Woodcut or xylography appeared in Europe in the late 14th – early 15th century. Initially it was used by wood-carvers and cloth printing masters.
It is a relief printing technique. A wooden block is used, most often of beech or pear wood. Initially the blocks were cut along the grain of the wood. Such blocks could be very large. To conceal the grain, every line of the drawing carved in the block was cut from both sides by a sharp knife, and the background was removed. A relief of a drawing was created and covered with ink. The sheet of paper was put against the block and rubbed with the help of a rag or a special bone for rubbing the paper – and the impression was made. Later they started to use a printing press. As woodcuts were intimately linked with book printing, specialization of labour started early. The artist designed a woodcut, the craftsman carved the block, the printer made impressions in the typography. Experienced artists knew very well all the peculiarities of the woodcutting and took them into account when creating drawings for the woodcuts. It is well known that Albrecht Dürer, when studying in Michael Wolgemut's workshop and during his journey in German lands, often took part in wood-carvers' work. When he became an independent artist, he had his wood-cutters, working under his supervision. The quality of impressions was also very important for Dürer, so he always watched over the printers' work till the necessary effect was achieved.
When working with woodcuts, difficulties may arise because the resistance of the grain to the knife in different parts of the block is uneven. Relief lines of the drawing, carved from the block, are very fragile. If a block was used often, they started to break and fall out and the parts of the composition just disappeared. Finally, the image perished and the block was thrown away. That is why so few blocks preserved till our days.
But a wooden block with a carved image was much more suitable for the typesetting than an intaglio. The image looked well on the page of the book, near the text, and was often used to illustrate the book.