Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

From the OI Archives: Our Copper and Wood Printing Blocks, part III

· April 4th, 2018 · No Comments

This is the third piece in a series of posts by Laurel Daen on the history of the copper and wood printing block process used to produce the William and Mary Quarterly until the mid-twentieth century. Laurel wrote the pieces in preparation for the OI’s 75th anniversary while she was Lapidus Initiative Communications Coordinator in 2016.

by Laurel Daen

The Royal Engraving Company in Richmond made the copper-and-wood blocks used to print illustrations in the William and Mary Quarterly in the mid-twentieth century. Founded as early as 1909, the company specialized in, as they advertised in 1950, “faithful reproductions of photographs and drawings” for businesses as well as the Virginia state government.

Ad for the Royal Engraving Company

Royal Engraving Company technicians would have transferred the glossy photographs they received from the WMQ editorial staff to the copper-and-wood blocks using the halftone relief process. Invented by Frederick Eugene Ives in 1881, this method dominated the publishing industry until the 1970s because it was both compatible with letterpress printing (the industry standard) and allowed for the reproduction of grey values in images.

Technicians’ first step would have been to photograph the photographs again behind a glass screen gridded with fine black lines. These lines produced an optical effect in the resulting photographs in which darker areas of the images became larger dots and lighter areas of the images became smaller dots. This dot pattern would eventually serve as a code to create greyscale during printing.

Detail of copper block used for printing

Next, technicians would have transferred the gridded photographs to copper plates using the process of photoengraving. Applying a photoresist (usually gelatin mixed with a light-sensitive bichromate) to the copper, they would have projected negatives of the gridded photographs onto the plates, causing the photoresist to harden in areas that were exposed to light and remain soluble in the shadows. Then, workers would have bathed the plates in acid so that dots in areas unprotected by the photoresist were eaten away, forming tiny wells where ink could collect. In a final step, technicians removed both the acid and photoresist, exposing copper plates etched with negatives of the desired illustrations, ready for printing.

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