Early woodblock printing

I was introduced to the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle illustrations and the work of the ‘formschneider’ as a student in the 1950s. Three years ago I came across a method for transferring images onto a woodblock without the need for tracing and this looked as if it might offer the opportunity to copy accurately and re-cut an illustration from the Chronicle in order to discover more about how it was made.

The picture below is from the Chronicle and is of Troy. (the same picture is used in the Chronicle for four other towns). Figure 2 is a laser print of the same image pasted face down on a pear wood  block . The print has been dampened after drying and is being gently rubbed to remove the paper backing.

The transfer method is very simple and remarkably accurate. A laser print is made of the image to be copied. The surface of a woodblock is next coated with an acrylic gel such as Liquidex. The laser print is then placed face down on the block and rubbed all over to make sure that its whole surface is in contact with the wood. On drying the gel glues the laser image to the wood. By re-damping the back of the print and gently rubbing with a finger it is possible to remove the paper whilst leaving the image intact on the block. For those of us interested in woodblock printing this method has the added bonus that the image is automatically reversed so that when engraved the image is right reading.

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Figure 1 Original image of Troy (Nuremberg Chronicle 1493)
Figure 2 The dampened paper being rubbed away revealing the image on the block

Fig 3 Enlargement of a portion of fig 2

The wood used in these early cuts was sawn into planks along the grain using reasonably soft close grained woods such as apple, pear or plum. End grain boxwood favoured by 19th century wood engravers was probably not used as it would have been too hard and would not have been available in large enough sizes. Furthermore, the tools used on end grain boxwood (the graver and burin) do not work well across the grain. Because of this most authorities now make a distinction between ‘woodcutting’ (work done along the grain using knives) and ‘wood engraving’ done on end grain using the graver and burin.  However this distinction between the two techniques based on the tool use was not adopted by commentators in the nineteenth century who used the terms interchangeably. (See A Treatise on Wood Engraving by Jackson and Chatto and Wood Engraving A manual of instruction by W J Linton)

It is clear from looking carefully at a print such as the Troy image (Fig. 1) that knives were used  extensively particularly to protect black lines. But not I believe exclusively. To cut the shadings such as may be seen on all the roofs with a knife would require four cuts for each sliver of wood removed and would be very slow. A fine and sharp gouge pushed through the wood in the way a graver is used on end grain works very satisfactorily regardless of grain direction when used on pear wood.

There is so much of this close parallel shading in all the Chronicle illustrations that I just cannot believe that the advantages of using fine gouges to do this would have been ignored.

Fig. 4 shows my first attempt at a replicating the Troy image on plank grain pear wood using fine gouges as well as knives. Fig. 5 is a print from this block. Clearly my attempt falls well short of the original but I think it does come close enough to justify my view that the original cutting did not use the knife exclusively.

Figure 4 replica of the Troy image cut on pear wood using gouges as well as knives

Figure 5 Print from the replica cut

Most of the drawings of towns and cities in the Chronicle are unremarkable and quite formulaic. The ways for representing water, trees, mountains roofs, dormers etc. is repeated endlessly from drawing to drawing even though given the large number of images it is probable that a number of artists were involved. The work of cutting the blocks will have been carried out by the ‘formschneider’, artisans highly trained in cutting away the non printing areas of the block whilst leaving the drawn lines intact. By attempting to do the same thing I have come to realise just how slavishly they followed the drawing. Time and again I came across situations where the cutting could be simplified without any detrimental affect to the design but this route is never taken; the drawing is always followed meticulously. The cutting is quite remarkable even when the drawing is not. Below is another of my attempts to replicate one of the Chronicle images. It is the right hand page of the centre spread depicting Nuremberg. Fig. 7 is an enlargement of a portion the block used to make this print.

Fig 6 My replica cut of the right hand centre page of the chronicle depicting Nuremberg

Fig 7 Enlarged detail of the Nuremberg replica cut