannot perhaps argue that this whimsical vignette contains more detail than Dürer’s work; but this feather just wouldn’t have been possible as a woodcut.

Bewick was born in Mickley near Newcastle upon Tyne, and spent his working life in that city (recoiling from an eight-month stint in London). A better draftsman than scholar, Bewick was apprenticed at the age of fourteen to Ralph Bielby, an engraver, and quite quickly switched from engraving on metal to doing his work on end-grain boxwood. This was not only cheaper but enabled the engravings to be incorporated into pages of metal type and printed in one pass. The pinnacle of their partnership was the publication of Bewick’s A History of British Birds in two volumes, Land Birds (1797) and Water Birds (1804).

One of Bewick’s blocks







Here’s a video showing Thomas Shahan making a woodcut

If you don’t see a video here, click on the title of this post so that you can view it in your browser.

And now a video of a wood engraving:

The project described in this video was set up by the Hamilton Wood Type Museum. The engraving is being done on end grain maple off-cuts from their wooden type. As you can see the techniques are very similar, with a wood engraver being able to use finer tools to create tinier detail.

Jenny Uglow’s Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick is an excellent biography.