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Woodblock and Stencil Playing Cards

Around 1987 I decided to make a pack of playing cards from woodblocks and coloured with stencils. I imagined I was carrying out my 'apprenticeship'.

TRADITIONAL ENGLISH PLAYING CARDS

printed from woodblocks
and hand-coloured with stencils

Woodblock and Stencil Playing Cards by Simon Wintle, 1987

rom documentary evidence, such as statutes and prohibitions, we get the impression that playing cards were being used in England in the fifteenth century. It is questionable whether these cards were actually made in England from their earliest introduction, so for quite some time they must have been imported. But the 1463 ban on importation leads one to suppose that a domestic industry already existed by this time.

Around 1987 I decided to make a pack of playing cards from woodblocks and coloured with stencils. The purpose of the exercise was to acquire insight and practical experience into the circumstantial problems of printing playing cards from woodblocks, their design, colouring with stencils, etc. I was carrying out my 'apprenticeship'.

I acquired the necessary blank wood blocks (lime wood) and had them planed flat and made 'type high'. I then discovered that the woodcutting tools which I had acquired for the task were useless, and so I made my own set out of watchmaker's tools, which are made from higher grade steel.

one of the woodblocks, 1987

Above: one of the woodblocks, 1987

Woodblock & stencil cards by Simon Wintle, 1987

Above: four finished cards, 1987

The Court Cards

The next decision was the model for the court cards. I chose the seventeenth century designs of Hewson, which exemplify the 'English' style which had crystallised by then. Hewson's cards seem very formal and exhibit that geometric construction which characterises the English pattern, as opposed to the earlier cards which had been imported from the continent (by card makers such as Valery Faucil, Pierre Marechal, Jehan Henault, Anthoine Le Cornu, etc.)

Whilst French cards had a tradition of being named after historical personalities, English court cards were never named or based on any historical personalities. The costume worn by the English court pattern came from a French perception of that worn by the monarchy and their attendants, presumably at the time when the designs were first made. This partly explains the strange costumes on the cards, alongside poor copying.

To explain: when copying from an earlier design, or adapting it to a different size or medium, the figures may become 'squeezed' into the desired shape by distorting the limbs, shortening the neck or ankles, and losing the proportions of the original figure, particularly if one is not a very competent artist. We can confirm that English cards are shorter and wider than their French counterparts. Furthermore, when cutting out the designs on the woodblock, perhaps intent on finishing as soon as possible, finer features of the design will be simplified, ignored or removed… in which case the design may become corrupted or modified. English playing cards often look as though this sort of thing has happened. The stencilling is often slap-dash which further obliterates the designs. These reductions in quality are probably due to cost-effectiveness: there is often a sense of expediency. Did this matter?

The English Pattern

Perhaps the problem was compounded in that they weren't always sure exactly what they were representing. It is ironic that embargos had been secured against imported cards, but that home-produced ones were so badly designed! However, due to the formalisation of the designs, and whether they are called 'packs' or 'decks', today the English pattern has become the leading international pattern. The Americans took it with them and perpetuated it over there, although they introduced innovations including the joker and (probably) corner indices

THE PIP CARDS

There is more to making a pack of playing cards than designing and printing the court cards… namely the pip cards. The stencils were made from heavy, oiled card and the pips were cut with punches which I had specially made. I believe that this is how they were traditionally made, otherwise there would have been noticeable variations between adjacent pips had they been cut out by hand.

With the benefit of hindsight I can now see where I made mistakes, particularly at the colouring stage. It was fascinating to rediscover why the old card makers did things in particular ways, which may appear odd or eccentric until we try to do it differently. Then we see the logic!

The wrappers were printed from woodblocks with letterpress overprinting. The backs were plain white, as they were traditionally.

Alternative Colour Scheme

Woodblock and Stencil Playing Cards by Simon Wintle with alternative colour scheme, 1987

Above: during the stencilling stage I also tried alternative colour schemes.

See also:   Amos Whitney's Factory Inventory   Chromolithography   Design of Playing Cards   Make your own Playing Cards   Letterpress Printing   Manufacture of Cardboard   Manufacture of Playing Cards, 1825   Rotxotxo Workshop Inventories, Barcelona   The Art of Stencilling  


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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

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Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996. He is a former committee member of the IPCS and was graphics editor of The Playing-Card journal for many years. He has lived at various times in Chile, England and Wales and is currently living in Extremadura, Spain. Simon's first limited edition pack of playing cards was a replica of a seventeenth century traditional English pack, which he produced from woodblocks and stencils.

3 comments

Terry Belanger's Avatar'

I'd like to purchase a set of Simon Wintle's hand-stenciled facsimile English playing cards; I understand that sets are still available. If sets are still for sale, can you provide information on how one purchases them? I am too stupid to be able to find this information on this website. Many thanks. The cards are for the teaching collections of Rare Book School at the University of Virginia (on which, see Wikipedia). Many thanks! -Terry Belanger

Simon Wintle's Avatar'

Hi Terry, I made the woodblock and stencil deck in around 1987-8 and only around 50 copies were produced. Those are all sold out and hard to find today. From time to time one comes up on ebay or with a dealer who has purchased someone’s collection. There is a chance that a Kickstarter replica edition may be produced in the future, but nothing is planned yet.

Terry Belanger's Avatar'

Thanks very much for your fast reply. I figured that the original issue had sold out, but was under the impression that you had issued a second batch. I'll keep an eye out for a set on eBay, &c. Has anyone else, so far as you know, created a similar set, i.e. one as authentic as the one you made? At Rare Book School, we have a ? late c17 woodblock strip with three tarot cards on it, from a much larger block that probably contained 3x4 or 3x5 = 12 or 15 images. When the block was still intact, it was used as a cabinet door (our strip has indentations and screw holes where the two hinges were fastened). I bought our strip in the 1980s or 1990s from an American ephemera dealer, by which point it had been cut up into four or five strips. I've always been an admirer of Melbert B. Cary; William Keller, who later late compiled the four-volume catalogue of the Cary playing card collection at Yale, was my student at the Columbia University School of Library Service in the late 1970s or early 1980s. -terry.belanger@virginia.edu


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