A copper plate, like every printing block, can give only a limited number of prints, perhaps several hundred, even a thousand. The surface of the plate gradually wears away and the drawing gets fainter and fainter. For this reason the first prints are always considered the best. Experienced etchers used to make them recognizable by using a plate large enough to leave a band at the bottom.
Sometimes inscriptions or signatures were engraved in these bands, but at the same time they scratched a soft drawing into the already etched plate with the needle (a leaf pattern, an animal, or some sort of emblem). This "drypoint" came out only in the first dozen copies or so, after which it vanished.
In the same way, whole plates can be worked in drypoint. No acid is used, and generally the prints are very faint, but if the scratching is done very forcefully the edges of the scorings stand up in a sort of fringed ridge. This makes the ink spread into a rather smudged line, as though the line had been drawn with a sharp pen on damp paper, making it blurred. Much experience is needed to know beforehand what the effect will be.
While etching and drypoint allow a fluid, free hand in drawing, as when using pen or pencil, the graving tool required for copper engraving has to be pushed with a strong pressure. The graver is sharpened into a point, with angular facets. The lines are not bitten into the metal with acid but cut directly into the surface with the graver. The line is made broader by pressing the tool deeper into the metal, and clear modulations in the thickness of the line are possible.
It requires great skill to handle the tool correctly, and classical copper engraving has developed as an austere technique, demanding that the lines be drawn strictly parallel, whether they run straight or, corresponding to the perspective of the curves, are bent. Swelling of the stroke thus emphasizes shading. A dark area is best rendered by cross hatching.
The graving tool always leaves ridges, which have to be removed with a scraper to make a clear print. An incompetent engraving looks atrocious; the craft must be systematically studied, or left alone. This, however, is not the reason that there are so few engravers who can rank as artists. The stylization necessary to contain a free drawing in such precise lines has long since ceased to appeal to the taste of the times; yet it could be made to reveal some new and attractive sides.
Steel engraving is done in the same way as copper, except that a steel plate is used, which is engraved before it is tempered by heating and dipping in water. It gives many more prints than a copper plate, but steel cannot be kept for very long because it is almost impossible to prevent its developing patches of
rust, which sooner or later ruin the whole plate.