Lost Knowledge: Wood Engraving and Pictorial Webster’s

Craft & Design
Lost Knowledge: Wood Engraving and Pictorial Webster’s

Lost Knowledge explores the possible technologies of the future in the forgotten (or marginalized) tech of the past. We look at retro-tech, “lost” technologies, and the make-do, improvised “street tech” of village artisans and tradespeople from around the globe. “Lost Knowledge” was also the theme of Make: Volume 17

Hot on the heels of acquiring a copy of Artistic Printing, which inspired my last Lost Knowledge column, I also got a copy of another book cataloging the lost wonders of printing technology, namely, Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities, by John M. Carrera (Chronicle Books, $35) and the art of wood engraving. My last column struck a nerve with other makers who share my enthusiasm for old-school printing, that I decided to share this second amazing book and the type of engraving that inspired it.


Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities is a collection of hundreds of the wood-engraved illustrations that were found in 19th century editions of Webster’s dictionaries. The author, fine-press bookmaker John M. Carrera, began a fascinating ten year odyssey to bring the book to print after he discovered a brittle and yellowing copy of the 1898 edition of Webster’s International under his grandfather’s favorite reading chair. He was so taken by the wooden engravings in it that he contacted the Merriam-Webster Company and was told that there was a collection of the original “cuts” (the engravings) housed at Yale University. Carrera traveled there and discovered 150 drawers chaotically crammed with more than 10,000 wooden engravings and copper electrotypes (duplicates of the cuts). After he decided to create a new visual dictionary with these engravings, it took him a year just to identify and alphabetize the collection he chose for the book.

YouTube player

The above video shows what he did next, which was to create a special letterpressed, hand-bound version of his Pictorial Webster’s. Seeing the composing, printing, binding, and finishing process is amazing. The amount of work involved in such an undertaking is staggering. You’d think he’d have to sell the book for thousands of dollars (and still barely pay for his time). He does. He has several such editions available on his website. (As soon as I’m rich and famous…)

This video shows some of the whimsy to be discovered within this book. On the face of it, it looks like a standard visual dictionary, but it’s larded with fun and the funny. And some surreal, too. Wisps of Marcel Duchamp and James Joyce haunt these pages. Thought-provoking and strange quotes are peppered throughout. There’s a meta-conversation going on here, about chance, patterns, free-association, and the discovery of new things by combining old things. Pages are laid out to suggest a narrative. This is as much a piece of art as it is an inspiring reference book.

Here you can read more about the making of Pictorial Webster’s, including photos and descriptions of all the letterpressed, hand-bound editions. Chronicle is such an inspiring company that’s frequently involved in surprising and groundbreaking projects like this one. It’s wonderful that they’ve published this affordable hardback edition. They also have a rubber stamp set based on some of the images, and a set of “wall cards.” I got a box of the stamps and they’re lovely, a great addition to my ginormous stamp collection.


A wood engraving by Reynolds Stone (1900-1979), seen on A Blog About Typography.

Oh, yes, this column was also supposed to be about wood engraving. It’s a fascinating artform. The Wood Engraver’s Network is a good place to start exploring it. They have a short intro to and history of wood engraving, and you can download issues of their newsletter, the Block & Burin. And “block and burin” is largely what you need to know about wood engraving. The engravings are done on the end-grain of the wood (as opposed to side-grain), usually boxwood, which is soft enough for carving, but dense enough to hold up to fine detail. Burins, traditional engraving tools, are used. Also, check out The Wood Engraver, a blog maintained by a practitioner and enthusiast of the form.

4 thoughts on “Lost Knowledge: Wood Engraving and Pictorial Webster’s

  1. KentKB says:

    I am getting this, I wish I could afford the special letterpressed, hand-bound version….
    Great story to go with it too.

  2. Gareth Branwyn says:

    Even the trade hardback version is a really lovely piece of book art. And as Marc de Vinck pointed out to me in email, it’s available on Amazon for only $23.10. That’s an extremely affordable price for what you get.

    I DO have one criticism tho. The green cloth cover shows dirt really easily. Maybe I’m an extra greasy guy (us Arabs are well-oiled against dry desert air), but my copy already shows discoloring from handling. So, if you do get one, make sure your hands are clean and dry before you lose yourself inside.

    (My favorite visual jokes in the book are the beetle labeled “Help!” and the “Porbeagle shark” next to (and starring at) a “pool table.” Adorable.)

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

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