The Intaglio Studio and Press

Nova reperta with letters

Here is a delightful engraving of the interior of an Intaglio (specifically, an engraver’s) studio, showing a wealth of detail. It was produced after Jan Van Der Straet, also known as Johannes Stradanus, as part of a compendium called Nova Reperta (New Inventions and Discoveries of Modern Times), published 1599 – 1603. If you follow this link, there is a comprehensive zoom function for the image.

I’ve labelled the image with some capital letters to be able to better explain what’s happening, based on my own experience as an intaglio printer of more than 20 years, and the book Engraving and Etching 1400 – 2000, A History of the Development of Manual Intaglio Printmaking Processes by Ad Stijnman. So let’s dissect an image of a studio/workshop to be able to better understand the process in pre-1600 Europe.


the master

A: The master of the studio sits at the best available light source – we cannot see the window, but it may have panels of paper, made transparent by pig’s lard, which was seen as superior to oil, as this could cause the paper to be yellow, rather than white. Often, these transparent panels could be set up or removed as the engraver wished, to reduce the glare of light glinting off the copper plate. Other methods included having a small screen which could be placed on the table – perhaps that is the edge of one at extreme far right, near the copper plate that the master is engraving.

On the table at the master’s hand is a selection of engraving tools. These would have been similar, if not identical, to a gold or silversmith’s tools. In printmaking, these are often called burins, and for metalsmiths, they are usually called engravers or gravers. He also has sharpening stones, and a small basin of either water, or oil, to lubricate the stone, and a rag for wiping away debris. As an added bonus he is also wearing spectacles.

At either side of the master are undoubtedly young apprentices, probably showing the master working proofs of whatever is being printed. Most prints (and therefore matrices) go through several working states, to get to the final image, and at each stage, a print is pulled to see the progress – this is called a proof, or working proof. This way there can be confirmation of exactly what is printing and how the image is developing. Whoever is working in the plate usually has a working proof beside them for reference.


inking and wiping

B: Moving on to the next bench to the left, we see the printing process begin. To the front, a printer is heating an engraved plate over a charcoal brazier, and near him appears to be a dish of ink. The plate does not need to be very hot – in fact, too much heat will cause damage to the plate, and it can buckle beyond salvage. It just needs to be warm enough to soften the oil varnish in the ink, so it will more easily be pushed into the incised lines. To the rear of the work bench, another printer is in the process of wiping a plate, using either tarlatan or rags. Note that they are both wearing aprons, and that their sleeves are rolled up.


at the press

C: Just behind the man with the charcoal brazier, we have someone at the intaglio press. It is unclear precisely what he is doing, but appears to be waiting with a copper plate, or perhaps a proof of whatever plate is going through the press, checking to see if the print about to be revealed is well printed by comparing it. On the other side of the press is the heavy labour, turning the wheel. You can see the effort involved – gears to make this job easier do not evolve for another few hundred years. This is either manual labour for a lesser worker, or sweaty work, or both – he and the man working the press at the rear of the studio are both wearing the least amount of clothes, which are very plain, and they lack a doublet or jack.


clean hands

D: On the wall behind the press are the freshly-produced prints, being draped across either ropes or laths to dry. Often in modern studios, for a large print run, there can be a person reserved for handling the paper, placing it on before and taking it off after printing the plate, and then hanging, racking or putting the print into the stack to dry. They are colloquially known as ‘the clean hands’, because they do not handle plate or ink throughout the process, and that is what I believe must be that man’s job.



E: To the very rear of the engraving we see an alcove. There is a second press, indicating that this is probably at least a modestly successful workshop. The worker to the very rear could be cleaning plates, or mixing ink, whilst the man in front of him is most likely grinding pigment for making ink. There is a small crown glass window to help with lighting.


little prentice

F: We can see a young apprentice in the foreground, working in quill pen and ink. Perhaps he is copying from a plate, either one of his master’s, or from another studio, to develop his skills. Whatever his job, he certainly looks a little worried about getting it right. You can see behind him, under the press, a tankard and yet another plate – both of these are common sights in images of intaglio studios. Unfortunately, there is no dog, which is another common inclusion.


Finally, as was common with images depicting the interior of trades- and crafts-person’s workshops or studios, there are visitors who take no part in the process. They could be a curious bystander, someone to settle accounts (for example, with the paper supplier or copper smith), or the owner of the studio or business.

There appears to be a definite rank of positions within the studio. Some of this is borne out by the quality of clothes. It is clear that the master engraver is in charge, but whether he owns this studio or is employed by someone else is unclear.  The clean hands, the men inking, wiping, and observing at the press are most probably of equal rank – directly being part of the printing process would suggest that these are journeymen or fully qualified printers or engravers, entrusted with producing images to a standard set by the head of the studio. The younger people in this image are clearly apprentices – they run errands, stand waiting for something to be approved by the master, sit copying either text or image. Whether the very young people have been made smaller in purpose to further establish their subordinate position, I am not sure. Often in this period, younger people were portrayed as small versions of adults, and this could well be the case.

This engraving was produced almost 170 years after the development of the intaglio process. At this point, I’d like to quote Stijnman in Engraving and Etching – “Up to more than a century after the first engravings were printed it was still unclear as to what printmaking workshops actually looked like. Then, gradually, information started to trickle in, the majority of the material being derived from visual sources.”  Indeed, Stijnman mentions that the first written proof of an intaglio press is from an Antwerp Act in September, 1540. The first image believed to be depicting an intaglio press in a studio is a woodcut from 1566, attributed to Arnold Nicolai and produced by Johannes Sambucus in the second edition of his book, Emblemata. Amongst other objects in the studio, such as stacks of paper, and inking balls, there is what looks to be a roller press, with a six-arm cross.


Arnold Nicolai studio interior
Above: Arnold Nicolai, Studio interior, woodcut, c1566


The main proof that we have of the development and use of intaglio presses before this date is the dramatic improvement in the quality of intaglio prints, starting from around 1460. For the roughly 30 years previous to this, manual transfer was the only way to release the ink from matrix to paper. This resulted in prints of varying quality, often with uneven impressions, or sometimes double line impressions, due to the nature of hand rubbing, trying to push the paper into the grooves of the matrix.

In the following image, one can see that some of the darker areas which should print deep and solid are slightly hazy instead, because there is not adequate force achieved by hand rubbing to push the paper in deeply  to catch enough ink. The impression is also patchy in places, as seen by looking at the antlers of the lower stag, suggesting that hand rubbing also makes it harder to achieve an even transfer, because it is very hard to know exactly what areas have been rubbed.


master_of_the_playing_cards._ca._1435_1440 three stags
Above: Meister der Spielkarten/Master of the Playing Cards, Three of Stags, engraving, c1435-40


Once a roller (intaglio) press began to be used, quality instantly improved. That change is able to be seen in German and Italian engravings, starting in the third quarter of the fifteenth century. Stijnman mentions that research leads to the conclusion that it is possible to trace the first roller press back to the studio of the Master ES in the Upper Rhine around 1460-65. In observing the image below, one can see that the image has been printed consistently across the plate.


Above: Master ES, Delilah Cutting Samson’s Hair, engraving, c1460


Intaglio printers finally had the piece of equipment which would allow better quality images, at a quicker speed and with consistent results. Subsequently, the art form underwent great expansion in the decades to follow. The wooden intaglio press remained almost unchanged until the 19th century, when steel was made affordable.