A Glossary of Engraving Terms

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Due to its insanely minute ability to render detail, printing engraving remains the most amazing print reproduction process in the world. Albeit stationery-centric, I wrote a book about it called The Complete Engraver. For a wider audience, I excerpted and edited the glossary of engraving terms and definitions of this erstwhile and under-appreciated process.

Steel engraving of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales

FIGURE 1 – Steel engraving of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, by D.J. Pound from the book The Drawing-Room Portrait Gallery of Eminent Personages, Volume 2. Published in London 1859. RIGHT: Ca. 1950s half-inch steel engraved stationery die. Courtesy of the author.

Close-up: D.J. Pound engraving of Prince Albert

FIGURE 2 – Close-up: D.J. Pound engraving of Prince Albert illustrating how the detail is rendered, one dot and dash at a time in engraved prints. The original of this print was engraved by hand. Courtesy of the author.

An Introduction to the Glossary

Real engraving, the printed kind, is very simple—required only are an extremely sharp knife-like tool, a piece of metal, ink, paper, and force. Engraving for commercial use, like in stationery, has evolved in the last hundred or so years into a niche requiring special printing presses, inks, and technologies. In general, commercial engraving technology has not evolved significantly since about the 1990s when compatibilities with digital media became crucial. Being clear, engraving printing companies remain contemporaneous with all digital media; what has not changed is the physical engraving and printing method.

Close-ups: LEFT: Intaglio or engraved printing. RIGHT: Letterpress or relief printing.

FIGURE 3 – Close-ups: LEFT: Intaglio or engraved printing. RIGHT: Letterpress or relief printing. Illustrated in these photos are differences that can be observed in the two processes such as the extreme amount of minute detail in engraving compared to a coarser handling of shading and detail in relief printing. Courtesy of the author.

To be clearer still, the main difference between engraving and regular, flat printing is that it’s raised on the front and has an indentation on the reverse side. An over simplified but easy way to think about how engraving differs from the much more popular specialty printing letterpress: think of engraving prints as outie belly buttons and letterpress prints as an innie. Got it?

This glossary covers some printing, plate and die making technologies, and lightly touches upon design, art preparation, and make-ready practices.

Banknote engraving by William Fleishell III

FIGURE 4 – Banknote engraving by William Fleishell III, staff engraver at the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Image commissioned by and courtesy of the author.

A Glossary of Printing Engraving Terms

Banknote engraving: a form of engraving using lines, dots, and wiggly dashes to create the visual effect of pictorial images such as portraits and landscapes. In consort with newer printing techniques, United States currency is produced in this manner.

engraved Thank You card

FIGURE 5 – Front and back of engraved Thank You card showing the tell tale bruise on the back. Courtesy of the author.

Bruise: impression on the back of an engraved piece of stationery.

sculpted engraving with bump

FIGURE 6 – Close-up of sculpted engraving with bump. Courtesy of the author.

Bump: generally when a sculpted plate or die is printed first in metallic ink then printed again without ink. This burnishes the metallic quality by reflecting more light and brings up the sculptured effect.

Burin: tool used to engrave plates and dies; also called a graver.

close up of engraver Ed Delorge cutting a script “A” into steel

FIGURE 7 – Extreme close up of engraver Ed Delorge cutting a script “A” into steel. The curled piece in front of the tool is the burr. Courtesy of Emily DeLorge. Emily is Ed’s daughter, a graphic designer, and an engraver.

Burr: metal cut up from the surface of a plate or die while engraving.

Engraved cipher in two colors

FIGURE 8 – Engraved cipher in two colors. Unusually, the steel die to produce this design was inked by hand in both colors then printed in one pass through the press. Design and image courtesy of the author.

Cipher: a design using an initial or initials. Much of engraved social stationery incorporates a cipher or monogram. See monogram.

Copperplate engraving: letters, art or designs cut into a sheet of copper for the purpose of making a print. Copperplate engraving originated at the time of Guttenberg and is now primarily used as a fine art medium. It’s also an intaglio process.

