Return to the Table of Contents / About this book

Woodcuts and Some Words

E.G. Craig



WOOD-ENGRAVING has no short cuts - any shortcutting means a slip; it is the most straight forward process known, and I, for one, would say the best process all the world over.

Having drawn on the wood with pencil, I release the pencil with relief and turn to the cutting with confidence. The contact of the steel with the wood brings me to the point. I cut with decision; the wood doesn't yield like the too facile paper. And to cut you need two or three small steel tools; no hammers, no saws, no acids as in etching, and no fiddle and no faddle as in the more complicated processes. All is plain sailing, but hard.

I will not speak here of how you engrave on all the different woods, nor of how you print without the use of a press or even of printer's ink, but will keep to the woodblock cutting and printing of the trade. The printer's trade is a pretty job - even when printing three hundred thousand copies an hour, or whatever the record may be. Still, record making is, politely speaking, the devil. Speed is one of the things which we should be aided to forget. For employing it as we do today, we often fail even to arrive in time. As an illustration of this, the following story: Two years ago I entrusted a letter to an air service, one of the well-known, much-boomed, faster-than-life services in a not exactly slow city. It was all right, only it failed to serve. I had to send a paper to London to be read before a little gathering of about four hundred persons. It was to be read on a Tuesday evening. I took it on the Monday morning at about nine o'clock to the central bureau of this air service and asked what chance I had of its being delivered in London. "The ship leaves at eleven" - I think it was eleven. "Your letter will be delivered at its destination (London, E.C.) before four o'clock this evening." The talk was fine. I paid. I would have paid double or treble to hear such talk from practical people. The idea was immense; the actuality was, alas! a delusion. My paper arrived on the Wednesday following, one day late. But I had not acted like a true believer: faith is so much, and I am sure it was my lack of faith which caused the delay. For I trusted also to the ordinary postal service. I had had a duplicate copy of my lecture typed, and this copy I posted on the Sunday night in the ordinary way and it reached its destination on the Monday. This in no wise detracts from the glorious glitter of the flying machine or the talk, but it illustrates afresh the old fable of the hare and the tortoise, and shows how up to date the fable is, and just how practical so-called practical beings are. Speed should be often valuable - often it is, not always - and in printing it is valuable to 'the man in a hurry,' to that good joke, that unpretending comedian, the man in the street, who must have his tittle-tattle delivered at his breakfast table each morning, by eight o'clock. Hence the utter confusion, the colossal conundrum of Fleet Street, 1923. There is positively no use in all the tittle-tattle he gets for his penny. The world, and he, would get along quite as smoothly (who suggests far more smoothly?) without any daily newspapers at all. I was told when last in London that law and order are going to crush Bolshevism by the simple and economic method of suppressing every newspaper in the world. How far this is true I cannot vouch for. It is an idea, anyhow.

But speed in wood-engraving and printing is valueless - for the main idea when you cut a block and print it is that you are in for some enjoyment, and you intend to share it with others. Enjoyment is, surely, never to be hurried over.

BoxwoodWhen selecting the kind of wood to engrave on, take boxwood. It is hardest and best. Boxwood is to be found in Turkey and in America and England; I have found it in Italy, but I do not know if it grows there; I have merely found part trunks of box trees in wood-turners' shops, bought them and cut and polished my own blocks. It is not so good as the English wood, but had the advantage of being cheaper, and it was on the spot. A trunk of a box tree is never very large, and so a slice of the trunk does not yield a very large bit for your purpose. That is why they more often than not make a block out of four, five, eight, or even twenty pieces of wood joined together in the most skilful fashion. Suppose a trunk to be like (A) (fig. B) and the four lines I have drawn round it (B) to be the places where you saw off the pieces. Well, when the pieces are lying on the table, they each look like (C). They measure, let us say, two inches by two inches; but out of these four pieces you may at best be able to get only the bits marked off by crossed lines (D). These then have to be sawn out and joined together (E). Now you have a block about four by five inches, and that is a fair-sized block. It couldn't be larger because, as you see, there was a split at the bottom of each slice and other imperfections, and these prevent us from using all we should like to use of each slice. I have never joined up a block, but the craft can be learned, and it is not likely to be very difficult. When the four small pieces are made into one block, it looks somewhat like (E). But it may be better to buy your blocks ready-made as I did, and as I will now tell you.

