My knowledge and experience associates lengthwise woodcutting with lime wood, with its yielding structure, colour and peculiar smell. The notion of a woodcutter from centuries past is closely identified with a sculptor of altars, for whom a linden board or block were basic materials and as such indispensable.
The ease of working with lime wood would reduce the toil of cutting. The woodcutter, with the rapt attention and profound concentration on his work, would become very tired from the constant perfection of his cuts, and as such would lose concentration if the material would be too resistant and demanding. As opposed to the sculptor’s simple ‘cut-out’ board, it is the woodcutter’s print which is the final effort that comprises his travail. The print mercilessly shows all errors and blemishes as well as the craftsmanship of the artist and his woodworking skills. That’s what it looks like… in theory.
Looking at the board from Płazów at the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków I marvelled at the fluency in which they were made by their executors. One could see that this was not the only work which was undertaken by them. The biggest surprise, however, were the boards and the clarity of the wood grain visible through the patina of time. These were made of beech wood, which has a very particular grain, glances, “splinters”. The weight of the beech boards was also typically heavy. Other boards, on which it was not possible to see the grain and texture, were also heavy, which lead to the assumption that they were also made from beech wood. All the boards were bent and warped, yet another characteristic of this material.
I wonder why the woodcutters chose this kind of wood, which is so ungrateful and resistant to work with? It is one of the last kind of types of wood on the artisan’s list. It is possible that the order determined that the matrices should be durable for use for some hundreds upon thousands of prints. We don’t know how prints were made, but the boards have kept extremely well, and the material has proved its worth. The choice of a wood which is less grainy and fragile would have made work a whole lot easier. Apart from lime, light birch, sycamore used for furniture, or even alder, great for making fences and of a beautiful orange hue, would have been easier to make an engraving across the grain, as the material is less resistant and is not as brittle.
The choice of background, i.e. the parts of the block which are not printed as they are not covered in paint, are left for “afters” by woodcutters, often undertaken impatiently and even with reluctance. The tension and concentration at this stage is diminished and it is very easy to destroy the result of many hours of work devoted to a main scene through one careless action. The Płazów boards contain backgrounds which are made incredibly laboriously and cut out splinter by splinter, which separates them from other woodcuts in which the rhythmical traces of the chisel are clearly seen. In fact, in every detail it is possible to see how the beech wood forced the woodcutters to multiply their efforts many times over. In overcoming the resistance of the wood, the chisels must have been sharpened more often, and the hand that worked them must have become tired much faster. Maybe it was the awareness of the specific solidity of the material that gave a little extra strength, held the hand steady. I can only imagine this. I’m sure I’ll remain with these questions, with this amazement and admiration which is given to me when I see the boards from Płazów.
Author is a print artist and conservator. He is a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków.