I don't want you to get the wrong impression-- I'm definitely not a master at either homebrewing or printmaking. But, I am pretty darn good at figuring out how to make food and beverages look nice. And after relegating my homebrews to plain brown bottles, (yawn) I decided it was time to figure out how to make a label that was as attractive and carefully crafted as my beer. This is a project that can totally be tackled by a first time printmaker, and still get beautiful results. I might also add that nothing about this technique limits it to beer-- I can imagine custom soda labels, wine bottles or even jam jars would have beautiful results.
For those of you who are uninitiated to the hobby/cult of homebrewing, making labels for beer poses a few logistic challenges. First, the ink must not be water soluble. The first drop of condensation on the bottle will turn your label into a bleeding mess. So absolutely no ink-jet printing, and no water soluble inks. The oil-based inks and relatively ease with which you can make prints led me to block printing. I'll be the first to admit that my block printed design is not the easiest solution. (Printing labels with an laser printer definitely seems like the easiest.) But I loved the idea of a handmade label-- it seems to suit a handmade beer particularly well. And if you do go to the trouble to cut a block for printing, you can then print your design on all sorts of things-- cardboard (for coasters!), fabric (beer-themed canvas bags! T-shirts!) And best of all, you've got the block already made and will be able to quickly churn out new labels the next time you brew a batch of that particular beer. And if you know a home brewer and make them a custom label as a gift... Well, then you've made a friend for life.
The second obstacle is adhering the label to the bottle. If you plan on reusing your bottles (as most home brewers do) then you'll want the label to come off the bottle without leaving a messy residue. But obviously, you want the label to stay put on the bottle while you store it, chill it and serve it. I did a bunch of reading, and a few experiments and found a solution that works great: milk. (Yes, really!) Lots of brewers use milk straight from the fridge. Skim milk is the preferred choice, at it has all the adhering proteins, but none of the fat that could potentially make dried milk smelly. I don't regularly buy skim milk, so I made a glue using nonfat dried milk. Not only is this glue solution more concentrated than plain skim milk, but (because of dried milk's shelf life) you can whip up this glue even if you don't happen to have extra milk in the fridge.
Step 1: Materials
Depending on what materials you have on hand, you might not need to buy too may new tools to make a block print. If you haven't made prints before, there are a few that you'll need though (namely block printing ink and a brayer). If you're crafty, you've probably already got most of the other materials lying around.
For Carving Your Block:
Block -The material that you carve into is the biggest decision you'll make. You can use wood, linoleum, sheets of rubber sold for carving, or even a large rubber eraser. A harder material (like wood) will last longer. A softer material (like linoleum or rubber) will wear out and get damaged more quickly. The up side is that softer materials are much easier to carve. So you could carve a rubber eraser using a razor knife, but you'll need special tools to carve linoleum and wood.
Carving Tools- Depending on what surface you will be carving, you'll need to get the appropriate tools. Little sets of carving tools for block printing are available at art stores. Or if you have a dremel (as I do) you can take advantage of electricity. I did my carving for this block exclusively with a dremel fitted with a flex shaft. Using a dremel and a hard block material, it is possible to get pretty precise details. If I were using a softer material, it might be more difficult to get fine details to come through.
Carbon Paper- You'll need this to transfer your design to your block. But you can always use a pencil (along with some vigorous scribbling action) in a pinch.
Pencils, Pens and Paper
Oil-Based Block Printing Ink- The oil-based ink is the key to making printing work for a beer label. You'll find it at most art and craft stores.
Brayer- For newcomers, the brayer is the roller thing that looks like a paint roller with a smooth rubber surface. In order to make block printing work, you need to transfer an even surface of ink onto your block. This is precisely what brayers are made for. It is easiest to apply ink if your brayer is about the same width as the block you will be printing on.
A piece of glass or plastic. Smooth, non-porous surface you don't mind getting dirty. A small sheet of glass works well. I wrapped a piece of scrap wood in plastic wrap.
Large tablespoon or other smooth surface for putting pressure on the paper
Paper- Whatever you want to print on. I tried out a couple of different colors and combinations for prints. In the end, my favorites were 3 1/2" by 8" strips cut from non-glossy magazine pages printed with white ink. I like the layered effect that printing on top of another photo gives. (Also: I feel like a good little recycler, repurposing those old magazines.)
Cooking or baby oil, glass cleaner and lint-free rags . Oil based inks have lots of advantages, but they can also make a mess. I don't like to use more (toxic) solvents than necessary, so I've opted for a cleaning method that requires a little more elbow grease, but still gets the job done.