Printing Block Collection

The new printing block displayNew printing block display

For more than three decades MERL has been the custodian of several large collections of printing blocks. The collections were never really readily accessible until recently when parts of three of these collections were conserved and prepared for display in the gallery. Blocks were selected from the collections of the engineering companies Marshall Sons & Co. Ltd. (Britannia Iron Works, Gainsborough, Lincs), R. & J. Reeves & Son Ltd. (Bratton Iron Works, Westbury, Wilts) and John Gordon & Co. (Inspectors of Machinery and Stores, London & Aberdeen).

The printing blocks are now displayed on the wall behind the Titan Tractor in the shape of clouds coming from the tractor’s exhaust shadow cast by the lighting.

The printing blocks

Manufacturing of agricultural implements and machinery rapidly increased at the beginning of the nineteenth century, so did the need for marketing these new products. Manufacturers wanted catalogues and advertising material that were illustrated. Wood-engraving provided a solution to reproducing relatively cheap illustrations that could be printed alongside metal type. Artistic wood engraving for catalogues, where the engraver depicts a scene straight from observation, was largely replaced when the photographic processes gained momentum, in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Shepherds hutWe have several examples of original handmade wood engravings. One example is this Shepherd’s Hut from Reeves dated November 1900.

Note that the hut was first photographed in the company’s yard and then printed onto the boxwood. The engraver skilfully used the image to apply his art and bring the details of the hut and shading surrounding it into sufficient contrast to enable use of the block as a master copy. The engraver also had to reverse the name of the company on the side of the hut so it would come out on the printed page.

However, the original woodblocks, engraved by hand in relief, were unique and vulnerable objects and so when technology developed to make duplicate copies of the blocks, it made sense to keep the original as a ‘master’ and print from the copies. It also meant that a manufacturer could send copies of blocks to their retailers around the country and abroad for inclusion in their catalogues and advertising.

An original wood block used for printing is distinguishable by the fact that the surplus wood around the image has been cut away to prevent it receiving printing ink. The introduction of duplicating processes meant that this time-consuming and costly work was unnecessary. Retaining the surrounding wood also provided a certain protection for the delicate engraved areas.

The first process developed for making a copy of a block was known as stereotyping. This technique had become widespread by the 1820s and the most commonly used system consisted of making a mould of the engraved block in plaster and pouring in molten metal (similar to type metal) to make a cast. The cast was then mounted onto a block of wood to make the printing surface the same height as the type. There are no examples in the MERL collections of this process.

By the 1840s a new technique for making copies of wood engravings had been introduced – this was called electrotyping. This proved to be a superior process producing more accurate copies and by the second half of the nineteenth century had generally replaced stereotyping.

Shepherds hut on displayWe find the same Shepherd’s Hut from Reeves in electrotype in the collection and on display.

In Chatto and Jackson’s treatise on wood-engraving published in 1861(second edition) it is stated: ‘…considerable improvements have been made in the mode of taking casts, of which the principle is ‘electrotyping’, by the galvanic precipitation of copper. By this process all the finer lines of the engraving are so perfectly preserved, that impressions printed from the cast are quite undistinguishable from those printed from the block’.

A basic description of the process is as follows. The engraved surface of the woodblock was pressed into hard wax making an impression that could be used as a mould. This mould was then dusted with ‘black leading’ to provide an electrically conductive surface. The mould was placed in an electrolytic bath and a thin shell or skin of copper deposited over the surface of the mould. The copper skin was stripped off the mould, laid face down in a tray and the back filled with type metal to give it strength. The resulting metal electrotype, commonly called an electro, was then mounted onto a block of wood and printed alongside type. In this way many copies could be made and distributed of one wood-engraving.

The MERL Archive holds several catalogues of each manufacturer, represented in the display.

Shepherds hut in Reeves catalogueHere the Shepherd’s Hut is found finally in its correct aspect (reversed) in a catalogue dated October 1903.

Half-tone printing disposed of the engraver altogether and finds its origins in the photographic process. The first idea of half-tone printing originates with William Fox-Talbot in the 1850’s. In this process the image is transformed into dots of various sizes and densities, much like pixels in modern day digital photography. Frederic Ives first patented a commercial half-tone method in America in 1881 and later perfected it, resulting in large scale use by the 1890’s. This photographic half-toning process was finally replaced in the 1970’s with digital half-toning.


Photographic half tone blockAn example of a photographic half-tone printing block from the Marshall collection. 






Close up of half-tone printing blockA detailed close up at x17 magnification from another block showing the dots.







Volunteer, Graeme Lindsell cleaning a block using Pre-lim pasteThe printing blocks had been kept stacked inside cardboard boxes and several blocks had never even been unwrapped for use by the engineering company. The majority of blocks consist of type metal (tin, antimony and mostly lead) with a copper electrolytic layer fixed with steel screws or nails to a wooden block just over 21mm thick. Mahogany was often used as the timber and this combined with years of fairly damp storage had not done the metal any good. Corrosion had formed on the type metal (white powder/lead corrosion), copper (green) and the steel fixings (red/brown). Added to this was printer’s ink residue and in some cases a thick waxy substance which at least had protected the surface from corrosion.

Corrosion was removed with different grades of glass bristle brush to limit scratching the surface. The lead corrosion was removed using plenty of dust extraction over the work surface. Where the copper surface was in good condition, Pre-Lim paste surface cleaner was used in small quantities to good effect.

The residue of the Pre-Lim paste was removed using the froth of a non-ionic detergent in de-ionised water. After the blocks were dry, a coating of micro-crystalline wax was applied. This was finally buffed up using a stiff brush.


Planning the displayThe brief was to display the printing blocks on the wall behind the Titan Tractor in the shape of clouds coming from the tractor’s exhaust shadow cast by the lighting. A rough shape was made using three MDF panels and a trial fit was carried out to check the effect. The panels were removed to enable the fixing of the blocks.

Several methods of fixing the blocks were considered. Due to their weight, it was decided to fix each block through the back of the MDF panel, using a small brass countersunk screw. The blocks covering the screws to fix the panels to the wall were loosely fixed using a wooden dowel. To reduce the weight of each panel, some ‘gaps in the clouds’ were created. The end result is quite effective. The surface of the copper is still shiny, but this will tone down as a natural and even patina will form.

To explain the printing blocks, an information flip book is positioned in front of the panel which includes copied samples from manufacturers’ catalogues.

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See also

  • Department of Typography and Graphic Communication


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