The Art of Copperplate Engraving

When one looks at masterworks of penmen reproduced in books like George Bickham’s The Universal Penman, it is easy to marvel at the absolutely perfect letterforms and flawless flourishes. Pen artists, particularly beginners, may become frustrated at their inability to render such unbelievable lines. What they don’t understand is that the penman had a ringer—the engraver, who could repair inaccurate letterforms and make jiggly lines go away. In many respects, engravers were as talented, or more so, than the penmen. 

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Engravers, sometimes referred to as “sculpsit,” could make any penman look terrific. Engravers hand carved printing plates, generally on sheets of copper. Copper was the metal of choice because it was soft and could produce excellent hairlines. 

An engraver carved into the copper with a tool called a burin, sometimes referred to as a graver. It was a sharp steel chisel with various tips and lengths designed for different cuts with a large wooden or cork knob for a handle. The knob rested in the palm of the hand as the sculpsit painstakingly chiseled away the metal while reproducing a penman’s work. A single plate required hours, if not days, to complete.

Because copperplate engraving was used to reproduce script lettering, its name became synonymous with English Roundhand.

Copperplate As A Printing Process

Copperplate engraving and printing originated around 1450, about the time of Johann Gutenberg’s system of movable wooden type. The Breakfast Dish fish pictured here and on the cover is a fantastic example of a copper engraved printing plate and shows the engraver’s skill in all its glory. As you can see, a copper printing plate was engraved backwards!

Normally, copper plates are used in a printing process known as intaglio, from the Italian for “cutting in.” Thick, pasty ink is forced into the grooves. On the printing press, the plate is laid onto dampened paper and with considerable pressure, the ink is forced off the plate and onto the sheet. After the thick layer of ink dries, one can actually feel the raised nature of the lines.

The Breakfast Dish fish appeared on page 127 of Michael’s Compendium of Plain & Ornamental Penmanship, by G.W. (George Washington) Michael, 1886. Mr. Michael (1844-1932) was founder and president of the National Pen Art Hall of Delaware, Ohio, and teacher of Charles Zaner, Elmer Bloser, and Lloyd Kelchner. Sadly, he does not identify his engraver as other authors tended to do.

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The page from the book is reproduced here. Mr. Michael’s printer cleverly used the intaglio plate as a relief plate meaning that the ink rested on the highest surfaces of the plate rather than being forced into the grooves. This allowed for the “reverse” image, white on black. With intaglio printing, the image would have been black on white. Numbers, type and other graphics added to the page required a second pass through the press. The printed reproduction is outstanding considering the technology of the time. Heavy black ink coverage is solid while maintaining the fine hairlines.

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By 1886, printers were already discovering photolithography whereby a printing plate could be made directly from photographic film. Printing from this process showed work exactly as it was, warts and all. The best penmen were undeterred by this. Publications such as The Business Educator were printed via photolithography and work reproduced there was first rate, reflecting the superb talent of the penman.

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