There dwelt in Red Lion Court, at No. 7, Mr. Lacey Evans. He lived on the top floor of this house in the court which runs out of Fleet Street. When I knew him, in 1898 and 1899, he lived by making wood-blocks, mainly those of boxwood, I believe. He made them brand-new, and he remade old ones - made them new too, in his old way. Of his remade stock I bought many a beauty. They were often better wood and always cheaper. I forget now what they cost. One could buy sixty to eighty for what the head of a property stage giant costs. Mr. Evans was a tiny man, very pale, almost white; and in a tiny room packed from floor to ceiling - packed with many thousands of blocks of every conceivable size, shape and quality, he moved, and he gave me and many others much pleasure through his labour. He only sold the best kind to us, but there was no limit to the heights this best could reach. For ten shillings I could buy eight or ten or fifteen blocks, some big, some small. How it was that the remade ones were cheaper than the brand-new ones was this. A new block is made, as a rule, to be used with type. That is to say, it would more likely be used in the same press and printed at the same time as, let us say, this page of text. You've seen woodcuts in the middle of a page of letterpress. Well then the block and type must all be the same height or they won't print. Type heightIf the type (A) (fig. C) is so high, and A the block (BB) so high, the ink won't get on the block, the paper won't touch it, and nothing comes of nothing. I cannot here explain the whole craft of printing - besides, most of my readers will know enough to understand what I mean.

So the blocks are always made as high as the type ('typehigh' is the term used), and the regulation height of the type is the height of a shilling when laid flat against the type. So you see the block had to be the height of a shilling also.

Mr. Lacey Evans could do wonders, but not miracles. So when he bought up a thousand old blocks - blocks already engraved on one side - and set out to remake them new for his customers, he would have to do as follows: He would grind down the engraved side until its face was rendered useless and it went out of action. Then he would polish up the other side (the not engraved side) until it shone like unto fine brass. Then he would sell it to his customers. But in grinding one side down and polishing the other, he had to break the rules of the printing trade. He reduced the height of his blocks from the regulation height of a shilling to - let us say - about three-quarters of an inch.

To use them later in a press with type they would need raising; bits of wood or card or metal would have to be put underneath, and all that takes time and patience, and one doesn't pay twice over for those two adjuncts to the trade.

So old Evans had to reduce his price as he reduced his blocks. Evans grew white doing this, but possibly the miller's earth pallor which was over him came from association with the many ghosts who must have visited him as he worked, for his was a grave business. Consider it a moment. See him entering No. 7 Red Lion Court as the hour strikes ten, parting from the noise of Fleet Street to enter the silence of this Court of the Red Lion, with a sack of treasure - a sack of woodblocks bought cheaply from someone over at Hoxton. See him stagger upstairs by the light of the moon -ghostly white - sweating, glittering. He pauses on the second landing, and comes to the window. How quiet is the court below! Far off the hum of Fleet Street tells of the living, but Evans with his haul is telling nothing. Evans looks it every bit. He looks into the court and sees there - ghosts. The ghosts which Evans sees are those of the dead engravers who follow on the trail of their box - their great old blocks over which in 1860 or 1869 they have bent, engraving the 'Fire at the Olympic' or the 'Embarking of Prince Louis Napoleon at Calais Pier.' These blocks which were measured once to a lordly Graphic page have now been trapped by Evans, and broken and put into his bag.

Evans is as pale as death by the time he reaches the top floor - and as thirsty. Out of breath, and with barely enough breath at any time to live. But to kill ... He opens the door; the counter, three feet from the door, blocks the way. Beyond are pyramids of blocks, behind him are the ghosts. Evans is like an old Egyptian who has rifled the tomb of a king, and who knows something about spooks. But Evans loves his job, so the spooks don't kill Evans outright, he merely fades away. In his tiny room there is barely space for any air. So many lovely blocks are crowded in - he sells rapidly, but at a tiny profit - such work it is all day up there. He fades as he works, does the dear old man. Still, after all, if Nicholson or Ricketts have made but one good engraving on one of the old blocks, the spooks have forgiven Evans long ago. I would often turn over the slabs of boxwood I bought of him after I had brought them home, and try to decipher the subjects and guess at the designers. One had a big balloon on it, and one a tobacconist's trade - mark; and one was Biblical, the great candlestick of the Jews.

It is awful to think of the few stunning designs which we scraped away with the ninety-nine worthless affairs.

Now old Evans is gone, and I often think of him.


Return to Foreword / Move on to 'Useful Notes' / Return to the Table of Contents