Wood Etching Tips

By Shannon Leigh O'Neil

Better known as wood engraving, wood etching is a relief printmaking technique in which an artist carves an image into the surface of a wood block, coats it with ink, and then transfers the image to paper or some other medium. Using the proper tools and a good selection of wood, a relief printmaker can create beautifully detailed creations. Wood etching is not a difficult technique and there are many ways to enhance the quality of the completed artwork.


Just like a painter uses a number of brushes and other implements for painting, a printmaker uses several tools for etching and engraving. Proper care of these tools is essential. Woodworking tools should be kept sharp so that they can make precise, detailed lines. Tools that are dull or damaged will ruin the impression of the transferred image. One of the basic tools for wood etching is the spitsticker, which resembles a knife merged with a flat-head screwdriver. Other tools have more specialized purposes, including the tint tool, which aids in cutting lines that are straight and consistent in thickness. A handheld rotary tool, equipped with a carving and engraving accessory, allows to you do intricate work quickly without putting stress on your hand or wrist.


The selection of wood used for this printmaking technique is of the utmost importance. Traditional woods used for wood etching are cherry, boxwood, maple, oak, lemonwood, birch and walnut. Hardwoods work best because they are able to show the intricate detail of an image. Whatever wood you use, choose a cross section that goes against the grain, since it will produce the best results. You can use wood that follows the grain, but keep in mind that it may split or crack during the engraving process, potentially marring the image.


Whether you draw directly onto the wood or use a transfer method, always begin with a planned design. For simpler designs, the easiest method is to make your drawing in ink on the natural surface of the wood. For more sophisticated designs, use tracing paper to transfer artwork, which may then be etched onto the wood’s surface. Whichever method you use, you must complete the drawing before engraving.


Inking the wood’s surface properly is an acquired skill that is important to master. Too much ink fills up the cut lines of a detailed etching, whereas too little ink creates gaps in the lines of the transferred image. Use a professional brayer or ink roller, as opposed to an inexpensive one. Apply a professional-grade, oil-based ink. Oil-based inks containing linseed oil are best to use. Water-based inks are not ideal, except for beginning printmakers. The only advantage of water-based inks is that they require less cleanup. Oil-based inks will deliver much more intense tone and color after drying.

© Demand Media 2011