Of Woodcuts and Metalcuts

A peek inside old illustration techniques.

By James R. Voelkel | April 7, 2015
Mark of Pierre Viart

Metalcut printer’s mark of Pierre Viart from a 16th-century French edition of Liber secretorum.

Science History Institute

The woodcut was the earliest and most versatile form of printed illustration. In execution it was simple. The artist would draw the illustration (backward) on a wooden plank and then cut away all the parts that were not meant to print. When the surviving high parts were inked and pressed onto paper, the desired image would appear. Because this method of relief printing was identical to that of type, words and pictures could be set up in the same form and printed all at once. Woodcuts can be identified by their characteristic lines—thick and of uneven width—and the “squash” of the ink at the edge of the line.

Though woodcuts could be used over and over, they were susceptible to damage. Often the outermost frame of an illustration at the edge of the block would chip, resulting in small discontinuities in the line. Sometimes the damage proved more catastrophic. The depiction of celestial vortices in Descartes’s Principia philosophicae (1644) illustrates a particularly bad case. The woodcut appears repeatedly in the book. At first the image looks fine. But then gaps appear in the lines at the bottom, the initial symptoms of a crack that soon splits the block in half. In subsequent impressions it is clear that a patch has been fashioned, slipped into the crack, and carved as best as could be done to match the original woodcut.

A much less frequently used alternative to the woodcut was the metalcut, which was more or less immune to this kind of damage. But carving the desired image on a block of metal was far more difficult; so metalcuts were typically reserved for elements that would be reused from book to book, such as decorative initials and printers’ marks. In principle woodcuts and metalcuts can be very difficult to distinguish. Fortunately for us, the difficulty of working metal is often reflected in metalcuts’ characteristic look. They are frequently darkish with backgrounds decorated with repeating white pinpoints—often perfectly circular—which are the result of the artist working the metal surface with a hammer and punch.