Woodblock printing | State Library of New South Wales


Blocks of wood have been carved and used to stamp images onto paper and material for around 2000 years. The first published botanical books to make use of woodblock prints or woodcuts were the herbals of the 15th and 16th centuries. Woodcuts are carved into the long grain of a planed wooden block. The high parts are then inked and stamped onto a paper page, creating a relief print. Wood engraving uses the same technique but the carving is done on the end of the grain. Here, the wood is harder and a finer result can be achieved.

There are no woodcut prints of Australian plants from the early period of European discovery of Australia, although Thomas Bewick produced several wood engravings of Australian animals. By that time (the late 1700s), metal engraving had overtaken woodcuts as the preferred method of botanical printing. There are several reasons for this. Woodcuts are simpler in design and lack the detail which a metal engraving can offer. Also, wooden blocks don’t last as long as a metal plate, which was a problem for printmakers and publishers who wished to create many copies of each edition.

Below are examples of woodcut prints from early herbals in the Library’s collection.

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 > View further images from Incipit tractatus de virtutibus herbarum on the Library's catalogue Link to catalogue

 > View further images from De historia stirpium on the Library's catalogue Link to catalogue

 > View further images from A nievve herball on the Library's catalogue Link to catalogue