The progress of human civilization created a demand for information. Gutenberg's innovation of the use of movable type was a step in that evolution. There also emerged a need to reproduce images. Wood became the first medium for printmaking.
The earliest known European woodcut was the St. Christopher, dated 1423. The subjects were often religious, and used as souvenirs of pilgrimages to the shrines of saints.The Germans, such as Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and the Formschneider engravers raised the woodcut to a fine art .
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw woodcut decline to a crude manner, often used in what were called "Chapbooks." They were popular with people, and were effective means to illustrate fables and the journalism of the time.
Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). A British engraver, Bewick developed the use of the medium as an end-grain process to it's potential. His small vignettes, illustrations of birds and animals are masterpieces of engraving. Bewick's apprentices spread the craft throughout England, and lead to the Victorian era demand for fine illustration. In America, a physician, Alexander Anderson (1775-1870) brought the craft to a fine art as well.
The practice of wood engraving was a natural for Newspaper, book and periodical illustration. It was the only printing medium that could be simultaneously printed with type as text. It also became prevalent in commercial graphics. For example, the publication in 1842 of The Illustrated London News attracted worldwide attention and demand. The beauty and excellence of the engravings are unsurpassed in the history of art, as images which captured the spirit of the human drama. Often, copies of engravings were cast in metal for duplication. These duplicates called Stereotypes could be sent throughout the world for journalistic purposes.
In America, engravers were also active. Publications such as Leslie's Popular Monthly, Harpers,Scribner's and The Century Magazine featured the engravings of famed Timothy Cole and the leading engravers of the day. Examine a wood engraving with magnification. You will see the tool marks rendered as fine lines as opposed to the dots of a halftone. Frequently the engraver signed his name and added an "SC" which stood for sculptor.
The turn of the century saw the era of private presses use wood engraving again as fine book illustration and limited edition prints ( those purely for the sake of the beauty of the print and the personal vision of the artist-engraver). That tradition continues today.
Steel engraving is a commercial engraving technique for printing illustrations, based on steel instead of copper. It has been rarely used in artistic printmaking, although was much used for reproductions in the 19th century. Steel engraving was introduced in 1792 by Jacob Perkins (1766-1849), an American Inventor, for the use of banknote printing. When Perkins moved to London in 1818, the technique in 1820 became adapted by Charles Warren and especially by Charles Heath (1785-1848) for Thomas Campbell's Pleasures of Hope with the first published plates engraved on steel. The new technique only partially replaced the other commercial techniques of that time as woodcut, wood engraving, and later lithography. All the illustrations of the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1911 are steel engravings.
Most engraving is done by laying out the broad, general outline onto the plate first. This is commonly referred to simply as etching. After this step is complete the artist can move to strictly engraving the work. The tool most commonly used for engraving is the burin, which is a small bar of hardened steel with a sharp point. This is pushed along the plate to produce thin strips of waste metal and thin furrows. This is followed by a scraper which removes any burs as they will be an impediment to the ink. It is important to note that engraving must be done in the reverse or mirror image, so that the image faces the correct way when the die prints. One trick of the trade was for engravers to look at the object that they were engraving through a mirror so that the image was naturally reversed and they would be less likely to engrave the image incorrectly. Steel plates can be case hardened to ensure that they can print thousands of times with little wear. Copper plates cannot be case hardened but can be steel-faced or nickel-plated to increase their life expectancy.
During the 1820s steel began to replace copper as the preferred medium of commercial publishers for illustration, replacing etching but rivalled still by wood engraving and later lithography. This produced plates with shaper, harder, more distinct lines. Also, the harder steel plates produced much longer wearing dies that could strike thousands of copies before they would need any repair or refurbishing engraving. The hardness of steel also allowed for much finer detail than would have been possible under copper which would have quickly deteriorated under the stress. As the nineteenth century began to close, devices such as the ruling machine made even greater detail possible allowing for more exact parallel lines in a very close proximity. Commercial etching techniques also gradually replaced it.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, new tools made engraving much easier and more exact. One of these tools is the Geometrical Lathe. The Lathe is used to engrave images on plates, which are in turn engraved on rolls for the use of such methods as printing bank notes. The other of these tools is the Engraving Machine. This machine uses a master template to lightly engrave a duplicate image which can be then engraved by hand or by acid method. The machine also makes possible the reduction or enlargement of the letter for the duplicate engraving, in its broadest sense, the art of cutting lines in metal, wood, or other material either for decoration or for reproduction through printing. In its narrowest sense, it is an intaglio printing process in which the lines are cut in a metal plate with a graver, or burin. Furrows are cleanly cut out, raising no burr, and then filled with ink which is transferred under high pressure to the printing surface of the press. The earliest known engravings printed on paper date from about the middle of the 15th cent. Among the early master engravers were Dürer, Schongauer, and Lucas van Leyden.