The Craft of Wood Engraving

Wood engraving is one of the earliest forms of illustration for books and newspapers. Prior to the invention of modern day photography and printing technology, an artist would painstakingly engrave an image by hand-cutting detailed grooves into a wood block, add ink, and gently apply pressure to achieve a printed image.

Over time, the process of printing has become much more efficient with the development of new technologies, yet for many, the process of wood engraving has endured as a creative form and artistic endeavor. 

The Wood Engravers Network (WEN) is a global group of wood engravers that works to raise awareness of the historic, yet, contemporary art of wood engraving. The group began with just 12 members in 1994 and has since grown to over 200 members from all over the world.

WEN provides a number of resource and benefits to its members, including a print exchange program, a directory of member sites, and a blog which chronicles events and member updates. The Network also hosts a number of workshops each summer in which professional and beginner engravers exchange knowledge of the craft and create long-lasting friendships.

Recently we had a chance to chat with WEN member, Tony Drehfal. Tony has been a member of WEN for over 10 years. He manages the WEN blog and has served as editor of their bi-annual newsletter Block & Burnin since 2006. His passion for the art form and enthusiasm for continued education can be seen in his most recent engraving Hidcote Steps.


How did you become involved with wood engraving?

I learned about wood engraving in 2002 at an intro class taught by Jim Horton at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia. After the class ended, Jim encouraged me to join WEN.

Simon Brett conducting a lesson at the 2003 WEN Summer Workshop

In 2003 I attended my first WEN Summer Workshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Simon Brett, the premiere British wood engraver, and author of Wood Engraving, how to do it, was the guest artist. The workshop was my first introduction to WEN at it’s best when its members meet together for a hands-on wood engraving week. I learned so much attending this Workshop, and since have attended eight more.

WEN Summer Workshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Can you tell us more about WEN?

In 1994, Jim Horton sent a letter out to a few people that he knew who were practicing wood engraving, inviting them to his home in rural Ann Arbor, Michigan for a wood engraving retreat. Jim had tools & presses and set up a tent for folks to work on their engravings outside. The gathering was such a hit, that it became an annual and essential activity of the Wood Engravers Network since.

The gatherings provide a tremendous learning opportunity for novice and experienced engravers. We sit together at large tables and work on drawings or blocks, much of the time with a steady flow of conversation and laughter. These artists freely share their knowledge and techniques, including how folks use their tools: blocks, burins, sandbags, brayers, ink, paper and printing press.

Hidecote Steps Artist Proof by Tony Drehfal

What was the inspiration behind Hidecote Steps?

Hidecote Steps is an homage to Thomas Bewick. Bewick was the first wood engraver, and set a lofty standard of skill. His work is considered the pinnacle of the medium.


Members of WEN viewing original Thomas Bewick engravings during the UK Workshop

A year ago, I had the good fortune to study the work of Bewick in detail, joining a UK touring Workshop. Holding Bewick’s engraved blocks and paging through books featuring his engravings – nothing compares to seeing the real thing. Reproductions of his engravings don’t come close to showing the richness and subtlety of a Bewick original.


A Thomas Bewick engraving

After returning home from UK, I purchased an 1828 edition of Bewick’s famous A General History of Quadrupeds. As I worked on Hidcote Steps, an image inspired by a visit to the Hidcote Manor Garden in the Cotswolds, I would study how Bewick engraved trees and plants and how he worked with white and dark with his imagery. I pushed what detail I could engrave to new limits with this piece.


Why do you choose Mohawk Options Navajo for your prints?

Wood engraving printed on Mohawk Options Navajo “pop” – they print crisp & clean and show every detail of finely engraved end-grain blocks. I was originally introduced to Mohawk Options Navajo, by WEN member Joanne Price. She met with Mohawk at Hound Dog Press, a letterpress printer in Louisville, Kentucky, and mentioned that she would soon be attending a WEN workshop, and that “wood engravers love Mohawk Superfine.” A Mohawk representative sent Joanne various samples of Mohawk Options Navajo and Mohawk Superfine to bring to the workshop for people to print with. All the paper was put to good use, and the Options Navajo paper was a hit. I put an order in for some Navajo when I returned home after the workshop.


Why is paper selection critical for wood engraving?

The art of wood engraving allows one to create a tremendous range of imagery, whether it is created by fine burin cut line work or gashed nail punched texture. Incredibly detailed engravings have been made using traditional Japanese Moku Hanga chisels as well as rotary cutting tools.


The paper used by engravers varies as much as their tools. When WEN-folks gather we “talk shop” and often paper choice is discussed. Fortunately it usually is a hands-on discussion, studying each other’s prints often using a magnifying glass.

Wood engraved images are often printed with a deep embossing, so a paper that can take and hold a deep impression is a must. Many of WEN’s members are letterpress artisans and their work co-mingles handset type and their wood engravings.

How long have you been using Mohawk Paper?

I have using Mohawk Superfine since I started wood engraving, as it has been a standard for wood engravers for years. Jim Horton calls Superfine his “go-to paper” and “elegant to the touch”. I find that Mohawk Superfine compliments the rich, sometimes silvery, subtlety of printed wood engravings very nicely. I look for a paper surface that picks up every nuance of an engraving, as my work gets pretty detailed, so Mohawk Superfine has been my first choice. The variety of color, weight and size in the Superfine line is a plus too.

When engraving fine detail, printing is a challenge. Getting good blacks without ink filling into fine detailed areas on the block is tough.  When it came time to edition the Hidcote Steps print, I used Options Navajo, and it’s extra smooth surface showed more detail with less ink rolled on. Blacks were black and detail held from start to finish.


What is the most important part of your craft?

The skillsets of drawing and wood engraving are thoroughly intertwined. The creation of a new wood engraving starts with pencil & pen studies in my sketchbook. Next a composition is transferred to the darkened end-grain block’s surface – drawn again.

The process of engraving is drawing with a variety of burins. The transferred drawn black lines on the block serve only as a guide, as the engraved lines take on their own life. Each cut with the burin’s tip appear as a white mark or line, it is like drawing with “light”. As my drawing skills improve my engravings get better, and vice versa. From start to finish, the art of drawing is paramount in the craft of wood engraving.

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by Dale Kennedy on 06.13.15 at 8:20 am

    What a fine presentation of the craft of wood engraving – a dandy discussion of the paper used in printing a block. I too use Mohawk Superfine as my go to paper, but look forward to trying the Navajo option.
    Maybe it will come close to printing like the beloved Basingwerk long out of production. Time will tell.

    Thanks Tony!
    Thanks Mohawk,

    Dale Kennedy

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