Photo courtesy of Crane & Company

Photo courtesy of Crane & Company

With the exception of engraved wedding invitations and social stationery, engraving is not commonly seen these days. That’s too bad, because engraving offers elegance and a classic look beyond compare.

Here’s how it works: The image is recessed into a relief printing plate. The recessed areas are filled with ink, then the image side of the paper is pushed down into the recessed areas of the plate with a ton or more of pressure on press. Often the paper is also dampened so it will stretch into the plate more. The result is a raised-ink image like the one above.

Although plate making for engraving is no longer done entirely by hand, both the plate making and the relief printing are very labor intensive, requiring the expertise of true craftsmen.

When you design for engraving, there are a number of things to keep in mind.

How many passes?

Pricing for engraving is based partly on how many plates and passes through the press will be required. You may think that you’ve created a one-color design, but differently weighted elements may require a separate pass through the press. This is because delicate, light-weight elements require different pressure to capture the details than bigger or bolder elements.

The number of passes also depends on the characteristics of the specific press and the expertise of the press operator, but here is a simplified visual guide, based on the weight/thickness of the design elements. I once priced a “simple two-color design” that called for seven passes!


Other design considerations

Be sure to find out the size restrictions of the press you’ll be printing on before you get too far along in your design process. The image area on commercial engraving presses is generally small, between 6 x 9 inches and 9 x 13 inches.

Big solids can be problematic. In effect they create a big blob of ink on the plate which will be difficult to hold as a solid. The resulting print will exhibit blobbiness called pooling. Patterning is a good way around this. Check out Andrew Jackson’s jacket on a twenty dollar bill to see how dark values are represented!

Image courtesy of Crane & Company

Photo courtesy of Crane & Company

Take advantage of the opacity and thick body of engraving inks to print on dark colored stock. White and metallic inks look terrific, too. You can see more stunning examples of engraving like this strawberry on the Crane Insider blog.

The sculptural, tactile quality of engraving makes it a particularly attractive technique for business cards. Card masters can be engraved with the company logo all at once, then batches of cards can be personalized as needed with an offset printed imprint.

Like paper for embossing, paper for engraving must have long, resilient fibers. Cotton stock is an excellent choice because it can stretch into the recessed areas of the plate without tearing and will show less stretching and distortion than short-fibered papers. Avoid recycled stock for engraving.

Disaster avoidance tips

Find a knowledgeable guide to engraving to ensure that your design can be successfully achieved with this printing method. Select a printer who can educate you about what works and what doesn’t and can recommend appropriate paper stocks.

Share your design ideas early in the process so your rep can take a draft of it to his engraver to pinpoint any problems with the design. In my experience, the most common problem is type that is set or tracked too tight.

Have you enjoyed your experiences with engraving? If you’ve got an engraving project you’d like to show off, send me a photo to share with Printing Disasters readers!

Many thanks to author Peter Hopkins for graciously allowing me to use photos from The Crane Insider.