Carving Woodblocks - endgrain or plankside?

Hi, I’m looking to carve some letterpress blocks for a friends birthday present however I am unsure as to whether I should use the end grain for lettering or if carving the plank side would be acceptable.
The type is going to be about 2 or 3 inches high and carved from Beech.
When printers such as yourselves purchase woodblocks do you bother with endgrain or are both acceptable for use?


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You’ll have trouble carving end grain blocks with a knife — the usual tools are gravers. End grain blocks are usually harder wood too — maple, boxwood, etc. I doubt if you’ll find uniformly type-high beech end-grain blocks. I would say your best bet is cut on the plank.


Thanks for the reply Bob,

I thought letterpress users preferred end grain blocks? or is end grain only used in the making of extremely fine detailed typeface?

Also wouldn’t plank side be more inclined to warp?

………..please excuse my confusion and lack of knowledge regarding letterpress, I’m a complete noob to this.


End grain, as Bob says, is very dense. It is used for wood engravings and is “cut” with burins and gravers - or in the case of commercially-made wood type, it is routed by machine. The operative word is “engrave”, as you are not really cutting the end grain with these tools, rather engraving it. This is how wood engravings display such dense blacks and fine detail (look up Fritz Eichenberg or Lynd Ward).

Plank wood is used for wood cuts. For this you would use gouges, knives and chisels to remove the unwanted image areas. Obviously this wood is softer than end grain, but much easier to cut with the simpler tools. The type of wood makes a difference, too, but if your tools are sharp you can get fine detail even using readily available soft pine. Also, the character, grain of the wood will impose itself, usually to advantage. Unless you are concerned with printing hundreds of impressions, making a wood cut using regular plank wood will be fine for your purpose. (look up Antonio Frasconi or Leonard Baskin).

Most commercially available plank wood is sold in 1-inch (actually 3/4”) thickness or 5/4” thickness. If you use the former, you will have to build it up to type high (.918”) in order to print on a standard letterpress. I have mounted the 1-inch stock on standard 1/8” luan plywood to arrive at the proper type height. If you use the 5/4” stock, you will need to plane it down to type high (before you cut your design).

End grain blocks are preferred for longer runs because they stand up to impression better. Most older wood type was routed from end-grain maple. Plank blocks can warp more readily, but end-grain blocks will warp too — all wooden printing blocks need to be kept dry and stored carefully.

Unless you’re really into it I think you’ll do better to use standard plank lumber chosen for smooth grain-free surface (unless you want the grainy texture) and build it up as emthree suggests. But you can buy end-grain hardwood (maple, cherry, boxwood) blocks already finished type-high if you really want to go that route, though they’re pretty pricey.


S B. re woodcarving your own blocks, I am actually playing/eperimenting with same thing now, and have just done some investigative work,together with a tiny insight into what material to use. Virtually all wooden/poster type I have ever seen was based on end grain only material, as already implied Beech, Maple, Boxwood, maybe Ramin but always end grain. Think of what happens to house floorboards in tounge and groove form from planks , with expansion and contraction invariably they bow upwards following the growth rings in original tree formation, exactly replicating lock up, in your form, and that before introduction of ink and chemicals!!!!! Even in the closing stages of poster type production with perspex or plastic faces involved, end grain was always the base. It is appreciated that accurate end grain would/could be problematical but a few days ago I was in contact with 2 local SAWMILLS (not just wood suppliers,) who assured me that they could supply me small amounts of end grain hardwood put through their Planer Thicknesser on the end grain, to fairly acceptable overall thickness approaching type high, which would obviously leave scope for normal make ready packing. They did stress very strongly that I would need Naturally Cured, over a long time period, timber, as opposed to kiln dried,!!! this after stating what may be thrown at it. As already implied by above learned friends carving/working such hardwood will be difficult (as witness the time and very special tools used by engravers making wood engravings a long time ago) I have the advantage of a sophisticated router, but still see having to resort to High Speed Dremel or similar drill, with all its minute bits for the fine detail, i.e. like the inside of the “P”or the “D” etc. Good Luck and perhaps you could post your end results.

I’ve seen it happen several times so I’ll mention it here. Be sure to carve your image in reverse, because whatever you carve while print in the reverse of the block. I know it seems painfully obvious, but as I said I have seen many examples of people carving blocks in the image that they expect to see in print. Not a pleasant surprise after doing all of that work.


