In the late eighteenth century, English engraver Thomas Bewick discovered that very fine detail could be achieved in engravings that were printed from a block cut across the grain of a hardwood such as box. A woodcut refers to blocks cut with a knife on the plank side; wood engraving refers to a block cut across the grain.

Only relatively small blocks can be made by cutting across the grain, due to the natural sizes of trees. For larger works such as the wood engravings in Harper’s Weekly where double-page illustrations were approximately 14” x 20”, small blocks were joined together with tongue and groove fittings and glued in place. The wood was planed to a height of slightly less than one inch in order to fit properly into a press. The surface was then scraped and polished so that the joining would not be visible on the print.

Next the artist drew with soft pencil or ink directly onto the smooth wood surface. In order for the print to read correctly, the drawing had to be made in reverse. After the picture was completed, a copper engraving tool was used to scoop away areas that were to appear white on the illustration or cartoon. After that was completed, the block was fastened into the press, inked, and printed.

Wood engraving was very popular for book and magazine illustrations during much of the nineteenth century. Photochemical reproduction replaced engraved woodblocks in commercial printing around 1880.