Suite of Methods I: Making a Woodcut Matrix

Woodcut – a brief background

There is only one surviving woodcut matrix dated prior to 1400 in Western Europe, known as the Bois Protat. It is not known if this was executed for printing onto wood or fabric. Based on the style of clothing and armour in the image, and the font used, it is thought to have been made around 1370-1380. Only a portion of the estimated size remains – 60cm x 23cm x 2.5cm – and it is thought that the complete image would have been too big to print onto existing paper stock sizes of that time period, with paper only just starting to be produced in any reasonable quantity in Europe.


WM Smaller - Printing block and print of the Bois Protat Woodcut 1370–1380
Above: The Bois Protat


The first extant woodcuts that can be verified as designed to be printed onto paper date from around 1400. They are mostly of a religious nature, giving a broad demographic wider access to images of personal devotion and reflection. However, within a couple of decades, the subject matter very quickly broadened to include secular subjects, to be collected and used in many different ways. With the advent of larger sizes and regular supplies of paper, volumes of prints increased. This was further magnified with the development of the relief printing press, and moveable type, in the 1450’s.


Woodcut – producing a woodcut matrix for relief printing

Image based on:

Charitas Charity from The Seven Virtues Sebald Beham Engraving  C1539
Charitas/Charity from The Seven Virtues
Sebald Beham


Woodcut production starts with a block of densely, uniformly-grained hard wood which is prepared (along the grain), to be even and smooth. If the wood is not even and flat, the image cannot be inked and transferred to paper evenly. If the surface is not smooth, the resultant print will not be crisp. In Western Europe, the predominant wood used in woodcuts was pear wood, along with cherry and walnut. I have chosen to use a species of Japanese magnolia for this project for two main reasons: it is dense and uniformly-grained, but not excessively hard, so that recurring tendonitis in my elbow does not become inflamed, and also because it is readily available in the same size as the copper plates I will be using in other methods.

After an image is chosen to copy, or an image has been drawn up, it must be transferred onto the block of wood. The image can be transferred in a number of ways. Vellum or parchment, which is transparent, or using paper which is oiled to make it transparent, can be used to trace the image. This is then reversed and rubbed onto the wood, or pricked along the lines, and pounced with powdered charcoal onto the surface of the wood. Alternately, the image can be drawn on a piece of paper which then has red ochre rubbed on the back, placed image-side up onto the wood, and then traced off onto the wood. There is also an extant uncut woodblock which has been painted white, with the image inked directly onto the block. Presently, there is no evidence that Western European woodcut used the method of gluing an image onto the wood and cutting, as is done in Asia.


Christoffel Plantins printers mark pen and ink drawing on a wood-block prepared with a white ground c1560s
Christoffel Plantin’s printers mark
Pen and ink drawing on a wood-block prepared with a white ground


I have chosen to use heavy tracing paper as a substitute for parchment. Using this, I traced a basic outline of the image, and then filled it in with linework I felt was suitable for cutting in wood. This is a decision every printmaker must make according not only to the image being used, but also the method, and the level of skill attainable.


WM Smaller charitas image basic trace WM Smaller charitas detailed trace
Above left: simple line tracing from Charitas image, and right: with more linework added


I then turned the tracing over, placed it on the prepared block, and transferred the image by rubbing it all over with a bone folder. A bone folder is a smooth flat stick, traditionally made of bone or ivory, which is used in printmaking and bookbinding, for smoothing and folding paper.


WM Smaller charitas image transfer
Above: transferring the image by rubbing


Once the image is transferred, it must be made more visible and permanent to withstand repeated rubbing during the cutting process. I have done this in two stages: An initial outline, and then a more detailed outline, further refining the image to decide what linework will be executable given the nature of the wood and the tools being used.


WM Smaller charitas basic line on wood WM Smaller charitas detailed line on wood
Above left: simple line inking, and right: refining and adding to the linework


After the artist is satisfied with the image on the block, the cutting begins. There is very little documentation regarding exactly what tools were used in this time period, with most references being only to knives, and nothing more, and no description of said knives. After experimenting with a knife I felt was not at all satisfactory, I found this image of a block cutter in his studio:


Der Formschneider from Das Ständebuch Jost Amman woodcut 1568 WM Detail - Der Formschneider from Das Ständebuch Jost Amman woodcut 1568
Above left, full image and right: detail from
Der Formschneider from Das Ständebuch
Jost Amman

After some searching, I finally found a knife I feel to be a very good match:


WM Smaller wood carving knife from Carba-tec


This, then, is what I used for cutting the woodblock. The knife is held in the dominant hand, but the index finger of the other hand is used on the side of the blade to guide and add pressure to give greater control. The block is often manipulated and turned by the other fingers as the block is being cut, to allow curves to be cut smoothly.


WM Smaller woodcut ready for printing
Above: completed woodcut, with only the original image drawn onto the block remaining

I found the best way to define a line was to cut along the edge of the line, then turn the block and come back the other way to form a V section. Then the background could be cleaned out without risking damage to the edge of the image. Importantly, the cut into the wood is never at a 90 degree angle to the surface. It is always closer to 45 degrees. This angled cut instantly forms a support to the line remaining, to give it strength for printing and to avoid being undercut.

Once carving and cutting is completed, the process of relief printing can begin, as previously discussed.


WM Smaller charitas inked for printing

Above: Woodcut inked and ready to print and below: Woodcut revealed

WM Smaller charitas revealed