Wow, thanks for the replies everyone, thats a lot of good information.
I have a dremel flexishaft that should work well with any endgrain, the only issue for me now is getting type high end grain in the UK (I’ll practice on plank side for the time being) while I do some research on possible suppliers.
Also what height/depth relief do you work with? I was thinking about 5mm.


to s-boro

I am not ashamed to look at what other people have done; have a look for some wood type, see what depth relief they used. I taught myself electric arc welding by trying to find how to get the weld to look like welds already in use; but Briar Press is the place to ask for advice! For welding, I tried the simplest kind of welds I could think of, just a small ridge on the surface of a thick piece of steel. Similarly for whatever you try, perhaps a capital I for a first attempt?


Cheers everyone, I’ll post a pic of my first attempt next week.


Wood engraving suppliers sell type-high end grain wood. Last time I looked, Andy English make blocks for engravers, and I think Intaglio near London Bridge sell it too.

S B, See H and E suggestion re suppliers, but as you seem to be in the experimental stage as yet, I have been in contact with 2 sawmills in Sussex who have assured me they can find me some small pieces of end grain hardwood, for my experiments which I can fairly accurately thickness myself with an engineering milling machine. When I am in possesion of some timber, providing the postage is not too much, send me an address offline and I will forward you a gratis donation providing I get a little feedback.Together with another (technical college student) We are both playing/experimenting. I could possibly take my life in hand and venture into my freezing loft, and find an original hardwood engraving, to lend, for studying, might help. Plus could find, (to lend) one old poster letter to clearly see the maximum depth of drive needed.>>>>>>> Good Luck MICK

I use plank boards for my woodcuts (some printed by hand but most printed on a Vandercook/C&P.) The harder the wood is the more detail you’ll be able to hold, and the longer the block will last. I don’t know if you can get them shipped to the UK but carries type-high plank and end-grain boards:

For my quicker work I’ve purchased pine planks from the hardware store, done a quick carving, and mounted the 1/4” or so planks on board up to type high. It’s fast to carve but very soft.

You’ll want good sharp tools too, I get mine from McClains but I’m sure there are suppliers in your area.

Thanks for the offer Mick (and great advice from everyone else), I’ve looked at eBay and their seems to be plenty of old blocks for sale so i’m going to buy a few for reference.
I’ve also got access to a mill that could prove useful for more accurate and sharper work, unlike my wobbly Dremel;).


Dear S-boro,

I’m not sure about the best wood for making wooden letters with, but for wood engraving the best available woods are either box wood or lemon wood (not from the lemon tree, it just smells a bit like it). the requirement is not just for hardness but for a fine, even and closed end-grain. for this reason oak is useless as are many other ‘hard woods’, they may be hard but they do not take fine lines. Of course, for making letters this is not so important, but you still need a fine outline.

You can still get type-high endgrain wood in the UK: try the following:
The main supplier now is Chris Daunt (Google Chris Daunt wood engraving and you will get to his site), he can prepare blocks for you in the size you want. He also supplies Intaglio Printmakers, south of the river in London, which also have the tools necessary to engrave the blocks and is also a good source of ink for letterpress. Lawrences (Lawrence Art Supplies) still have some blocks and tools left. For all you can order online if you wish.

You will see that finished blocks are not cheap! I would not recommend starting with box wood, not only is it v expensive it is difficult to cut without practice: a dremel would last 10 mins in it. Lemonwood is easier and cheaper, but for letters you may find that end-grain maple (from Lawrences) does the job, and would be much more amenable to cutting mechanically and a lot cheaper.

If you want to do it yourself, try the fruit tree woods, apple, plum, pear, they can all work well; cut into c 1” thick rounds, dry very slowly at a cool room temperature for 2-3 years, I make my own blocks out of apple, but then I don’t worry about them being type high.

Best wishes,


Quick update, I’ve cut some Beech to use the endgrain, as I used a basic (cheap) bandsaw the piece is just under type height but their are surface variations in the height from 0.905 to 0.916. I used 180 grit to sand it down a touch on a flat surface but I don’t want to take too much off.

Is their an acceptable variance for a block height or does it need to be absolutely level?

I’ll be attempting the type this weekend when I get the time to concentrate. I’m thinking of making it a 6 line.

Posted some pics anyway. One picture I took was a bit wonky and the others are self explanatory.


Hmmm…. pictures didn’t post, have tried again (and in the right thread this time lol).


image: block3.jpg


image: block2.jpg


image: block1.jpg


Many thanks Paul, I’ve just visited Chris Daunt’s website and found the Care of Blocks section most informative. It makes good sense storing blocks on their edge to prevent damage.


Everything is very open…

If you are ever in London pop into the Bankside Gallery on the South Bank next to The Tate Modern. It is home of the water colour artists and wood engravers, sometimes there is somebody around who can give advice.