Materials from the Postmaster General's Collection

Classic Engraving

For more than a century, the United States produced almost all its postage stamps through line-engraved intaglio, often called “line engraving,” “intaglio,” or “engraving.” (Printers and collectors use many terms for the same printing methods.) Collectors still value the artistry of engraved stamps, and engraving remains one of the most secure forms of printing.

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Master engraver Elie Timothee Loizeaux

The engraving process includes too many steps to describe completely here. In broad terms, an engraver follows a design called a “model,” cutting the design by hand into a small metal plate called a “die.” Test printings called “die proofs” are made with the die.

Once approved, the die is copied to a “transfer roll,” a small metal cylinder. This roll is used to impress hundreds of copies of the design into a metal plate—typically, enough to make four panes of up to 100 stamps each.

During printing, the designs on the plate fill with ink. Paper is pressed into the plate, and ink transfers to the paper, creating stamps.

A simplified diagram shows the basic principles of engraving.

This simplified diagram shows the basic principles of engraving; in actual printing, hundreds of stamps are produced at one time.

  • 1) A design is cut into the surface.
  • 2) Ink is applied.
  • 3) The surface is wiped; ink remains in the recesses.
  • 4) Paper is pressed into the surface.
  • 5) Ink transfers to the paper.
  • 6) The surface is cleaned for re-use.
Graf Zeppelin airship, 1930, Scott C14

The 1930 Graf Zeppelin stamps are classic examples of single-color engraving, which was for many years the primary...

1918 “Jenny” airmail stamp

A stamp in one color can be elegant, but the Post Office and the public soon looked for the visual interest of a second color of ink. The first U.S. “bicolor” postage stamps with two colored inks were issued in 1869.

4¢ 1962 Project Mercury stamp

Soon after World War II, a new device revolutionized multicolor engraving around the world. The Giori press—named for...

Master engraver Elie Timothee Loizeaux

Unlike later printing methods, line-engraved intaglio requires a specialized craftsman—an engraver—to transform finished...

Working model, Stickney printing press

This working model of a Stickney printing press was a highlight of the Post Office’s 1939 “philatelic truck” exhibition. Visitors entered the...