Journey of a woodblock – Part one – Mucky pictures

Woodblock image

As the artist intended!

On a few previous posts, I’ve showed some stages of preparing a woodblock. I’m now revisiting this subject as I’ve been asked to make a new block for EBBA (see my post from March of this year, “Proof of Purchase”) Hopefully, this will play a very small role in helping UCSB students experience creating and printing ballads on a hand press.

Patricia Fumer suggested a few favourite images from their archives, and I selected a tavern print which can be seen here. The original is in the “Roxburghe Ballads”, part of the British Library’s collection and I reasoned it would be easy to go and see to get a feel for the size and the paper. Sadly, this turned out not to be so, as the books were too fragile to be viewed. However, the curator of rare books was kind enough to measure the images on the ballad for me.

The image on this particular ballad, “The Good Fellows Frolick” is pretty poor print quality.

Tavern scene

A bit mucky

But like many of its kind, this block had had a long career in the print trade. We can guess at its longevity, since this ballad is estimated to have been published in 1682, but the figures are wearing clothes more akin to the fashions of the 1630s. So it was easy to track down another appearance of the same image, this time in a ballad collected between 1663 and 1674, with a much better impression – see top.

Ballad with images

The whole sheet from the Roxburghe Ballads with the poorly printed image

Something might have happened to this block, since the rest of the 1682 sheet seems to have printed clearly. Perhaps it was what Moxon referred to, in reference to type, as “choaking” : “If a Form be not Washt in due time, the Inck will get into the Hollows of the Face of the Letter: And that getting in of the Inck is called Choaking of the Letter, or Choaking of the Form.”*

So, having found my image online, and succeeded in the improbably difficult task of getting it to print on paper actual size, the next task will be to prepare the pear wood – cut it to the right size and the all-important type high thickness.

Part two to follow: transferring the picture onto the block.

*Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing, by Joseph Moxon, my edition a Dover Publications reissue edited by Herbert Davis and Harry Carter.

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