Counter: paperboard cut to the approximate size and shape of an engraved plate or die in die stamping. It avoids spitting (ink going outside of the impression) and helps give the raised quality of engraved printing. Counters can also be cast from polymer.

Deboss: a design that is impressed below the paper surface. See emboss.

Die: the matrix upon which an engraving is made; usually made out of steel and thicker than plates; about half an inch is currently the norm. See also: plate.

Die stamping press: a printing press used to stamp an engraved plate or die onto paper, leaving an inked impression, or print. Die stamp
ing is also used in heavy-duty industrial manufacturing to fabricate sheet metal parts such as car doors and wheelbarrow trays.

Emboss: a design that is raised above the paper surface. Engraved stationery appears embossed because the ink is literally pushed up above the surface of the paper. A blind emboss is a raised impression made without ink.

Engraving: the act of cutting words or pictures into metal to make a series of (nearly identical) prints. Characteristic of engraved stationery is a raised ink surface, with an indentation, or bruise, on the back. Engraving is an intaglio process, whereas letterpress printing is a relief process.Engraving is also a term used to describe printed materials that are etched and not cut and the relief process wood engraving.

Etch: an intaglio process in which acid is used to produce the “cut” otherwise performed manually with a sharp and very hard-bladed steel tool known as a graver or burin.

Force: the thick metal shaft on a die stamping press that conveys the extreme pressure—about 2 tons per square inch—necessary for die stamping printing.

Gravers: various blade widths cut different marks or shapes.

FIGURE 9 – Gravers: various blade widths cut different marks or shapes.

Graver: tool used to engrave plates and dies, also called a burin.

Intaglio: an engraving, cutting, etching, incising, or scratching into the surface of a plate or die. In intaglio printing, the incised areas are inked and made into a print or series of prints.

Letterpress: a relief printing process.

[Related: Learn about the history of letterpress.]

Letter papers: see social stationery.

Letter sheet: traditional stationery paper rarely used today, an over-size sheet quarter folded in the manner of some formal invitations. This method of folding once horizontally and once vertically produces four pages on which to write.

Line art: a pre-digital graphic art term meaning black-and-white art, prepared for commercial reproduction. In computer software vernacular, line art is vector art or spot color. If raster, line art is 100% black pixels; if vector, it is a 100% black stroked point, line, closed path, or object.Line art is used in pre-press preparation for one color printing processes such as engraving, letterpress, and screen printing.

Line engraving: a combination of etching and engraving, both processes utilized to their best advantage to achieve greatest detail. Banknote engraving is often a combination of both as well: see banknote engraving.

Lithography (or planographic printing): neither relief nor intaglio, the printing surface and resulting print are flat. Historically, chromolithography is a lithographic process as is offset lithography.

Make-ready: all processes necessary to prepare a press for printing.

Matrix: an object upon which a design is made for the purpose of producing multiple prints, such as a metal plate or die, a wood block, a lithography stone, or even a potato, an eraser, or a rubber stamp.

Monarch sheet: a specific size of commercial stationery (7 1/4 by 10 1/2 inches) that, when folded twice, fits inside a Monarch envelope.

Monogram: a design with interlocking initials in which the structure of each is dependent on a main piece of each of the other letters. If the individual letters in a monogram were separated, they would not be readable as the letters they represent when intertwined: see cipher.

Film negative for old-fashioned print production such as commercial engraving

FIGURE 10 – Film negative for old-fashioned print production such as commercial engraving. In this illustration, the ciphers (initials) showing in white would print in the ink color specified for each job. Everything seen in black, amber, and red does not print at all. Courtesy of the author.

Negative: a piece of transparent plastic with photo-sensitive coating on which positive image areas were opaque black and negative areas clear. In this context, negative refers to the pre-digital era when images where captured on film.

