Wood Engraving: The Art of Wood Engraving & Relief Engraving

Boston, David Godine, 2006. 80pp. $24.95.


The art of wood engraving is a conspicuous presence in the contemporary fine press world due, in large part, to publications by Primrose Hill Press, Whittington Press, Barbarian Press, and numerous other private presses using engravings to illustrate their texts. The British Society of Wood Engravers and the North American Wood Engraver’s Network have kept the art alive and thriving with shows, workshops, and publications, as have individual engravers who conduct workshops and give demonstrations. I contend that there is a wood engraving renaissance taking place, or, as Martin Antonetti writes in the preface to Barry Moser‘s new wood engraving manual, a great surge of interest in the medium. One has only to look through Simon Brett’s great compendium of engravers from around the world, An Engraver’s Globe, to see that engraving has limitless possibilities for personal expression and technical experiment. Given this upsurge in interest, a simple, easy-to-follow manual of instruction in the art of engraving is vital. In 2000, Simon Brett’s manual Wood Engraving: How to Do It, was reissued and now Barry Moser has published Wood Engraving: The Art of Wood Engraving & Relief Engraving. There can never be too many books of instruction because there are so many different approaches, techniques and tricks. Students of the art need to experience a variety of approaches until they find the one that works for them.

Barry Moser is arguably America’s foremost wood engraver today. He is prolific, having illustrated over 200 books, some from his Pennyroyal Press (both the Alice books, Frankenstein, Huckleberry Finn, numerous trade edition books, and his masterwork, from the Pennyroyal Caxton Press, The Holy Bible with 232 engravings. Having engraved for more than thirty-five years, he has ‘gotten the hang of the medium’ and has generously written this manual to guide others in getting the hang of it too.

The book begins with a preface by Martin Antonetti, curator of the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College, giving a very interesting and well-researched history of wood engraving. Barry then gives a short history of his introduction to wood engraving and his theory, first brought to his attention by Fritz Eichenberg, that wood engraving is simple, ‘—So simple in fact that I can tell anyone everything I know about it in an hour — less than an hour if I don’t get sidetracked with stories about my aunt Velma, my dog Roosevelt, or David Kindersley.’  I can attest to the efficacy of this theory because I learned to engrave while walking down a side street in Northampton, Massachusetts years ago with Barry (he probably doesn’t even remember this), asking him how he engraved. He told me, very basically, what tools I needed, where to get them, and how to proceed. It has been all trial and error and practice for me ever since, and this is the basic theme that runs throughout the entire book: ‘it will require of any newcomer years of persistence and dedication, indefatigable energy, and a little blood to perfect it. There are no shortcuts . . . the only way to do this is to work. Work, work, work.’

Barry takes the reader/student step by step through the entire process of engraving starting with the block, what it is and how to prepare it, to dampening the paper and printing the finished block. As he goes along he intersperses the instruction with humor, personal anecdotes, and stories, such as the time he first visited the famous T.N. Lawrence & Sons of Bleeding Heart Yard in London, makers of the finest engraving blocks to be had at the time. As Barry takes you through the process you feel as though you are sitting next to him in his studio and getting a private lesson. Each step is explained clearly and simply with all the tricks and pitfalls included plus the hard lessons he has learned through thirty-five years of trial and error. The student is benefiting from his mistakes. Barry is very thorough and there is not one aspect of engraving that he doesn’t cover in detail; the student will learn to engrave by reading this book.

The book is beautifully designed; the layout is such that it is very easy to find a section that the student might want to refer back to and each topic is illustrated with clear and concise photographs and informative asides in the margins. Barry’s writing style is highly readable and his technical descriptions easily understood. The book is also liberally illustrated with Barry’s engravings, and in the back of the book, in ‘A Gallery of Prints,’ he has included his very first engraving. There is hope for us all.

One aspect of the book I was glad to see was his advocacy of the use of blocks other than wood. He was hesitant at first to use a synthetic block: ‘I would hold up this little piece of gray plastic, point my finger at it, sneer, and say, “Some people claim you can cut this stuff, but I doubt it, because it’s plastic, and plastic begins with ‘P’ and so does politician and I don’t trust either one.”‘ But he came around when he tried it and now uses the material, Resingrave, almost exclusively. There are other synthetic blocks available too and it is okay to use them; in engraving the end justifies the means and the effects are the same. With good wood becoming scarce and the quality diminishing, it makes sense to try other materials.

Another important theme running throughout the book is, ‘you must remember that there really aren’t any rules in this business. If it works, it works and damn the rules.’ He tells the student, ‘Experiment, as I have done, and find your own way.’ This is so important and a basic tenet of any art form in general: learn the vital basics, the fundamentals, master them, then adapt, change, and make them your own. In this way, he allows the student to become comfortable and confident even if they aren’t engraving exactly as he engraves. But he gives you the basics to lay down a foundation and certainly there are some things you can’t change, such as the line limitations of the tools.

My only criticism of Barry’s book comes from the two instances when he breaks from his ‘damn the rules’ philosophy. The first is when he is discussing drawing on the block and he talks about the croquil pen. ‘Croquil, also spelled ‘crow quill’ is a fine metal pen point. They are very stiff and sharp, and for this reason they should never be used to draw on engraving blocks.’ With various synthetic blocks available, there are some that can be drawn on with a croquil pen with no detrimental scratching — that is what I use to draw on my blocks. Then, when discussing the heavy, pliable leather bag used by engravers to turn and manipulate the block to whatever angle is desired, he says, ‘Just know that you cannot engrave without the bag. It’s that simple. Don’t argue or try to do without one.’ I have never used one and find them a hindrance. Remember, Barry, ‘If it works, it works, and damn the rules.’ But these are minor criticisms in a well-written and easily followed manual of engraving.

his book is more than a manual of wood engraving, it is also a treatise on art, an autobiography, and a moral guide. Barry Moser is very literate, thoughtful, and intelligent; combine this with a great sense of humour, the blood of a preacher, and a born teacher and you get a book that you will want to read even if you have no desire ever to touch an engraving tool. You will get to know Barry Moser: ‘No artists or writers I know do their work in order to say something, to express themselves, or to be creative. When these things happen they happen as a result of artists and writers wrestling with form and trying to do something better than they have ever done before,’ and you will see his moral compass: ‘Put love first in your life.’ The final written section is the most revealing of the man and his beliefs, but throughout the book you learn who Barry Moser is. It’s as if you had been invited to his studio for a lesson and wound up staying for dinner, drinking bourbon, and talking into the night.

Abigail Rorer is a wood engraver living in Petersham, Massachusetts and proprietor of the Lone Oak Press.