August 23, 2023

Printing Trades

         The 1827 edition of The Book of English Trades covers a variety of professions related to block printing, and I enjoy both reading how the jobs are described as well as seeing the woodcuts illustrating them.  I’ll start right in with two illustrations of The Engraver, from two different editions of this book.  The first is dated 1827, while the second is undated (some time between 1800-1829).  The second book is very much shorter and the text quite different in some places, while other sections are word-for-word the same.  After a lengthy description of the various processes of copper engraving and etching, we learn “Engraving on wood is a process exactly the reverse of engraving on copper.  In the latter the strokes to be printed are sunk or cut into copper, and a rolling press is used for printing it; but in engraving on wood all the wood is cut away except the lines to be printed, which are left standing up like types, and the mode of printing is the same as that used in letter-press.”  These illustrations both show copper engravers, as you can tell because they work on large sheets, while wood engraving would be much smaller pieces, usually placed on a sandbag.  I do like the pictures hanging on the walls, as well as the various tools on the tables.  The screen placed over the window in both
 pictures, “is to keep off the glare of light, which would be mischievous to the Engraver’s business.  The screen consists of four laths joined at their ends, and covered on both sides 
with silvered paper.”
  I certainly don’t use a screen like that when I work, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same set-up.
        Next we see The Copper-Plate Printer who prints the plates engraved or etched by the copper engraver.  And then I also have The Letter Press Printer, who prints, in addition to type, the wood engravings, as mentioned above: the former use a roller press, while the latter 
use a Gutenberg-style press.  Nowadays most printing studios have roller presses, whatever the type of block being pressed, but on the other hand there are now some small hand presses that use an action more like the downward pressure of the letterpress press.  These particular illustrations show a variety of additional details, including the printed sheets hung up to dry from clotheslines.  Also you can see the type cases with all their little cubbies, and in the second Letter-Press illustration you can also see the inker with his two round leather balls that are used instead of a brayer.
        Neither of the two printing professions shown here has much to do with me because I don’t use a press.  In some ways my printing process has more in common with The Calico 
Printer, who presses by hand.  (He presses his block down onto the fabric, though, whereas I usually press my paper onto my block.)  The description of the process could just as well refer to my own blocks, “Cutting the pattern in wood being the most curious part of the process, we shall describe that particularly… On this [block] the design is drawn; and those who cannot draw themselves make use of designs furnished by others whose profession is to draw patterns.  The drawing marks out so much of the block as is to be spaced or left standing.  The rest they cut off, and take away very curiously with the point of exceedingly sharp knives, or little chisels or gravers, according to the bigness or delicacy of the work; for they stand in need of no other instrument.”  For this pair of illustrations, the second book didn’t include the calico printer, so I’ve taken an illustration from a third book of trades, which dates to 1847 and the United States.  You can see that its illustrations are not as detailed or accurate - nor as pleasing - as the others.  But I do like its explanation, “The art of calico printing furnishes employment for a great number of persons, among whom are the pattern-drawer, who provides the design, the block cutter, and the engraver, who produce the blocks and cylinders for print, the chemist, who provides the colours, the printer, who applies them, and a great number of minor workmen.”  My artwork provides employment for only one - except that of course I, too, need the work of others to produce the paper and the ink, as well as all the tools I use.  It’s good to be reminded that everything we encounter required countless people to do their jobs to make it happen.
        Speaking of other people’s work, I shared this book’s illustrations of several other professions here.

[Pictures: The Engraver, The Copper-Plate Printer, The Letter Press Printer, and The Calico Printer, woodcuts from The Book of English Trades, and Library of Useful Arts, 1827 (Images from Internet Archive);

The Engraver, The Copper-Plate Printer, and The Letter Press Printer, woodcuts from The Book of Trades, 1800-1829 (Images from University of Wisconsin-Madison);

The Calico Printer, woodcut from The Book of Trades, 1847 (Images from Library of Congress).]

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