Offset: the unfortunate effect of ink that has not dried within a stack of printed sheets and rubs off on the back of the sheet on top of it.

Overs: remnant sheets of paper from the make-ready stage of a press run to test ink density, coverage, and color. The final count of a finished press run may be in excess of what was ordered: see press proof.

Peinter-graveur: an artist who works in an engraving medium rather than one who makes reproductions.

Photoengraving: a photo-mechanical etching process. This begins with a digital file and a film negative is made. This is sandwiched onto a photo-sensitive copper or steel plate and exposed to a special kind of light. The plate is then developed in a chemical solution curing portions of the negative image, making it acid-impermeable. Everything left uncured is washed away, exposing the unprotected metal surface. When placed in an acid bath, these areas are etched: in other words, acid performs the cut rather than push engraving.

Details may be touched-up or enhanced by hand with a graver before the plate is sent to press for the purpose of making a series of prints. Most commercial engraving is actually done this way.

Close-up of photo-engraved copper plate with author’s initials designed as a monogram or cipher.

FIGURE 11 – Close-up of photo-engraved copper plate with author’s initials designed as a monogram or cipher.

Plate: the matrix upon which an engraving is made. Most commercial engraving plates are 16 gauge, or .06 inches thick: see die.

Pneumatic engraving: though not at all a proper engraving term, this relatively recent method of engraving involves a small, hand held pneumatic tool that is much like a miniature jack hammer. A conventional graver is held in a compressed air driven-device driving the graver forward in the direction guided by the hand of the engraver. In the hands of an experienced engraver the results are almost indistinguishable from that of traditional engraving and the learning curve for this tool is a fraction of mastering true hand, or push, engraving.

Press proof: a test pri
nt. An engraved proof is the last step before production of an edition or set of stationery when changes or corrections can still be made before the entire press run.

Printmaking: the process of making multiple prints or an edition from a single matrix. Generally, the term is used in a fine art rather than commercial context.

Push engraving: plate or die engraving done by hand with a graver.

Ram: see force.

Relief: generally speaking, in printing, relief implies that the imagery stands above the surface of the printing matrix making a print in which the artwork is debossed into the paper surface.

Social stationery: a variety of paper products used for personal correspondence: see also letter papers and society papers.

Society papers: see social stationery.

A complicated process, these engraving terms help demystify engraving.

FIGURE 12 – Series of photo-engraved cards shown in five different colors with the single color copper plate producing them. In engraving, the press is cleaned and re-loaded with ink every time there is a color change making the process extremely labor intensive and much more costly than switching colors in software.

Spot color: printing technique in which individual colors are printed as solid shapes (type or image) one at a time. Engraving printing is accomplished in this manner; a die or plate is crafted and printed for each color and printed individually.

[Related: The Visual Culture of Color: A Brief History of Color Matching Systems | Color Matching Systems II: Best Practices for Choosing & Using Color | Color Matching Systems III: On-Screen Color & Printing Specifications]

Steel engraving: innovated in the early twentieth century as a more durable alternative to the copper plates used in copperplate engraving; see also copperplate engraving.

Stock: paper, board, or envelopes.

Substrate: the substance, or surface, upon which an image is to be printed, such as paper.

Terminal: when engraving letters, a terminal is where the burin or graver enters and exits a cut.

Thermography: raised printing invented to look like engraving at a lower price. Thermography has no bruise.

White-line wood engraving: see wood engraving.

Woodcut: the oldest printmaking method known, resulting in a relief print. A design is drawn onto a piece of wood, the extraneous areas are cut away with a sharp tool, the remaining relief is inked, and paper is applied, then pressure, to produce a print.

Wood engraving, or white-line wood engraving: woodcuts created on end-grain wood popularized by Thomas Bewick (1753–1828). Bewick was a great naturalist and trained metal engraver. In this method, wood is cut away from shapes and type. To make a print, ink is applied to what remains. As with woodcut, this is a relief process.

© 2016 Nancy Sharon Collins