Suite of Methods II: Making an Engraved Matrix

Engraving – a brief background

The earliest engravings to be printed on paper began to appear in the 1430’s, with the first extant prints using this process attributed to an artist known as the Master of the Playing Cards. Previously to printmaking as an end result, the technique of engraving reaches back to antiquity, with the production of jewellery and other metal objects such as cups, and decoration on armour.


The Queen of Flowers Master of the Playing Cards Engraving German c1430–40
The Queen of Flowers
Master of the Playing Cards
Engraving printed from two plates
Image size 13cm x 9.1cm
German (possibly Alsace) c1430–40


St Jerome in penitence Engraved silver plate with inlaid niello Italian c1475-85
St Jerome in Penitence
Engraved silver plate with inlaid niello (ie, a decorative plaque or plate, not intended for printing)
Image size 8.2cm x 5.7cm
Italian c1475-85


It has been recorded that previous to the development of engraving as a print method, engravers had recorded their designs by pushing clay into engraved surfaces which may or may not have been inked. Indeed, the process of niello (blackening the grooves of a decorative engraved object) also seems tantalisingly close to the printing process, and there is a style of image development known as being “in the niello style.”

Engraving was the first technique produced to be printed by the Intaglio method. There is a gap of around 30 years from the first known prints to the development of the intaglio (roller) press in the 1460’s. Previous to this, prints were produced by hand-rubbing, which produced a much softer, uneven print, sometimes with double-line impressions due to the paper moving. There is some evidence of this in the print above, The Queen of Flowers.


Engraving – producing an engraved matrix for Intaglio printing

Image based on:


Prudencia Prudence from The Seven Virtues Sebald beham Engraving
Prudencia/Prudence from The Seven Virtues
Sebald Beham


Engraving begins with a metal plate, usually copper, which strikes the balance of hardness, durability, and the ability to be worked. The tools used for engraving are the same as those for engraving jewellery, except that often in printmaking, the graver is referred to as a burin.


WM Smaller engraving burin
Above: a jeweller’s graver, or engraver’s burin


The burin is used to engrave, or incise, lines into the flat surface of the matrix. The incised lines form the image which is seen in the final print. The engraver rests the plate on a soft but firm pad, usually a sand-filled leather pad, and uses this to rotate and angle the plate as they work. The hand not holding the burin is of integral importance in manipulating the plate.

I purchased the graving tool and handle at a jewellery supply shop, and a good friend, who happens to be a jeweller, fitted the graver to my hand, trimmed it, and fitted it to the handle. He was also very kind enough to show me the basics of the technique, and we made some marks on a copper plate I had reserved for the process.

As also mentioned in describing the Metalcut process, my attempts at using an engraver’s burin met with almost no success. This is partially because there are years of training involved in engraving, and partly because of recurring tendonitis in my elbow and shoulder. The force needed to push the burin through the copper is too great to sustain without a good chance of injury.

After another attempt on the copper plate, I also asked some friends to see what they could produce, which turned out to be not very much either.


WM Smaller scraper burnisher marks  WM Smaller jewellers marks
Above left: using a burnisher and a scraper to lower the surface, and right: a jeweller’s mark making


WM Smaller variety of marks
Above: a variety of marks by a variety of people


I decided that this should still be inked and printed as part of the study, and so filed the corners, and pulled a proof.


WM Smaller engraving attempt print and plate
Above left: the proof print and right: the plate after the engraving attempt


Dissatisfied with leaving the engraving attempt at this, I decided to attempt a compromise. It occurred to me that I may be able to engrave into a line which already exists. To that end, I made the decision to make an etched plate, and then try to engrave into the etched line, to see if an approximation of an engraving could be achieved.

I also took the opportunity to try using beeswax as the ground (acid-resistant coating) for this plate. Beeswax is considered to have been the first ground used in etching for printmaking in the late 1490’s, and I was keen to try it. The results which are of particular interest regarding the beeswax ground, however, will be discussed at another time. More detail on the process of preparing an etching matrix will, of course, be covered in a separate post as well. At this point, it is sufficient to say that the plate was heated on a hotplate to the point where a piece of beeswax would start melting on the surface. This was gently rubbed over the entire surface as evenly as possible, and then removed from the heat source to allow the plate to cool, and the beeswax solidify.


WM Smaller beeswax still wet WM Smaller beeswax on plate
Above left, beeswax melted on the copper plate, and right: starting to solidify


As with the other methods in the suite, I traced off the basic lines of the image chosen, in this case, Prudencia. Given that I had no idea what beeswax was like to incise with a scribe, I kept the image as simple as possible. Pure beeswax does not become brittle when cooled, but remains slightly pliable, and I was also concerned that lines scribed too closely could, in effect, push the wax back into the previous line made, and obscure the image. The image was turned over, placed on top of the plate coated with beeswax, and the verso (reverse side) rubbed with a bone folder.


WM Smaller prudencia image transfer
Above: the image being transferred by rubbing


The coated plate took the transferred rubbing very well, appearing clearly above the translucent beeswax. Using the scribe through a translucent ground, however, was not easy, and required a bright light to show up the shiny, scribed lines as I worked.


WM Smaller prudencia before etching detail
Above: detail of the scribed plate


Once this process was completed, it was time to bite, or etch, the plate in the solution of nitric acid (aqua fortis) for approximately 20 minutes in 5 minute increments to observe the plate. After cleaning off the ground, and filing the edges, a first proof or first working state was printed, or ‘pulled’.


WM Smaller prudencia ready for etching       WM Smaller prudencia in acid
Above left: scribed plate and right: the copper plate in the acid


I was very happy with this image as an experiment with the beeswax ground, and I was also happy that the plate had a good, fine bitten line to try and follow with the burin. After observing the image, I decided to start at the bottom of the image, so as to be less obtrusive on the image.


WM Smaller prudencia first proof plate and print
Above left: the proof print from the first state, after etching and right: the plate


Unfortunately, it very quickly became obvious that, even with an etched line as a guide, this was not going to be satisfactory. A reasonable amount of force was still needed (although less so), but it was very easy for the burin to slip straight out of the etched line and across the plate. After a particularly large slip, which I burnished out as best I could, I decided not to pursue the method and totally spoil the matrix. The plate was inked and printed to show the second, and final, state.


Smaller prudencia plate and print after engraving attempt
Above left: the plate after the engraving attempt and right: the resultant proof print


WM Smaller prudencia detail after engraving attempt - plate     WM Smaller prudencia detail after engraving attempt - print
Above left: detail of the engraving attempt and right: print of the same


I am, however, content to say that I tried, and now have an even greater understanding and admiration of the engraving technique.