Introduction to Engraving:   

Engraving is the process of creating incisions in the shape of the desired design on a flat surface by cutting grooves onto it with a burin. The result is a decorated object in itself or when a surface like silver, gold, steel, or glass may be engraved they provide an intaglio printing plate made of copper or any other metal to print images on paper as prints or illustrations. These so-called images that are produced as a result are known as “engravings”.   

File:Anatomical engraving of a horse. Wellcome V0016883.jpg - Wikimedia  Commons

Anatomical engraving print of a horse

Engraving is one of the oldest methods and most important technique when it comes to printmaking. Historically, engraving was an important tool used in engraving printing to produce engraving designs on paper. It was used for mapmaking as well as for commercial reproductions of illustrations for books and magazines. However, now the engraving process has been replaced by the photographic process; that is much more commercially viable. Partly because it is a tedious process, and is a difficult technique to learn. The work that had to be engraved is first scribed on the metal surface before the design is cut out and then transferred on paper or any other material using various chemicals in combination with an inkjet.  

Engraving designs are oftentimes used for black and white print; these engraving designs require a high degree of expertise to distinguish the engravings from prints that use other techniques like etching or mezzotint or other techniques. Sometimes expert engravers used to mix multiple engraving styles on the same plate thus making matters more confusing. They would use line engravings, steel engravings, etc. for reproductive prints, illustrations in books and magazines and other similar products rather than use traditional engraving practices.   

Other terms used for engraving printing are copper plate engraving or line engraving. Steel engraving is also a popular technique that is used to create steel plates that are used to make banknotes, illustrations for magazines, books, letterheads, etc. and has been in use since 1790 to about the early 20th century.   

Traditional engraving designs like those by burin or with a machine continue to be used today by goldsmiths, glass engravers, gunsmiths and others. However today use of machines and industrial techniques are used more commonly to create engraving designs or engraving paintings- techniques such as photo engraving or laser engraving have increased in popularity and have important applications.   

Engraving process:  

Engraving is an intaglio printmaking process in which lines or insertions are cut on to a metal plate to hold the ink within its grooves. In engraving, the plate may be made of copper or zinc or any other metal, as mentioned earlier.   

The metal plate is first thoroughly polished so that it can be free of any scratches or imperfections. The idea is to remove any unwanted lines from the surface and have only those that are intentional. When making an engraving, a direct incision or cut is made onto the surface by the printmaker to form a composition with the help of a sharp tool that is known as a burin. A burin is a steel shaft ending with a diamond-shaped tip that is set onto a wooden handle.   

The printmaker holds the burin from the wooden handle and grips the shaft with the thumb and third finger. When pressure is applied the burin is set to engrave onto the surface of the plate. It cuts away a thin layer of metal to create a sunken line or groove in the plate. Different burins are used for different impacts, as the size of the burin has a direct effect on the size of the incision lines. The line size is also dependent on the pressure applied by the craftsman. Thus, creating smooth lines requires both strength and control.   

The metal plate is then placed on a sandbag or pillow to help manipulate and move the plate to create curved lines. To enhance the composition the printmaker uses the system of hatching. Once the full composition is cut out on the plate, it is ready to be inked. Once the ink is applied and the excess is taken off, a starched cheesecloth known as tarlatan rag is used to clean the surface.   

Engraving printing:  

To conclude, engraving is the process of manually incising into an engraving plate using a burin- an engraving tool that is like a fine chisel. It has a lozenge-shaped tip and is used to make incisions at various angles with varying pressure. This eventually dictates the quantity of ink a line can hold, and hence variations of widths are used.   

The technique of engraving dates far back to classical relic days, as it was a popular method of decorating objects. It was however not until 1430 in Germany that plates were created for engraving printings.   

Today photo printing has taken over traditional methods of engraving. It uses acid to etch a photographically designed image on a metal plate that can then be printed from. Engraving is the oldest intaglio technique which refers to all printing techniques in which an image is incised onto a surface, and the grooves hold ink.