How Antique Printing Evolved

Johannes Gutenberg invented the Printing Press in 1452 in an effort to allow knowledge to be replicated. The Industrial Revolution was responsible for creating new printing methods dictated by materials available, the affluence of the customer, the demand for product and where in the world the work was produced. Printing technology evolved as population, literacy and affluence increased.

Wood Engraving was used in the beginning as a print making technique in which an artist worked an image onto a block of wood. A woodcut uses a relief printing process where the artist applies ink to the face of the block and makes the print by using relatively low pressure.

Thomas Beswick developed the wood engraving technique in Great Britain at the end of the 18th century. Beswick used an engravers burin as opposed to other traditional wood engraving tools with which he could create thin delicate lines. Beswick’s technique used the end grain of the wood as opposed to the older technique which used the softer side grain. The resulting increased hardness sand durability facilitated more detailed images.

These wood engraved blocks could be used on traditional printing presses which were going through rapid mechanical improvements during the early years of the 19th century. By mid 19th century, the quality of wood engravings rivalled that of copperplate engravings.

Copperplate Engraving and printing originated around 1450, about the same time as Johannes Gutenberg’s printing system using wooden blocks.

Engravers, often referred to as sculpsit, were often as talented or even more so in some cases than the actual artist. Engravers could make the penman or artist look terrific. Early engravers hand carved printing plates on sheets of copper. Copper was the metal o choice in the early days as it was soft and could produce excellent fine lines.

An engraver carved into the copper sheet with a tool called a burin, sometimes referred to as a graver. It was a sharp steel chisel with various interchangeable tips and lengths designed to make different cuts and lines. It had a cork knob for a handle which rested in the palm of the hand as the sculpsit (engraver) chiselled away at the metal, painstakingly reproducing an artist’s work. A single plate took from a few hours to days to complete.

Normally copper plates are used in a printing process known as ‘intaglio” from the Italian for “cutting in.” Thick, pasty ink is forced into the grooves of the engraving. The plate was then laid onto dampened paper and then, using considerable pressure on the printing press, the ink is forced off the plate onto the paper

The plate lines, still visible after drying, are an important characteristic of an original antique copperplate engraving and can easily be seen when identifying antique prints printed using this method.

Printing using copper plates, was limited to about 100 prints before the plate had to be replaced

Steel Engraving followed the Wood & Copper that were used in the beginning.
Engraving is one of the oldest most important techniques in printmaking. Steel engraving followed copper engraving.
Steel engraving employs the same technique as copper engraving but using steel or steel faced plates from about 1790 to the early 20th Century. Copper engraving was a very successful form of engraving but, as we know, copper is such a soft metal, its printing life was limited to about 100 prints before the engraved edges lost their crisp edges. Steel, being so much harder, allowed many more prints to be made before the plate lost its crisp edge. Growing affluence and demand for literacy and knowledge meant more durable materials needed to be used. Steel was harder, and once engraved, had longevity.

Lithographs usually cause some level of confusion whether you are a first time collector or an avid prints enthusiast, as to what a lithograph is, and how it is different from other types of prints on the market. Distinguishing Lithography from other printing processes can be especially difficult given the wide variety of prints available in the market. Original stone lithographs are also referred to as hand pulled as they are hand drawn on limestone or marble by the artist. 

Lithography was invented in Germany around 1796 by an otherwise unknown playwright, Alois Senefelder who accidentally discovered that he could duplicate his scripts by writing them in greasy crayon on slabs of limestone and then printing them with rolled on ink. Because the local limestone retained, so relentlessly, any crayon marks applied to its surface, even after repeated inking and printing, lithographs could be printed in almost unlimited quantities. Thanks to the ease of production and economical distribution, it did not take long for lithography to find a broad range of applications in both art and commerce
The word lithograph is derived from two ancient Greek words, “lithos” meaning “stones” and “graphien” meaning “to write.”
Lithographyis defined as a style of printing that uses the immiscibility of grease and water when they come into contact with each other.
While other methods of printing require etching and other forms of imprints, lithography is unique because it resembles painting more closely.

The artist makes a lithograph by drawing an image directly onto the stone with materials like litho crayons or special greasy pencils. The surface is then treated bonding the greasy drawing materials to the surface. This allows the areas that are drawn on to hold the ink. Once the area is inked, paper is laid over the stone and it is printed by passing through the litho press under enormous pressure

When improvements in printing technology made it possible to add colour to lithography, the Chromolithograph was born, commercial possibilities ballooned.