Steel Lines

Steel lines
By Jim DaMico, Graphics Project Archivist

One of the joys of working in an archive is rediscovering hidden collections. I recently uncovered 19 steel engraving plates of prominent Rhode Island men which prompted me to dig further into the history of engraving on steel and the creators of the plates in question. Using the web as the first tool in my search, I discovered a wonderful book by Basil Hunnisett titled Engraved on steel : the history of picture production using steel.

Methods of engraving
There are two methods of engraving on steel both of which create depressions in the surface of the steel to hold ink. The first one, chasing, involves using a blunt tool much like a chisel and a hammer to depress and remove large areas of metal quickly. In the second method, the engraver uses a burin which is a sharp steel cutting tool that removes slivers or strips of metal from the plate thus creating a precise line. One can think of chasing as finger painting while the burin method is like drawing with a quill. In addition, the burin’s handle is designed to fit the engravers’ hand, giving him or her better control over the line. The end result of using the second method, burin, is a clean edge to the line giving the image a “crisp appearance”*.

After the engraver carved the design into the plate, ink is forced into the engraved lines and the surface of the plate is wiped clean, leaving ink only in the depressions. Then the plate is printed-passed with a piece of paper through a press which applies intense pressure to the plate and paper, forcing the absorbent paper into contact with the inked depressions. The resulting image is a mirrored image of the plate.

Steel engraving in America was primarily used in the creation of banknotes and Massachusetts led the way in 1690 as being the first state to issue paper currency. Early American engravers included Jacob Perkins (1766-1849) born in Newburyport, Massachusetts and Gideon Fairman (1774-1827). In 1810, Perkins and Fairman produced the first book made entirely from steel plates at Newburyport entitled “Running Hand Stereographic Copies”**. Around 1825 steel engraving begins to seriously develop. Post 1851 with the improvement of transatlantic travel, more engraving plates and impressions were coming to America after first being published in London. As an example of this, London plate printers, Dixon and Ross, offered steel plates for sale to firms in New York City.***

The rediscovered engraving plates

A shipping box that contained 19 steel engraving plates was mailed by Livermore & Knight Co. Printers, 42 Pine St., Providence, R.I. to the RIHS at 52 Power Street, Providence, R.I.

Livermore & Knight, Printers

Original steel plate shipping box

Close-up of shipping box

Close-up detail showing the original packing material


Original envelopes that held steel engraving plates

Thomas W. Bicknell

Original envelope for Thomas W. Bicknell steel engraving plate

Sixteen of the steel plates in the RIHS Graphics Collection bear the trademark for John Sellers and Sons of Sheffield, England. Sellers and Sons manufactured not only cutlery and razor blades but also steel and copper plates for engravers. In order to supply the American market, Sellers and Sons opened an office in New York City circa 1840****. The engravers that created these plates probably procured them through that New York office. All of the plates, with the exception of two, measure 7”W x 10”H. Three were done by John Angel James Wilcox (1835 – ), an engraver/artist***** and four were done by Frederick T. (or I.) Stuart (1837 – 1913)******. Both Wilcox and Stuart were active in the Boston, Massachusetts area with Wilcox working circa 1880 and Stuart working circa 1860. As both Wilcox and Stuart were practicing portrait painters and engravers, the conclusion can be made that each man was responsible for both the painting and the engraving of his subjects’ portrait.

Wilcox and Stuart used a mixture of stipple and line engraving to achieve their portraits final result. Notice the use of stipple in the area of the face. You can also see in this photo the wax coating applied to the entire steel plate that prevents rusting.

Nelson W. Aldrich

Close-up detail of Nelson. W. Aldrich by: J.A.J. Wilcox, Boston showing the use of stippling

Nelson W. Aldrich portrait

Engraving of Nelson W. Aldrich by: J.A.J. Wilcox, Boston. Full plate portrait, 7"W x 10"H

Some notable Rhode Island names whose portraits are forever engraved in steel include Nelson W. Aldrich whose portrait can be found in History of Freemasonry in Rhode Island and Zachariah Allen whose portrait can be found in The Biographical Cyclopedia of Representative Men of Rhode Island.

Eight of the plates are portraits that were published in History of Freemasonry in Rhode Island by Henry Warren Rugg (Providence,: E.L. Freeman & Son, 1895), and three were published in The Biographical Cyclopedia of Representative Men of Rhode Island. (Providence: National Biographical Publishing co., 1881). Both of these books are available to researchers in the Rhode Island Historical Society’s reading room. The researcher will notice when they pick up either of the books mentioned, that each engraving has a tissue-guard bound into the book. Tissue-guards are found in fine quality books and were used to protect each plate. This is not something that was done with halftone reproductions as halftone reproductions are generally found in mass produced, lower quality publications such as newspapers and magazines.

Not only is the Graphics Inventory Project collecting data on gems like these, it is also re-housing the objects in archival storage boxes and envelopes.

Steel engraving plates that have been re-housed using archival envelopes and boxes

We are pleased to have these plates in our collection to document the history of printing and 19th century book publishing.
[*] Hunnisett, Basil. 1998. Engraved on steel: the history of picture production using steel plates. Aldershhot, Hants, England: Ashgate. P.4-5.

[**] Ibid. P. 329

[***] Ibid. P. 342

[****] In: Abraham Lincoln Portrait Master Engraving Sellers Rare (accessed 2010_04_26)

[*****] In: John Wilcox – Artist, Art – John Angel James Wilcox. (accessed 2010_04_26)

[******] In: Frederick Stuart – Artist, Art – Frederick T. (or I.) Stuart. (accessed 2010_04_26)

Recommended reading

Hunnisett, Basil. 1998. Engraved on steel: the history of picture production using steel plates. Aldershhot, Hants, England: Ashgate.

Gascoigne, Bamber. 2004. How to identify prints: a complete guide to manual and mechanical processes from woodcut to inkjet. New York, N.Y.: Thames & Hudson.

Websites of interest
Chasing Tools
What Are Chasing Tools?

The MettleWorks, Art, Design and Form in Metal and other media

Repoussé and chasing – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Burin tools – McClain’s Printmaking Supplies – Engraving Tools, Burin

Stipple engraving
Stipple engraving – Hutchinson encyclopedia article about stipple engraving

Stippling – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Mezzotinting process demonstration (Russian)


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