Copper Plate Intaglios
The Successor to Woodcut Which Took the Map Making World by Storm
The intaglio printing process was widely used in the creation of vintage maps and copper print intaglio was the technique whereby the details of the image to be printed were either engraved onto a copper plate using a tool called a burin or etched using acid. The grooves created were then filled with ink, the surface wiped clean and the copper plate then pressed onto the surface of the (dampened) paper causing the paper to squeeze up into the grooves and thus pick up the ink.
One thing to note, particularly if you’re looking to buy vintage maps, is that because the copper plate was pressed so hard onto the surface of the paper when it was used, it very often left what is known as a plate mark around the edge of the print. If looking for signs of authenticity when buying vintage maps then a plate mark is certainly something to look out for. In addition, it is worth noting that copper plates were expensive things and the mapmaker would invariably use as much of the surface as possible meaning that the plate mark would be close up to the edge of the map. A plate mark an inch or two away from the map’s edge is usually a sign that the map is a fake(!) Please read our How to Buy an Old Map article for a more in-depth look at the subject.
It’s difficult to say exactly when intaglio printing was first used but the earliest examples that we know of come from Germany and are thought to date from the early 1400s.
Copper print intaglio was widely adopted and the technique reached its height in terms of popularity in the 18th century. Whilst far from perfect – it is thought that the number of impressions that could be taken from an unaltered copper plated was in the middle hundreds – It scored over the old technique of woodcutting because of the degree of detail and texture it allowed and this was vital in the development of ever more accurate maps.