Though similar in many ways to the more familiar process of woodcuts, of which it is a subset, wood engraving shares similarity to the process of metal engraving in the nature of the tools used.
Wood engraving involves carving in wood, and is, like other woodcuts, a relief printing technique rather than an intaglio process like copper plate engraving, but wood engraving is performed on the end grain of a block of hardwood, rather than the softer side grain.
Engraving tools, like the burin, allow for finer lines and more detail than in traditional woodcut technique, and artists can use this to great effect (wood engraving was one of M.C. Escher’s primary mediums). The Society has a description of the process on their site.
The Society of Wood Engravers has a long history, and in their online gallery is currently showing a selection of prints from their 73rd Annual Exhibition.
The online galleries are slightly awkward to navigate, there are 31 pages of thumbnails accessed by small numbers above the thumbnails, and the larger images are displayed in Lightbox style pop-ups, but perseverance will be rewarded with some wonderful gems.
The physical exhibition will be at the Bankside Gallery in London from 21 January to 2 February 2011.
Wood engraving can have an almost photographic quality, and was used for book illustrations in the 19th Century; it can also have a character somewhat like scratchboard with white lines appearing out of dark areas.
Overall, it is a medium with a variety of styles and approaches and an abundance of visual charm.
(Images above: Cordellia Jones, Stanislav Filipov, Rosamund Fowler, John Bryce, François Maréchal, Geri Waddington, Sarah van Niekerk)