How prints are made

The prints, including printed maps, we sell are antiques, made at the date indicated in the description. They were all made in one of the traditional processes described below.  ( More modern print making techniques such as photographic prints and laser jet prints are not discussed as we do not sell prints of these types).
Traditional  print-making invokes 3 steps. First an image is made on a hard flat surface,  called a [printing] plate, in such a way that it can retain ink. Next, ink is applied to the plate. Then a piece of paper is pressed against the plate so that the ink is transferred to the paper..  This produces  a mirror image of the one on the plate.

The process can be repeated -the plate is inked anew and pressed against another piece of paper- and an additional copy is made of the image on the plate. This can go on until the desired number of copies have been printed or until the plate becomes too worn.

There are 3 main methods of preparing the plate:

1. RELIEF (e.g. woodblock prints and linocuts).

The artist’s image is transferred to a similar-sized block of wood about 5 centimetres (2 inches) thick by cutting away the area which is not to be printed. This leaves the image standing up from the rest of the block. The block is then inked and pressed onto dampened paper. Each impression needs a newly-inked block and after a while the printed image begins to blur and lose definition as the relief carving wears away. These later images are less desirable than the sharper earlier impressions.

Wood blocks were used in Europe from the beginning of printing in the 15th century. But in the 1600s intaglio printing (see below) superseded it, because it permitted more fine work and shading; also, metal plates lasted much better than wooden ones, enabling many more impressions to be taken.

In Japan, woodblock printing was highly developed, notably with the use of multiple coloured inks and sometimes shading of colours by adjusting the thickness of the ink.

Linocuts are a 19th century invention that follows a similar technique to woodcuts, using a plate made of linoleum.
2. INTAGLIO (e.g. Copper and steel engravings and etchings)

Most of the prints and maps we sell are produced by this method.
The artist or printmaker creates the image on a thin sheet of metal (the plate) as if she or he was drawing with a pen or pencil.

Engravings – the artist cuts the image into the plate using a special engraving tool (a burin) which removes a sliver of metal, leaving a groove in the plate. A variant of this technique was used the mid 1800s to early 1900s: wood engravings. Instead of a metal plate, the end grain of a block of wood was used. This was relatively cheap and therefore much used for illustrated newspapers.

Etchings – the metal plate is covered with a layer of wax or a similar substance and the artist draws the image in the wax. The plate is then covered with acid, which eats away the metal surface exposed by the artist’s lines in the wax surface, leaving a depression into which the ink flows during printing. The length of time the plate is left in the acid determines the depth and relative heaviness of the lines and there can be multiple immersions of the plate depending on the requirements of the original drawing for subtleties of light and shade etc.
In both techniques, the plate is covered with ink and then wiped so that the ink concentrates in the lines engraved or etched into the surface and this image is transferred to the damp paper by being put through the press. The plate was usually made of copper until about 1830, after that steel became popular as it was more durable, enabling many more copies to be printed form the original plate before the image began to lose its sharpness and clarity due to wear on the plate.
This process was invented at the end of the 18th century, but did not come into common use until the mid-19th century when lithography was adapted to mechanisation. Perhaps the most famous examples of lithographs are the posters produced by Toulouse-Lautrec and others in Paris at the turn of the century.
The process usually involves the artist drawing the image onto a flat stone surface using a greasy crayon which is resistant to water. The stone is then dampened and ink rolled across the surface. The ink adheres to the greased parts of the stone and is rejected by the dampened sections. Paper is then laid on the stone and passed through a press, transferring the image onto the paper.
The lithographic process is capable of printing many colours; each colour is drawn onto a new stone.
One type of colour lithography that was popular in the second half of the 19th century is known as CHROMOLITHOGRAPHY. By that stage, a zinc plate was often used instead of stone.


Since the mid-18th century, some prints have been made using coloured inks (‘printed colour’). Until well into the 20th century, however, it was common practice for prints to be coloured by hand. When the print was issued hand coloured or was coloured soon after publication, this is called ‘original or contemporary hand colour’. If the hand colouring was done much later, it is called ‘recent hand colour’.


These prints are not numbered like modern artist’s prints.

The numbers of copies of a book varied with the method of printing, the date and the popularity of the subject, but until the end of the 19th century, a publisher’s run of any one book or atlas tended to be in the hundreds rather than the thousands.