Walford Mill Crafts, Knobcrook Road, off Stone Lane, Wimborne, Dorset, BH21 1NL
01202 841400  info@walfordmillcrafts.co.uk



Have A Go (1)

Introduction To Wood Engraving, tutor Robin Mackenzie


It was a flyer in the Walford Mill gallery that caught my eye - ‘Introduction to Wood Engraving’  - its heading and the class advertised was billed as ‘… perfect for beginners looking to learn a new technique.’

The last time I could remember trying any kind of printing was some 45 years earlier, at school in an art class, involving lino and a lot of messy ink.

Older and wiser, why not give it a go?


The one-day workshop was held in the atmospheric top floor studio space of the mill, a listed building, all exposed ancient timbers and hand made brick. The group size was limited to just 6 people, resulting in plenty of 1:1 tuition from Robin Mackenzie, our course tutor.

In wood engraving you make your design by cutting into the surface of a piece of wood, in this class we were working with the endgrain. To produce an endgrain wood engraving block you first cut across the grain of a piece of wood then polish that cut surface to a blemish free finish, it's a task for the professional so we were each provided with a bought in block.

Our session started with an introduction to the tools of the trade – the Spitsticker – a sharp, pointed tool that can be used to create both straight and curved lines with equal ease, and the Scorper – similar sized but with a more rounded and wider cutting tip, suited to removing larger areas of wood from the surface.



First we inked the block surface using a drawing ink (Quink – yes I remember that from school too) giving it a dark finish, this makes it easier to see the marks you cut as each reveals the pale coloured wood beneath.

Then some simple warm-up exercises; working on the rear face of the wood block, first parallel lines - not so easy when you also have to control the depth to which you are cutting, followed by circular lines - requiring even more care and concentration.

Turning over the block it was then time to make the daunting first cut. Why so scary? Once you’ve cut a mark there is no easy way to rub it out. The whole process has to be slow and careful, line at a time, mm by mm.


As inspiration source for my engraving I’d selected a picture of a common lizard, a nice little fellow spotted on the Isle of Portland. Just prior to the workshop I tried a little bit of tweaking on the computer to render the picture into black and white, hinting at how it might transform into an engraved print.

The three or so hours we spent carving out the portions of our blocks that would remain white on the final print passed quickly and sociably, plenty of enjoyable banter with fellow classmates.

Mid-afternoon Robin had to bring our engraving efforts to a close, as we next headed downstairs to where he keeps his 1854 Albion press, to produce our first print. 



The wooden block was carefully inked up and placed in the press. A single sheet of paper is placed over the inked surface. The stout lever is given a firm pull, applying a tremendous pressure that forces the paper down onto the surface of the wooden block. Then the moment of truth arrives - when the paper is lifted up carefully to reveal for the first time what the print will look like.

A quick scurry back up into the studio to make a few final tweaks (you can only add, not undo) then back down for a final pass through the press, and the day’s class was over.


Once safely back home the print has to be hung up to dry, the linseed oil based ink takes a few days to dry after which the print is ready to mount and frame, a new source of pride and joy.

As for the technique used on the day? With the benefit of hindsight I can say that I chose a ‘gouge-it-out’ approach, lots of scope for improvement, but bear in mind this was lesson 1.

All in all, a tremendous amount of fun and satisfaction from what was just a single day (so much so - I signed up for the 6 session 'masterclass' later in the same year).


John Allen, volunteer & trustee, Walford Mill



Classes: Adult Education, Robin Mackenzie

Wood Engraving Blocks: Chris DauntJackson's Art Supplies

Inspiration: Any book with engravings by Thomas Bewick